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
Length: 110 Minutes
Release Date: May 14, 2002
“I play in order to lose.
That's what gets my juice going.”
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
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.
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.
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
Features (Zero Stars)