In his Golden Globe-nominated performance, James Caan portrays a man who has all the advantages and wants to slum it with low-lifes and addicts in “The Gambler.”
The movie begins with the voices of men and then we hear with a man ask for a card and when questioned, he snaps, “The same fucking bet I’ve been playing all night.” This is Axel (James Caan) and he has an axe to grind as the movie makes clear. Wearing a beige leisure suit and a shirt that is buttoned low enough that we can see his chest hair, Axel drives a pale convertible. He’s not smiling. Today, he’s having what an acquaintance (Paul Sorvino) calls “the worst luck I’ve seen in 15 years.”
Axel owes $44,000. And yet he still wants to gamble. He still wants to gamble.
Axel Freed is chained by tradition and his need to prove himself in front of other men. He’s a Harvard-educated English teacher who lectures his students on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work (Dostoevsky was also a compulsive gambler at roulette and was inspired to write his short novel “The Gambler”) and how men hope against fact that two plus two will equal four and that taking a risk will pay off, big time. He tells the about William Carlos Williams and his essay about George Washington.
After spending a whole night gambling, he goes to teach a class, and begins a conversation with one of his students, Spencer (Carl W. Crudup), a basketball player. Spencer’s not a dumb jock; he challenges what Axel says in class and is an active part of the discussion.
The desperate Axel’s urgent need spills out at school and we witness an addict’s charm. He asks his class for a loan and makes it a joke. He makes his situation a joke to his girlfriend, Billie (Lauren Hutton). He goes to visit his mother Naomi, a doctor (Jacqueline Brooke) at the hospital where she works and they play tennis together. They later go to the beach together. Naomi wonders where has she failed?
We also meet Axel’s grandfather, a man who worked his way up in the world. This is a man who gambled and won. His grandfather evaluates Billie, saying, she’s not the girl for him and he should break off the relationship now, today. He explains, “Not for a scholar. Not for a man of character and virtue. Not for a Jew.”
To pay his debt, Axel doesn’t only ask his family, he also asks people he shouldn’t ask. The balding, paunchy Carmine (Burt Young) picks him up in a red convertible and takes Axel with him on a job before Axel meets Monkey (London Lee). Yet Axel is capable of snarling latent violence as he shows in the bank when his mother is asking for a loan and the bank officer (James Woods) takes a personal phone call.
Eventually, Axel will ask Spencer to shave points off of a big game and Axel’s corruption spreads and yet he gambles as if by losing, by being beat up, he’ll feel alive or he’ll at least feel the full measure of his self-loathing. This is about a man’s path to suicide.
Jerry Fielding’s score is low key and Philip Rosenberg’s production design and Edward Stewart’s set decoration make everything seem a bit seedy, tawdry in the gambling world. The school where Axel teaches doesn’t sparkle like an ivory tower. Instead is is utilitarian urban. Axel’s grandfather lives in a place that is sturdy and practical and respectable. His mother works at a respectable community hospital–it isn’t an exclusive clinic for the beautiful people. She sees young addicts from off of the streets.
Writer James Toback was both a college teacher and a gambling addict and he shows Axel is both intelligent and charming, but he’s not the kind of person you’d want as a friend. He’s a cad with just a touch of thin veneer of glamour that comes from his privileged upbringing and yet he wouldn’t quite fit in with the gentry, the Mayflower matrons and established old families of the Ivy Leagues. Director Karel Reisz (the 1981 “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”) gives us grime over gloss, loss over winning and a man who can’t appreciate his luck.