This is not really a review or an assessment of the film as such but, rather, just a rough collection of scattered remarks.
News of first time screenwriters who pen spec scripts based on their own personal life experiences and actually – miraculously, really – see the film get made and released are always inspiring. The ones that always spring to mind for me are Robert Mulligan with Summer of 42; Douglas Day Stewart with An Officer and A Gentleman; and James Toback with The Gambler. (Even Sylvester Stallone and Rocky may qualify here.) I say they’re inspiring because such news invariably entails something a little more than just a desire to entertain or to make it in Hollywood – the screenwriter believes so strongly in their message, they believe that the truth they have to impart to us is so worth discussing in artistic terms, that their desire to succeed just will not be denied. As a matter of fact, there is a scene from the picture we are very briefly mentioning here, Toback’s The Gambler in which protagonist Axel Freed, a professor of literature, gives a short lecture to his class on this very subject of the will and desire.
Here’s an excerpt from an article Toback wrote for Deadline Hollywood. It gives some background as to how he came to write the script.
“After graduating from Harvard in 1966 I taught literature and writing in a radical new program at CCNY whose additional faculty included Joseph Heller, John Hawks, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, Adrienne Rich, Mark Mirsky and Israel Horovitz. I also wrote articles and criticism for Esquire, Harpers, The Times, The Voice and other publications. Most of all, I gambled – recklessly, obsessively and secretly. It was a rich, exciting double life with heavy doses of sexual adventurism thrown in for good measure. Inspired by the life and work of my literary idol, Dostoyevsky, I embarked on the writing of The Gambler intended originally as a novel. Half way in, it became clear to me that I was seeing and hearing the “novel” as a movie and I abruptly decided to turn it into one. When I hit full stride I felt as if I were a recording secretary, simply putting down on paper dialogue and images I heard and saw as if they were not sounds and pictures at all but rather real life action existing in my brain.”
So as we see, the movie began as a powerful personal vision. British director Karel Reisz soon got involved with the project. Reisz, the author of one of the seminal texts on film editing, was a director of realistic films with a “focus on characters on the margins” as his obituary in The Guardian says. Certainly The Gambler qualifies there.
He was also quite unlucky in the way the executives he made pictures for handled them after they were finished and ready. Toback’s article cited above details this as far as The Gambler goes; Steven Bach’s Final Cut, one of the truly classic insider accounts of Hollywood, chronicles how Reisz’s next film, Who’ll Stop SThe Rain? was sabotaged by the very studio he made it for! (Incidentally, the picture was adapted from Robert Stone’s classic novel Dog Soldiers. Stone would go on to write the terrific Hollywood bashing novel Children of Light, and after reading Bach it’s easy to see why.)
The film itself is a bit of a wonder, and the article linked to above is immeasurably helpful in understanding it and the overall gambling sensibility. Lauren Hutton is an almost unreal presence on the screen – why in the world was this woman not more of a star? In the title role James Caan is excellent as an addicted gambler but not real convincing as a college professor. Paul Sorvino plays a role that’s kind of a hybrid of the ones he played in Goodfellas and A Touch of Class. And in small roles we have many actors who would become fairly well recognized over the years – Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Burt Young, Vic Tayback, Antonio Fargas, James Woods. All of them are very capable here.
The script, though very powerful and obviously authentic, is not without some problems – for example, Axel’s girlfriend and mother, both featured prominently for a while, at a certain point just drop off the screen. They literally disappear. And the Dostoyevskian existentialism is highly questionable as a working philosophy, even given that we understand it’s the main character’s principal operating principle.