Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton
Director: Karel Reisz
Audio: English Dolby Mono, French Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: None
Length: 110 Minutes
Release Date: May 14, 2002

“I play in order to lose. That's what gets my juice going.”

Film ****

Axel Freed is not simply a gambler, but a very complicated man in his mid-thirties who earns his living as a university literature teacher. He teaches Dostoyevski, William Carlos Williams, Thoreau. But he doesn't seem to teach their works so much as what he finds in them to justify his own obsessions. One of the students in his class has Axel figured out so completely that she always has the right answer, when he asks what Thoreau is saying, or what Dostoyevski is saying. They're saying, as Axel reads them, to take risks, to put the self on the line. "Buffalo Bill's defunct”, he says, quoting the E.E. Cummings poem, and the death of the nineteenth-century age of heroes obsesses him. In that earlier age, he could have tested himself more directly. His grandfather came to America flat broke, fought and killed to establish himself, and still is a man of enormous vitality at the age of eighty. The old man is respectable now (he owns a chain of furniture stores), but the legend of his youth fascinates Axel, who recites it poetically at the eightieth-birthday party.

Axel finds nothing to test himself against, however. He has to find his own dangers, to court and seduce them. And the ultimate risk in his life as a gambler is that behind his friendly bookies and betting cronies is the implacable presence of the Mafia, the guys who take his bets like him, but if he doesn't pay, there's nothing they can do. And that adds an additional dimension to The Gambler, which 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. There's a scene where he soaks in the bathtub and listens to the last minutes of a basketball game, and another scene where he sits in the stands and watches a basketball game he has tried to fix while a couple of hit men watch him, and these scenes have a quality of tension almost impossible to sustain. But Reisz sustains them, and makes them all the more real because he doesn't populate the rest of his movie with stock characters.

Axel Freed, as played by James Caan in one of his greatest performances in his pre Thief days, is himself a totally convincing personality, and original. He doesn't derive from other gambling movies or even from other roles he's played. And the people around him also are specific, original creations. His mother Naomi (Jacqueline Brooks) is a competent, independent person who gives him the money because she fears for his life, and yet understands that his problem is deeper than gambling. His grandfather, marvelously played by Morris Carnovsky, is able to imply by his behavior why he fascinates Axel so. The various bookies and collectors he comes across aren't Mafia stereotypes. They enforce more in sorrow than in anger.

The Gambler is a success on all accounts, particularly that of a striking character study.

Video **1/2

This is quite an OK transfer from Paramount, but I have yet to see a transfer of any of their movies from the 70s that I can necessarily label as brilliant. (EDITOR'S NOTE:  The Godfather Part II is the studio's standout.The anamorphic presentation has its moments here and there, but for the most part, the picture comes through as mostly soft and fuzzy at times, but then again given the time of when this picture was made, maybe the technical pizzazz simply didn't exist. However, this is an all around decent looking disc.

Audio **

The 2.0 mono track shines only in delivery of dialogue, but in terms of any other elements, it falls somewhat short. In other words, just about everything you'd expect from a mono track.  

Features (Zero Stars)



The Gambler shows James Caan at his absolute and intense best. One of the most brilliant character pieces to ever emerge from the 1970s, this is a definite recommendation for true fans of deep, worthy character studies.