Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Gambler

"You're crazy!" says Axel Freed's girlfriend in one scene of The Gambler. "But I'm blessed," he responds. He is about to make a risky move in a high stakes game of blackjack. The tension builds. Sweat drips down Freed's brow. The dealer lays down the card and... 21. A lucky draw, something Freed isn't used to.

It's this attitude of needing risks to feel alive that has Axel Freed in over his head in debt, $44,000 to be exact. If he can't come up with the money soon, the dangerous loan sharks he's gotten himself entangled with might kill him, or worse go after his family.

James Caan plays Axel Freed, a troubled teacher and gambling addict in Karel Reisz's 1974 drama The Gambler. Caan appears in every scene, every frame almost, of the film. His performance is amazing and made even more so considering the fact that Caan was battling a cocaine addiction during shooting.

The film was one of the many forgotten gems of the New Hollywood era. Soon after the Hayes Code was dissolved, American filmgoers were eager for more raw films with tougher subject matter than they were used to. Films like Easy rider and Bonnie & Clyde satisfied their thirst, while many films, The Gambler included, got pushed aside in the process.

Karel Reisz, who also directed The French Lieutenant's Wife and the excellent Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, keeps a steady eye on Axel Freed. The film is dark and gritty, yet entertaining, and Caan's performance is eminently watchable.

The Gambler is a character study above all else. The battle against gambling Axel Freed deals with on-screen is mirrored by Caan's off-screen personal demons. Another sad case of art imitating life.

The fake character, however, doesn't really want to give up gambling. Although he acknowledges that it's a problem, he loves the risk. He only truly feels alive when his livlihood is at stake. He's not in it for the game. In his eyes, everything in life is a game. He gambles for the rush of it, just to feel something. He's willing to take the risk to get that rush, unfortunatly hurting everyone around him and the ones he loves in the process.


This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema (


  1. It is interesting that Caan occupies nearly every frame of the film. A subtle tour de force in my opinon.

  2. You do well to mention the moment where the woman tells Axel that he's cursed, I think it's very revealing of his character that his interior perspective of the world is so different from others'.