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Chris Nashawaty pays tribute to ''The Gambler''

Chris Nashawaty pays tribute to ”The Gambler”: Here’s why the 1974 flick about addiction, starring James Caan in his prime, is worth checking out

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The Gambler: Kobal Collection

Chris Nashawaty pays tribute to ”The Gambler”

I recently went on an ill-advised buying spree of old movie posters. Some I bought just because I loved the films (The Taking of Pelham 123, The Parallax View). Others I bought because the artwork was amazing (For a Few Dollars More, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). And then there were the ones I picked up just because they had awesome taglines, like the ones for Carrie (”If you’ve got a taste for terror…take Carrie to the prom”) and At Close Range (”Like Father, Like Son, Like Hell”). But the only one that fit all three criteria — the kickass trifecta, if you will — was 1974’s James Caan macho masterpiece, The Gambler.

The movie, which I’ll get to in a sec, is a lost classic. It’s the only film that’s ever captured the sick psychological highs and lows of gambling addiction. It also features Caan’s best performance aside from The Godfather. But the poster itself is a honey. It’s a portrait of Caan in all of his ’70s glory: white-man’s ‘fro, polyester shirt unbuttoned down to his navel, and slacks tight enough to make the question ”How’s it hangin’?” moot. And then there’s the tagline: ”For $10,000 they break your arms. For $20,000 they break your legs. Axel Freed owes $44,000.”

Based on a semi-autobiographical screenplay by James Toback, The Gambler stars Caan as a hip college lit professor who talks about Dostoyevsky by day, but by night (and who am I kidding, also during the day) loses money hand over fist betting on roulette, blackjack, cockfighting, bingo, you name it. And he’s unluckier than Matt Damon in Teddy KGB’s lair at the beginning of Rounders.

Looking like he just rolled in from an all-night bender at the Playboy Mansion (which, let’s be honest, didn’t require much Method acting from Caan back in the ’70s), Axel gets threatened and stomped by a colorful posse of musclemen (Rocky‘s Burt Young), gangsters (Alice‘s Vic Tayback), and bookies (a wonderfully disheveled Paul Sorvino). Still, he just can’t lay off going for one more late-night score, even though he’s got Lauren Hutton waiting for him in bed back at home.

The Gambler proves two things about the ’70s. First, that it was obviously a much cooler decade to have a hairy back in. And two, that movies weren’t afraid of the dark. If you compare Caan’s downward spiral to, say, Damon’s in Rounders, it makes the latter look like a Tom & Jerry cartoon. At one point, Caan hits up his mother for the money he owes. And when he gets it, instead of paying off the goons who are going to snap him like a wishbone, he takes it to Vegas. And it’s there that The Gambler comes up with one of its two best scenes: Standing at a blackjack table in the midst of a winning streak and with thousands in front of him, Caan doubles on 18 against a dealer’s 20 just for the rush.

The second one is the last scene in the movie: After getting one of his students to throw a basketball game to square him with the Mob, Caan picks up a prostitute and gets in a fight with her pimp (played by Starsky & Hutch‘s Antonio ”Huggy Bear” Fargas, of course). Huggy slashes him across the face with a switchblade, and Caan, while limping away from the scene, catches his reflection in a mirror. He’s just gotten his ass kicked and blood is spurting from his cheek, but he’s smiling. Why? Well, because he’s a twisted headcase. But also, like the guys in Fight Club will learn 25 down the line, he’s found a new high: getting beat to within an inch of his life.