While not a flawless film by any measure, The Gambler is one of the sharpest character studies of the ’70s, combining elegant filmmaking with exquisite writing and an extraordinarily nuanced leading performance. The picture offers a mature examination of addiction, portraying every troubling aspect of deception, manipulation, and risk that addicts manifest in pursuit of their illicit thrills. First-time screenwriter James Toback famously based the script on his own life, so protagonist Axel Freed (played beautifully by James Caan) is a respected college professor from a wealthy family. Driven by self-destructive compulsions, Axel regularly courts danger by making reckless bets with bookmakers. When the story begins, Axel gets in debt for $44,000 after a bad night of cards, and the pain Caan expresses in his face demonstrates that even for someone accustomed to losing, an impossible obligation triggers bone-deep fear. As the story progresses, Axel hustles for cash every way he can, whether that means hitting up family members or placing outrageous new bets.
This fascinating protagonist’s entire life is a high-wire act, a nuance that Toback’s script explicitly articulates in myriad ways. Whether Axel’s telling a classroom full of students about a self-revealing analogy or explaining his behavior to long-suffering girlfriend Billie (Lauren Hutton), Axel says he’s after self-determination. In the twisted worldview of Toback/Axel, the threat of ultimate failure is the only acceptable proof of ultimate existence—he’s a daredevil of the soul. As such, Axel isn’t a sympathetic character, per se. Quite to the contrary, he’s a scheming son of a bitch whose idea of honor is tied in with revealing that everyone around him is a schemer, just like him. That’s why it’s so painful to see Axel inflict his lifestyle on the few innocents he encounters, such as his mother, Naomi (Jacqueline Brookes). And yet Toback carefully surrounds Axel with people who exist even lower on the moral spectrum, such as jovial loan shark Hips (Paul Sorvino) and vulgar mobster “One” (Vic Tayback).
Director Karel Reisz, a Czech native making his first Hollywood movie, serves Toback’s script well. Among the film’s many effective (and subtle) directorial flourishes are a trope of slow zooms into Caan’s anguished face at moments of critical decision and the repeated use (via composer Jerry Fielding) of variations on a taut Mahler overture to suggest a life that’s all prelude. (After all, each climax in Axel’s existence is merely a fleeting high soon replaced by insatiable hunger.) Caan is on fire here, playing the cock of the walk in confident scenes (the tic of fixing his hair before important encounters illustrates Axel’s vanity) and quivering with ill-fitting anxiety during moments of emasculation. Vivid supporting players including Brookes, Sorvino, Tayback, Morris Carnovsky, Antonio Fargas, Steven Keats, Stuart Margolin, M. Emmet Walsh, James Woods, and Burt Young echo Caan’s intensity; each player adds a unique texture, whether guttural or sophisticated. Hutton is the weak link, her gap-toothed loveliness making a greater impression than her weak recitations of monologues. And if The Gambler sputters somewhat in its 10-minute final sequence—a love-it-or-hate-it microcosm representing Axel’s risk addiction—then a minor misstep is forgivable after the supreme efficacy of the preceding hour and 40 minutes.
The Gambler: RIGHT ON