ⓘ The Gambler (1974 film)


ⓘ The Gambler (1974 film)

The Gambler is a 1974 American crime drama film written by James Toback and directed by Karel Reisz. It stars James Caan, Paul Sorvino and Lauren Hutton. Caans performance was widely lauded and was nominated for a Golden Globe.


1. Plot

Axel Freed is a Harvard University–educated English professor with a gambling addiction that begins to spiral out of control. In the classroom, Freed inspires his college students with his interpretations of Fyodor Dostoevskys work. In his personal life, Axel has the affection of the beautiful Billie and the admiration of his family, including his mother, Naomi, who is a doctor, and his grandfather, a wealthy businessman.

Axels gambling has left him with a huge debt. His bookie, Hips, likes the professor personally but threatens grave consequences if he does not pay it soon. When Billie, having been informed by Axel that he owes $44.000, questions the wisdom of her associating with him, Axel confidently tells her she loves his lifes dangers, including "the possibility of blood".

After obtaining the $44.000 from his disapproving mother, Axel goes with Billie to Las Vegas and gambles it into a small fortune, only to blow it all again on basketball bets. He takes out his anger on Billie, who does not appreciate having loan sharks come to their apartment in the middle of the night. Expecting help from his grandfather, Axel gets nothing but the older mans disappointment and disgust.

Axels only way to have his debt cancelled is to lure one of his students, a star on the college basketball team, to shave points in his next game. He does so by offering the student a large enough amount of cash. When the game has ended in accordance with the plan, Axel and Hips discuss what motivates gamblers. Axel surprises Hips when he says he knows gamblers like himself want to lose. He adds that he could have made lots of money by betting only on sure winners, but that doing so would not have brought him any real excitement. Ignoring the warning by Hips that its dangerous, Axel wanders off into a black ghetto near the gymnasium where the game was played.

Axel proceeds to lure a pimp into a life-or-death fight by refusing to pay a prostitute. As Axel repeatedly assaults the pimp, the prostitute slashes him across the face. Axel looks at himself in a mirror and smiles enigmatically at the blood pouring from his wound.


2. Production

The film was the first produced screenplay by James Toback. Toback had worked as an English lecturer at the City College of New York and had a gambling problem. He originally wrote The Gambler as a semi-autobiographical novel but halfway through started envisioning it as a film and turned it into a screenplay.

Toback completed it in 1972 and showed it to his friend Lucy Saroyan, who introduced Toback to Robert De Niro. Toback became enthused about the possibility of De Niro playing the lead. He showed the script to his literary agent who gave it to Mike Medavoy who attached director Karel Reisz. Reisz did not want to use De Niro and cast James Caan instead.

"Caan became a great Axel Freed, although obviously different from the character De Niro would have created," wrote Toback later. It was filmed at a time when leading actor James Caan was battling his own addiction to cocaine. Caan says the film is one of his favorites. "Its not easy to make people care about a guy who steals from his mother to pay gambling debts."

Some see the film as a loose adaptation of the short novel The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.


3. Reception

Roger Ebert awarded his top grade of four stars and wrote that the film "begins as a portrait of Axel Freed’s personality, develops into the story of his world, and then pays off as a thriller. We become so absolutely contained by Axel’s problems and dangers that they seem like our own." Vincent Canby of The New York Times was less impressed, writing, "The movie follows Axels downward path with such care that you keep thinking there must be some illuminating purpose, but there isnt. Mr. Reisz and Mr. Toback reportedly worked a couple of years putting the screenplay into this shape, which is lifeless." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and said that director Karel Reisz "is most successful in presenting Axel as a true sickie and his adversaries as genuinely ruthless. The latter is no mean feat, inasmuch as ruthless movie mobsters are a dime-a-dozen in these post-Godfather days. We know that the film is a success, because it doesnt really matter whether Axel is a winner or a loser as the film ends. The Gambler is a personality study, and like California Split, its story does not hang on its ending." Arthur D. Murphy of Variety called The Gambler "way ahead as the better of two current films about the gambling compulsion. Director Karel Reisz has one of his most compelling and effective films. Title star James Caan is excellent and the featured players are superb." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times declared it "a cool, hard, perfectly cut gem of a movie, as brilliant and mysteriously deep as a fine diamond. At its center is an hypnotically absorbing performance, at once charming and dismaying, by James Caan, who must certainly have an Academy Award nomination for it." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker stated, "At The Gambler, were trapped at a maniacal lecture on gambling as existential expression. And, as almost always happens when a movie is predictable and everything is analyzed and labelled, the actions and the explanations arent convincing. Gambling is too easy a metaphor for life; as metaphor, it belongs to the world of hardboiled fiction." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post agreed, calling it "a well-made movie invalidated at every turn by a script with big, literary pretensions but little if any dramatic credibility." Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that his problem with the film "is not so much a surfeit of psychological analysis - the script offers hints, not explicit causes explaining Axels condition - as too little to account for his behaviour naturalistically, and too much to permit any sustained acceptance of the character on an allegorical or mythical level. there is nothing in Axel that suggests hidden depths; indeed, despite Caans consistent professionalism, the actor seems to be as disinterested in his character as Axel seems to be in himself."

The film currently holds a score of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 9 reviews.


4. Remake

In August 2011, Paramount Pictures announced a remake of the 1974 film The Gambler with the original producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Intended as a new directorial project for Martin Scorsese, it was reported that Leonardo DiCaprio was attached as the star and William Monahan would write the screenplay.

In a 2011 interview, screenwriter James Toback gave the story of the original films autobiographical background and development, and criticized the announcement of the remake.

Scorsese left the project and filmmaker Todd Phillips was in talks to take over as of August 2012.

In September 2013, Mark Wahlberg and director Rupert Wyatt expressed interest in making the film. Brie Larson and Jessica Lange were under consideration to appear. The shooting of the film began on January 20, 2014. It was released on December 25, 2014.