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Gambler, The (1974)USA 1974
Directed by Karel Reisz
Running time 109 minutes
James Caan is mis-cast as Axel Freed, a New York university professor of literature, but his strong performance carries the day in this low budget drama with Czech-born director Karel Reisz, who directed the classic 1960 British social realist film Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, bringing a strong sense of conviction to the story.
Written by James Toback who based his screenplay on Dostoevski’s novella of the same name and drew on his own experience as a compulsive gambler, the film is a compelling portrayal of addictive gambling. In a mad night’s gambling Axel falls in debt to the tune of $44,000 to owners of an illegal casino that he favours with his patronage. Even after he cleans out his mother (Jacqueline Brookes) and has a winning streak at Las Vegas he continues to make bigger and bigger bets, of course digging himself deeper in debt.
Although the film works as an urban drama with Jerry Fielding’s score based on Mahler’s Symphony No 1 working particularly well to generate a sense of impending disaster, Toback, who is to gambling as Paul Schrader is to sex, is keen to give us some insight into the psychology of the compulsive gambler who we find out is driven less by the gratification of winning than the possibility of losing. Some may find Axel’s lecture room disquisitions on Dostoevski and William Carlos Williams a little too pointed (Caan does surprisingly well in carrying these off) but thanks to Caan’s tight-wound performance and the economical drive of the production the film never loses pace and on the upside they give the film a more eccentric and hence more interesting spin than the conventional "mean streets" drama.
The Gambler deserves to be more visible in the catalogue of feisty 70s American independent film-making.