An English professor at a university in New York City, Axel Freed (James Caan) has a gambling problem, and this time, he's dug himself quite the hole. Gambling at an illegal casino, Freed loses $44,000 which he doesn't have, forcing him to improvise before the bookie's thugs come after him. This isn't anything new for Axel who's long struggled with gambling, but recently seemed to have gotten a grip on his addiction. He only has a few days to get his hands on the money, turning to his mother (Jacqueline Brookes) who is a doctor at a free clinic. Worrying about her son's well-being, she scrapes the bottom of the barrel to get the money Axel needs, begging her son to pay his debt and walk away from gambling. That would be the easy way to do it, wouldn't it?
From director Karel Reisz, 'Gambler' is one of those hidden gems from the 1970s. It doesn't have a huge reputation, and it can be more than a little tricky to find. It was on my Saved DVD queue at Netflix for months only to pop up on a movie channel recently. And record! I'm glad I caught up with it. Besides an excellent leading performance from James Caan, it has that perfect blend of 70s grittiness and style (but not too much). It was filmed on the streets and homes and illegal casinos in and around New York City, a great backdrop for a whole lot of movies in the 1970s. Jerry Fielding's musical score is perfect, subtle and underplayed for the most part, elevating the tension when needed as Axel struggles to cope. It certainly deserves more of a reputation for all it's got going for it. Solid drama, no frills, and that's not a bad formula.
One of my favorite actors, James Caan was struggling through his own addiction to cocaine while filming this movie, and even identifies it as one of his personal favorites in terms of roles. It's easy to see why. Caan brings Axel to life, a human being with an addiction more than a stereotype or one big cliche. Axel is successful with an excellent job as a professor, his friends and family, a girlfriend (a solid Lauren Hutton), and in general, a lot going for him. He also has a problem. Whatever he gets involved in, he's always looking for "the juice," in other words the thrill of winning, or bizarrely....losing. He tells his friend, Hips (Paul Sorvino), also his bookie, that he could make any number of bets that are sure things. What's the point then? Where's the thrill? There's got to be a possibility of losing for it to feel real, to feel the rush. It's a really simple concept that is pretty scary when you think about it.
Caan does a fine job building off that. His Axel has everything a man could/should want. That's not the definition of a self-destructive fellow now, is it? Through all the people he drives away -- friends, family, girlfriend -- he still somehow manages to make Axel Freed somewhat, remotely, kinda sorta sympathetic. Are we actually rooting for him? Maybe not, maybe we're just rooting for him not to get the crap beat out of him. He pulls cons and fast ones on just about everyone around him, but there's something very human about the character. I guess we're not rooting for him. Instead, it's more how he'll get out of one more self-caused problems. We want to see how low he'll really get, and Caan's Axel certainly pushes the limits there. It's a great, understated performance that avoids all the obvious pratfalls that could come with the part.
The cast doesn't feature much in the way of big names, but that opens the door with some potential. We meet all these people who Axel knows -- for good and bad -- like a window into the gambling world. Brooks is heartbreaking as his mother, Naomi, wanting what's best for her son but knowing she's enabling him at the same time. Hutton is very good as Billie, his girlfriend who sees him spiraling out of control. Sorvino is excellent as bookie and friend, Hips, who genuinely likes Axel but knows he's pushing the limits of their friendship. Also look for Burt Young in an effective, quick part as a bookie's enforcer, Morris Carnovsky as Axel's very rich, very successful grandfather, Carl W. Crudup as Spencer, one of Axel's students and a star player on the basketball team, and even a very young James Woods as a bank teller who incurs Axel's wrath.
If there's a weakness it comes in the finale. I'm not sure exactly what it's trying to say or what it's going for. The finale the story was seemingly building to seemed pretty obvious to me, but 'Gambler' doesn't go quite that far. It's not a bad ending, just one that isn't as strong as it could have been. I liked the movie a lot though, Axel's lectures in class ending up being a reflection on himself. Caan is pretty perfect in the part, one that any fans should definitely seek out.
The Gambler (1974): ***/****