The Movie Waffler 1001 Overlooked Movies - <i>The Gambler (1974)</i> | The Movie Waffler

1001 Overlooked Movies - The Gambler (1974)

A literature professor struggles to pay off a mammoth gambling debt.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Karel Reisz

Starring: James Caan, Lauren Hutton, Paul Sorvino, Burt Young, M Emmet Walsh, James Woods

Karel Reisz's overlooked existential classic opens at the point many films might end. Our protagonist, literature professor Axel Freed (Caan) is driving through the early morning New York streets after an all night gambling session, during which he managed to run up a $44,000 debt with his bookmaker. Caan appears to be running the events of the evening through his head in the manner of Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate, or Bob Hoskins at the climax of The Long Good Friday. Perhaps he's learnt a valuable lesson, having hit rock bottom? Not Axel Freed.
Seven years later, Caan would get his other great lead role in Michael Mann's Thief. In Mann's film he essayed a man determined to work his way to the top. Here he seems intent on working his way to the bottom, as quickly as possible. When loan sharks prove unwilling to put up such a large sum, Axel is forced to grovel to his mother for the money. Every son lives in fear of disappointing his mother, and Axel is no different. Unable to bring himself to verbalise the amount of money he needs from her, he instead writes it in the sand on a trip to the beach, allowing his mother to discover it herself. Aware of the violent punishment her son faces, she heads straight to the bank and gives Axel the money. 
The sensible and rational thing for Axel to do would be to immediately clear his debt, but raised in a world of poetry and privilege, Axel is a romantic and rebels against reason. As such he places the money on a basketball treble with another bookie and takes off for Vegas with his trophy girlfriend (Hutton) in tow. So arrogant about his gambling prowess is Axel that he fails to realise the treble didn't come through until he receives a late night visit from an anxious bookie. His Vegas winnings gone, Axel places his mother's donation on a Lakers game, but again his luck is out, leaving him with only $1500 to offer the original bookmaker, who fails to see the funny side of Axel's recklessness.
Axel enjoys teaching his class, which is mainly comprised of young white students from comfortable backgrounds willing to indulge his romantic interpretations of the curriculum's texts. One student isn't buying it however. On a basketball scholarship, and taking Axel's class presumably out of obligation rather than interest, is Spencer, a young black man whose unprivileged upbringing has taught him a lesson Axel is unwilling to learn - that when it comes to reason versus romance, the house always wins. Axel argues Dostoevsky's Underground Man's case that two plus two can equal five if you choose to believe so by pointing out to Spencer how in his sport he often shoots from a distance that makes scoring improbable. In the end, however, it's Spencer's cold rationality that saves Axel when he agrees to take a $5000 payment to fix a game, appeasing Axel's debtors in the process. While he should be celebrating the fact that he's still breathing, Axel is crushed, finally defeated by the reason he's fought against his entire life. In a final act of self loathing he visits a black ghetto where he purposely causes trouble, getting his face brutally slashed in the process.
Axel's final masochistic motivations seem two-fold. It's partly out of white guilt. Angry that blacks like Spencer are denied the life of romance he was afforded, and knowing the young man's basketball career will never be legitimate thanks to his actions, he wants a black man to take out his anger on him (it backfires when Antonio Fargas' pimp is all mouth and his hooker is instead the one who scars Axel). But mostly it's one last gamble, a continuation of his ongoing battle against the forces of necessitarianism, the resulting scar now a lifelong tribute to Axel's stubborn individualism.
Caan never got enough meaty leading parts, but Axel Freed is the role of a lifetime. Ennui is a difficult state for an actor to portray but Caan pulls it off with aplomb. An ever present prop is the rolled up newspaper he clings to like a security blanket, its sports pages smudged with promise and risk.
Director Karel Reisz is best known for his contributions to the British New Wave of the '60s, and while his later Stateside output was largely forgettable, The Gambler is one of the finest American movies of the '70s, unfairly overlooked in comparison to the period works of rival Eastern European emigre contemporaries Polanski and Forman.