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1001 Overlooked Movies - The Music of Chance (1993)

A free-spirited ex-fireman stakes a gambler in a high stakes poker game, leading to increasingly strange consequences.

Directed by: Philip Haas
Starring: Mandy Patinkin, James Spader, Charles Durning, Joel Grey, M. Emmet Walsh, Samantha Mathis, Chris Penn


Granted, the description above may not be too promising, but stick with this fascinating gem of a film and you’ll be well rewarded. The debut dramatic feature of documentary-maker Philip Haas, it’s based on a novel by acclaimed author Paul Auster.
We meet Jim Nashe (Patinkin) not long after he has finalized his divorce and received a sum of inheritance money. He has essentially become a well-funded drifter, and when he picks up bedraggled card sharp Jack Pozzi (Spader) he is willing to humour the degenerate’s story about losing his stake to some lucky rich amateurs. Nashe agrees to bankroll Pozzi in a rematch.
This leads to a marvelous scene at the mansion of the wealthy eccentrics Flower and Stone (Durning and Grey). The card game itself is incidental; we share Nashe and Pozzi’s frustration as chance seems to constantly favour the outwardly charming but vaguely sinister hosts, who share stories from their event-filled lives while happily cleaning out their guests.
There is not much point in saying any more with regard to the storyline, but it’s fair to suggest that, if you like your films cleanly plotted, you may be left a little puzzled. The second half of the film, featuring the wonderful M Emmet Walsh as the groundskeeper of the mansion (and perhaps the true villain of the piece), takes the narrative in unpredictable directions.
Haas’s direction may be somewhat static, but the unobtrusive style suits Auster’s lean writing. The real attraction of the film lies in the dynamic between the characters, and the way in which, as in reality, events never quite unfold as we expect them to. Nashe, a true existential hero, accepts this fact and embraces the unpredictable nature of his fate, while the more emotional Pozzi, used to harnessing luck at the card table, constantly rails against his inability to control the situation.
Patinkin is understated and effective as Nashe (and gets an opportunity to show off his mellifluous tenor), while Spader has fun in the showier part of Pozzi. Durning and Grey make a highly entertaining double act as the enigmatic Flower and Stone. Samantha Mathis is game in the stereotypical role of a lovably ditzy hooker. Walsh is a hoot as the brilliantly named Murks.
Much overlooked on release, the film barely registered at the box office but was well-received at the Cannes Film Festival. Treat yourself and check it out.


The official '1001 Movies' list includes the following movies from 1993 - Farewell My Concubine, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Groundhog Day, Short Cuts, Philadelphia, Jurassic Park, The Age of Innocence, The Puppetmasters, Schindler's List, Blue, The Piano, The Blue Kite, The Wedding Banquet


Andy Sneyd