Blu-ray review: “The Gambler” (1974)

“The Gambler” (1974)


Running Time: 111 minutes

Written by: James Toback

Directed by: Karel Reisz

Featuring: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, Morris Carnovsky and Burt Young

Axel Freed: “I’m not going to lose it. I’m going to gamble it.”

Released recently for the first time on Blu-ray is the 1970s drama “The Gambler” (1974) featuring James Caan in the central role of a flawed academic who owes large debts to the wrong people. This film is a character piece that not only reflects the time in which it was made but also part of the new wave of movies coming out of the US at this time right up to the early 1980s. “The Gambler” has an odd mix of talent in director Karel Reisz who was a veteran at this point, screenwriter James Toback who was a novice and rising superstar, actor James Caan who had risen to stardom with “The Godfather” (1972). What they produced was a film that dipped its toes into many themes regarding manhood, professionalism and to some extent the meaning of life mixing many worlds as well as infusing it with nourish undertones.

“The Gambler” revolves around Axel Freed an English professor in New York with a gambling addiction that begins to spiral out of control. In the classroom, Freed inspires his college students with his interpretations of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work. In his personal life, Axel has the affection of the beautiful Billie and the admiration of his family, including his mother, Naomi, who is a doctor, and his grandfather, a wealthy businessman. Axel’s gambling has left him with a huge debt. His bookie, Hips, likes the professor personally but threatens grave consequences if he does not pay it soon. When Billie, having been informed by Axel that he owes $44,000, questions the wisdom of her associating with him, Axel confidently tells her she loves his life’s dangers, including “the possibility of blood”. The plot moves along at a brisk pace and we move from one world to another with solutions that become apparent but the main character seems unable to bring himself to actually save himself or accept any assistance.

Directed by Karel Reisz who helped spearhead the English kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s with his classic “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (1960) which featured not only some of the realism that would feature in his later works but also announced the debut of actors Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts who would go on to become two of the finest actors of the next twenty years. “The Gambler” has much of the directors style as well as its deep themes on existence and coupled with the screenplay by James Toback is one of Reisz ‘s better films of his mid career. This was James Toback’s first produced screenplay and like his other films he writes original characters with motivations that reflect the times they live in. If Toback has a signature it is creating movies about outsiders and their own self destructive nature, this follows through to his documentaries as well. There may be no better example of this than his Oscar nominated screenplay for “Bugsy” (1991) directed by Warren Beatty that maybe the ultimate example of someone who self sabotages and believes himself above almost everyone much like the main character in “The Gambler”.

Driven by the central performance of James Caan who really has never been better in a leading role and who is not the first choice one might think of as an English Professor but who you would think of as a gambler, here he balances both aspects of his character to really hone in on his performance, he has never really been better. “The Gambler” also has some incredible actors in supporting roles in the form of Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton and Burt Young who were all staples of 1970s US cinema and here all play their own parts extremely well in very different aspects of the films storyline.

The existential nature of “The Gambler” still holds fascination today as some of the themes still exist today especially the idea that the main character has to find his own dangers to test himself against when he finds nothing in his own life which to him is meaningless. Of course the tension for the audience is seeing Axel watching games in different situations where he is losing and there is a sword of Damocles that hovers over him getting lower and lower as the film proceeds through its plot. Of course throughout the narrative the main character is also revealed to have different motivations in different aspects of his life which are all exposed expertly by Toback and Reisz.

“The Gambler” is an excellent film from the 1970s that deserves to be seen and would make a welcome addition to any collection, it shows people at their best as well as their very worst which jibes with some of the texts that are talked about in Axels classroom, do yourself a favour and get this now.

Special Features

  • 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray
  • NEW Audio commentary from cinema author & critic Matthew Asprey Gear (2021)
  • NEW “After the Game” Video essay by Chris O’Neill (2021)
  • NEW “On The Morning After: Composing The Gambler” – A new interview about Jerry Fielding’s legendary score with author/film music historian Jon Burlingame.
  • In On The Cut – Interview with assistant editor Sue Kingsley
  • 1991 archival audio interview with Karel Reisz about his life & career from the British Entertainment History Project
  • LPCM 2.0 Mono
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Theatrical trailer

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