While gambling movies in the ’50s or ’60s often focused on extraordinarily gifted characters like the Cincinnati Kid and “Fast” Eddie Felson, the 1974 gambling movie California Split takes a different tack by depicting a pair of pathetic losers who luck into a hot streak even though viewers know they’ll probably blow all of their winnings in short order. Directed by Robert Altman at his most restrained—for once, he doesn’t get lost in a maze of trifling subplots—the picture tracks the eventful friendship of Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Walters (Elliot Gould).
Bill is a magazine writer who regularly skips out on his job in order to bet at the track or in a gambling parlor, and Charlie makes his meager living hustling people like jocks at the local basketball court and rubes at a neighborhood poker joint. Bill has big problems, because he’s deep in debt to a bookie, and he’s an addict obsessed with the high of winning. Charlie’s more easygoing, a good-time guy who lives with two women. As the story unfolds, Bill and Charlie become drinking buddies and then gambling partners, because Bill decides to enter a gambling contest with a big prize but he needs money from Charlie for his opening stake.
Although most gambling pictures explore the dramatic question of whether the heroes will win or lose, Altman is more interested in observing the behavior of these amiable but troubled souls. Working from the only script that journeyman actor Joseph Walsh ever wrote, Altman occasionally indulges his affection for weirdness (watch for a pointless scene involving a cross-dresser), but he mostly stays on point with incisive scenes showing the growth, corruption, and demise of an opportunistic friendship.
Gould and Segal mesh well, joking and scatting through Altman’s naturalistic frames so comfortably that the whole movie feels unscripted, even though the story has inexorable momentum. Gould pulls off a deft trick by showing that Charlie is simultaneously irresistible and intolerable, a self-serving schmuck with innate charm, and Segal deftly illustrates that Bill is a desperate soul who only comes alive when he’s indulging his wild side. The strongest aspect of California Split is its unusual tone, because the film comfortably drifts between insightful drama (notably the terrific final scene) and sharp comedy (like the bit in which Gould negotiates with a stick-up man). Loaded with insight and wit, California Split is easily one of Altman’s most underrated pictures.
California Split: GROOVY