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CINEASTES – The Gambler (1974) DIR: Karel Reisz

chosen by Joshua Wiebe of Octopus Cinema

chosen by Joshua Wiebe of Octopus Cinema

For 10,000 they break your arms. For 20,000 they break your legs. Axel Freed owes 44,000.

Where to begin? I came to this film with low expectations; its this feeling, the two phrases: JAMES CAAN and 1974 do not register well with one’s idea of a good movie. However, this Dostoyevskian based thriller is highly intelligent and perhaps too much so for its own good.      The Gambler is written by James Toback, produced by Winkler-Chartoff, and directed by Karel Reisz. In The Gambler we follow James Caan as Axel Freed, professor and playboy, whose quest to “extend the juice” is met with ill consequences, as he finds himself scrounging the streets of New York City and beyond to pay his debt: 44,000. Freed is a man of two personalities. He’s an English professor teaching the principles set down by Dostoyevsky, that in many ways mirror his gambling addiction. Freed’s compulsive attitudes leave him estranged from his loved ones, particularly Lauren Hutton; and family, threaten his career, yet he can’t take the easy way out and insists that’ll he will be fine. Freed describes his fascination for and tendency to provoke risk, how it satisfies him to live dangerously, as with most playboys attaining Freed’s outlook on life, they’ll play dangerously until they loose. Axel Freed is an addict, to gambling, as many of us are; we all have our addictions and desires. It is a clear morality tale where our hero wins but at a cost. I can see why my fellow “cineaste” chose this picture for the month of June, and I support their opinion that this a lost gem of the 1970s. Is it fair to say this film was ahead of its time? No, that’s not what I’m trying to say. Simply, 1971-1975 was a time where gutsy action-packed blockbusters drew in the most crowds. It was released to an audience that wasn’t interested. The public sought fun, exciting, inexpensive thrills, which clearly is not what The Gambler has to offer. It is fantastic and intelligent in its own right, and very under-appreciated, as is its riveting score; based on Symphony No.1 by Gustav Mahler and composed by Jerry Fielding. This film was a failure in the commercial market, perhaps in more reasons than just it’s contents alone.           For one thing, the only advertisement I can find for it, is the original poster:

I do however believe that, had it been made now, despite the inevitable public cravings for action-packed trash, it would be received well by critics and audiences alike, and would maintain a much better reputation than this old relic does now.

The Doctor’s Diagnosis: *** out of 5 stars. 


4 Comments leave one →
  1. 06/23/2009 8:11 am

    Good post, I find it fascinating that you don’t equate James Caan with brilliance immediately. It’s an alien viewpoint to me, I guess, as he’s one of my favorite actors. Especially in the 70s and 80s. And it’s hard to say what the public reception of this film would be now, although I bet with Toback’s name recognition it’d do a bit better nowadays, except I doubt the production would get off the ground. Nowadays every two out of three films seems to be based on a franchise, video game, board game, tv show, or an older film. It’s a hard time to be a fan of intelligent cinema.

  2. Doctor Oz permalink*
    06/23/2009 12:13 pm

    Right. Toback has been in the news lately, and has some new work. I think the screenplay he wrote was a small story, no epic plot, but revolved around a man’s conscience, and was executed nicely. Aside from the content of the picture, audiences most likely were not made aware of its release ( ala – movie poster ).

  3. 06/27/2009 8:30 pm

    I like your discussion of his life in the two seperate spectrums, personal and professional, very interesting and a topic I glazed over until reading your post. Great entry.


  1. The Cineastes #2 « the third act

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