Written by / 5/09/2020 / No comments / , , , , , , , , , ,

JAMES CAAN BETTING ON 'THE GAMBLER' WITH CARMINE CARIDI

James Caan starring as  Axel Freed in James Tolback's THE GAMBLER Year: 1974 Rating: ***
In pop culture, before you had to "know when to walk away, know when to run," THE GAMBLER was synonymous with a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel and transcended into this 1970’s film written by James Toback, directed by Karel Reisz and starring James Caan as university professor Axel Freed, who hardly ever has enough money left to count...

But Axel's real story isn’t his job, but his vice, practically a religion — that of balls-out and brainless gambling: An addiction making him the user/loser of other people’s money, including his own mother (more like a flirtatious step-sister). But, while it’s great seeing Caan facing the dark side of human nature, there’s a lot to be desired when, for instance, he gets in over his head… and then some...
James Caan teaching American Literature with Carl W. Crudup in THE GAMBLER
Shady characters come and go and sometimes return, ranging from Burt Young to Paul Sorvino, but their threats aren't all that... threatening. And while each performance is fitfully capable, it’s as if the bookies — along with the audience — are passive observers to Axel's reckless and often ridiculous impulses.

Scenes with an extremely patient girlfriend/ingenue Lauren Hutton are overlong and distracting; her part feels contrived, tacked-on. And inside the classroom, as lecturer, Caan doesn’t seem completely legit — he suits the roguish gambling addict better than a member of such a prestigious academia (plus he's an author), looking more like a tough guy football coach doubling as teacher... 
Lauren Hutton and James Caan impromptu Vegas Vacation in THE GAMBLER
Meanwhile, sporadic and strategic illegal backroom gambling sequences (replete with mafioso-looking inhabitants) lack the kind of severely desperate tension that these grungy locations aesthetically promise...

With so much to lose at each hand or roll of the dice or turn of the wheel, we should be frantically biting our nails, and so should he... Although a quick trip to Las Vegas does up the ante, injecting a needed dose of existential suspense into the otherwise languid visual prose.
James Caan as Axel Freed in THE GAMBLER aka Der Spieler aka Le Tagata Taalo
Overall, Caan’s steely reactions to the bottom continuously falling out are paramount, albeit a shame as he slips out of trouble faster than it takes to maintain an edgy pulse throughout; it's like watching a diver swim with toothless sharks...

And yet, if you're a fan of the infectiously likeable square-jawed actor, a sublime hybrid of cult and mainstream cinema, this is definitely an intriguing two-hour melodrama that actually gets better with each viewing. What initially seems rather mundane becomes a voyeuristic character-study with subtle yet calculating finesse (and a nifty twist involving a basketball player/student, causing a spark of morality to this extremely ambiguous tale)...
A young James Woods annoying James Caan in THE GAMBLER with Jacqueline Brookes
And given the ensemble-friendly decade, there are a host of recognizable actors — like one perturbed bookie, Jimmy, played by Carmine Caridi (who Francis  Ford Coppola originally had in mind for what became Caan's game-changing role as Sonny Corleone in THE GODFATHER — then switched to a killer cameo in the sequel): He rules a memorable scene providing a deeper glimpse into Axel's addiction, and what might be the consequences...

Then there are future TV-fixtures like Antonio Fargas, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Stuart Margolin and Vic Tayback. M. Emmett Walsh also turns up and as a weenie banker is another James... Woods...
James Caan and scene-stealer Carmine Caridi as Jimmy the Bookie in THE GAMBLER
When playing on television, Time Warner Cable's top-of-the-screen index description states very simply: “James Caan in a study in self-destruction.” And, well... that’s pretty much that...

What sets out to be a proverbial X-ray of the soul winds up exposing bones. Then again, THE GAMBLER leaves most of the fleshing-out for an impartial and ambiguous audience. Which isn't so bad either.
James Caan as Axel Freed doing some throwaway gambling in THE GAMBLER
James Caan starring as Axel Freed in THE GAMBLER aka Le Joueur
James Caan as Axel Freed in THE GAMBLER aka Penjudi aka Gyanburā
Teacher's Pet and stock igenue Lauren Hutton co-starring in THE GAMBLER
 Our Stone's Soul Brother Antonio Fargas as a violent pimp with James Caan in THE GAMBLER
James Caan and Lauren Hutton take the act to fancy Las Vegas in THE GAMBLER
Burt Young has a job he wanted from Joe Spinell in the future hit ROCKY with James Caan in The Gambler
James Caan after another extremely long night of gambling in the first morning of THE GAMBLER
A dead broke classical music-listening James Caan takes a literal bath in THE GAMBLER
James Caan says a temporary farewell to his girl for to venture out to become THE GAMBLER
Opening Credits Font with James Caan's name on upper left corner for THE GAMBLER
Opening credits for THE GAMBLER smaller font for title than actor and lower
Groovy poster for the original THE GAMBLER and for the Remake review click here
James Caan's bloodied up for the ending of THE GAMBLER "Know when to run"
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