The Gambler is not exactly unknown, but it is definitely an unfairly overlooked film. There seems to be a bunch of reasons for this, ranging from the fact that, in its time, it registered as a solid but relatively “typical” gritty drama of ‘70s American cinema (albeit enlivened by a superb leading performance from James Caan as anti-hero Axel), to the current don’t-mention status of disapproval that has firmly descended upon its screenwriter, James Toback, for his compulsive sexual behaviours (long an open secret, thanks to Spy magazine in 1989, and his writer-pal David Thomson even earlier in that decade).
Above all, there is the sad fact that the film’s director, Karel Reisz – as celebrated as he once was for various contributions to film education (his oft-revised 1953 manual The Technique of Film Editing is still highly instructive) and innovative British cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s – was largely a forgotten figure well before his death at age 76 in 2002. Despite three further films made in America after The Gambler and his popular adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), he was never much considered in the hype-orbit of USA cinema alongside Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader and the rest of that ilk.
Even when Reisz was noted in his lifetime, it was often with faint praise as a consummate “professional” – an interpreter (like Stephen Frears in UK) of other people’s creative work, rather than an artist in his own right. Not even a poor 2014 remake of The Gambler featuring Mark Wahlberg (Leonardo DiCaprio and Scorsese were originally attached) served to pull the original out of its fog of relative obscurity.
The Gambler was Toback’s first important work in cinema (after a decade of writing in various modes). Its unique collision of topics – criminality, sexuality, sport, gambling, family melodrama, the high culture of art-literature-philosophy – drawing from many genres but following the template of no single genre, sets the distinctive pattern for all future Toback projects, including the documentary “happening”, The Big Bang (1990).
This fledgling auteur, in and around The Gambler, was already talking up his big, existential themes: loss of control, uncertainty of self, reckless risk, erotic ecstasy, magnificent obsession, the continuum of the artist and the gangster, and defiance of the mainstream system. Even the briefest glimpse into the Toback mosaic of scripts, films, writings and interviews uncovers patent psycho-autobiographical echoes from one text to another. The Gambler duly sets this tone, with its intricate family dynamics (business, religion, honour, legacy) and its tortured psychosexual relationship patterns (with a particular, and scarcely usual, fix on the tight closeness of the adult hero-son with his mother).
Reisz’s direction of The Gambler makes for an instructive benchmark against which to measure Toback’s own subsequent filmmaking style. Resembling the method of Sidney Lumet at his best, and anticipating Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1997), Reisz blends neo-classical precision-control with the legacy of the Nouvelle Vague: each scene presents itself as a block of finely observed and performed detail (Axel at the gambling table, for instance). Only a long way down the chain of scenes are we able to piece together all the pertinent character relations and retroactively see the narrative set-ups so casually planted within the flow of gesture and atmosphere. Toback astutely praised Reisz’s “extremely successful creation of tightness, tension, movement and dramatic force” within a stylistic framework that, at the same time, is characterised by “a kind of leisurely and graceful fluidity”.
The film has an unusual and surprising narrative structure. Most of it is minutely built upon the sequential, interconnected and escalating steps of gambling debt and the system of loans it incurs: Axel more or less begins in debt, begs various others in his life for financial aid (successfully and unsuccessfully), disastrously doubles his debt, and then – somewhat amazingly – cancels it with a brilliant win. This minutely inscribed trajectory anticipates the equally agonising flow of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) – not to mention the more hectic but less controlled chaos of the Safdie brothers’ dire Uncut Gems (2019), which clearly owes a lot (without much benefit resulting) to both these predecessors.
In a sense, the betting story stops there with Axel’s surprise win. But The Gambler goes on to detail a final act that feels like an extended coda or epilogue. In content, it would be hard to take any commercial American film circa 2020 down the precise road that Reisz and Toback travel (and, indeed, the 2014 remake avoids it altogether): Axel plunges himself into a (racially) black underworld of lowlife bars, pimps and whores, and appears to deliberately set himself up for a fight – or a fall.
Only in the final frames do we grasp the purely thematic intent of this excursion: gazing into a mirror, proud of the deep wound gashed into his face, we realise that Axel has masochistically set out to “degrade” himself by dragging his sorry carcass into this social milieu. What a way to end a movie!
© Adrian Martin July 2002 / October 2019 / February 2020