There's a moment midway through The Gambler which perfectly summarizes the specific nature of Axel Freed's gambling addiction. Axel (James Caan, The Godfather) is playing blackjack, and he's placed a great deal of money on his current hand. He has a soft hand of 18, and common sense suggests that he should simply let it stand. “Hit me,” he insists. It's such a blatantly wrong-headed move that the dealer checks to make sure he heard Axel correctly. “Show me that three,” Axel growls. The dealer turns the card over... and sure enough, it's a three. The camera cuts to Axel's face, and we expect joy, triumph, a jubilant laugh... but there's nothing. Axel looks as if he's just won a penny, not thousands. He was never chasing a victory. He was chasing that feeling he had right before achieving victory; the knot in his stomach reminding him that everything was on the line. He doesn't want to lose, exactly. He just wants that moment where he knows he very well could.
The Gambler was directed by Karel Reisz (a talented Czech filmmaker who also gave us The French Lieutenant's Woman and Isadora), but the movie really belongs to screenwriter James Toback, who fused chapters from his own life with bits and pieces of Dostoyevsky’s novella The Gambler. It's remarkable to consider how many overlapping details exist between Dostoyevsky's semi-autobiographical novel and Toback's semi-autobiographical screenplay, but it also makes sense because both tales capture something that many, many humans have struggled with. Toback notes that in the years since the film's release, he's had many people thank him for finding a way to define the struggles they had experienced. Rather than attempting to explain their strange, self-defeating behavior to their family members, a gambling addict could simply say, “Watch The Gambler.”
Axel Freed begins the film over $40,000 in debt, and by the end of the first act he's found a way to recover all of that money. “It's over,” he says. Of course it isn't, and Axel knows it. The great tragedy of his life is not just that he's helplessly in the grip of his gambling addiction, but that he's smart enough to understand the nature of his compulsion and to recognize the future consequences of his actions. He's a literature professor (as Toback once was), and one scene finds him discussing Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground with his students. In that book, the protagonist makes an argument for two plus two equaling five – not because there is any compelling evidence to support the notion, but simply because the protagonist has chosen to believe it against all reason. Two plus two equals five. The basketball player is going to make that last-minute shot from half-court. Axel Freed is going to win, and he's never going to stop winning.
There are many ways in which the film transcends the simple tropes of addiction dramas. One is the editing, which offers a structural elegance that subtly brings further insight to our understanding of Axel. There are pivotal moments intercut with flashbacks of seemingly disconnected moments, and it's briefly confusing until we realize that these completely different moments are united by very specific emotions. Another asset is Jerry Fielding's score, which heavily incorporates elements of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D. The music swells with classical heroism not during moments of triumph, but moments of risk, which is an incredibly smart move on Fielding's part. During the actual moments of victory, the music shifts to neutral, conveying little more than a vague sense of unease. Axel will never be content.
The supporting characters are familiar, yet distinctive – we have the girlfriend (a lively Lauren Hutton, American Gigolo), the sympathetic bookie (Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas), the fretful mother (Jacqueline Brooks, The Good Son), the attentive student (Carl W. Crudup, J.D.'s Revenge), the assorted mobsters – but they all feel like human beings, not cliches. I particularly liked the way the film avoids permitting any of the mobsters to come across as exploitative monsters. Yes, they'll give Axel the rope he needs to hang himself, but they won't trick him into thinking they're giving him anything else, and they'll even caution him against further action when he starts getting in too deep. They take no pleasure in delivering threats or punishment. They'd much rather just get paid.
James Caan's performance ranks among his best work, and he seems thoroughly convincing as both the sophisticated, thoughtful professor and as the desperate, unseemly gambling junkie. Caan never descends into awards-baiting theatrics, but plays Freed as a man who is perfectly calm, rational and ordinary until he isn't. Caan, Toback and and Reisz aren't afraid to make Axel both tragically sympathetic and deeply unlikable. The film's closing moments (involving Axel's encounter with a prostitute and her pimp) present the character at his saddest and ugliest; not a cheap stab at pathos but a moment which causes us to despise Axel and gain a better understanding of him all at once. He presses onward against all reason, knowing in his mind that two plus two will never equal five but believing in his heart that it will.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Year: 1974