I watched the recent reboot or remake of The Gambler in 2014 with Mark Wahlberg before watching this original one with James Caan. The Wahlberg one was stylish but ineffective, buoyed by moody, melancholic performances but never really making us feel something. The 1974 version is gritty, foul, sleazy and profane, hitting us in the gut like one of Caan’s vulture-like bookies. It knocks the wind out of us and is pure to its message: that even the most rational, intelligent humans are nothing more than hedonists at their core.
The Gambler follows Axel Freed, a college literature professor, esteemed writer and degenerate gambler, who torches every family connection and personal relationship he has to get out of debt and gamble again. Lauren Hutton plays Billie, Axel’s girlfriend, who follows him on a trip to Vegas and gives him a fair warning about previous gamblers she’s known who’ve fallen on hard times. Axel though ignores her message, diving deeper into sports betting until the point where he has to convince one of his students, a star athlete at his school, to shave points on a basketball game to get him out of the red.
The scheme succeeds with Axel successfully out of debt. But he’s still downtrodden as he looks upon his successful student, remorseful for getting him caught up in the scheme, but ashamed because he got him hooked into this world of sports betting, where he’s destined to chase dollars and easy payouts instead of athleticism and victory. It’s a harrowing sequence and makes us empathize with Caan’s character as were simultaneously despising him. And it’s one that only an actor like Caan can do, playing the masculine tough guy who still has a conscious lurking underneath all that testosterone-filled cartilage.
About two days before watching this movie, I was in Las Vegas, where I’ve been known to have several unlucky streaks but also a few successful ones. I’ve only lost recreational levels of money, nothing that I wouldn’t spend on movies or entertainment later. But I can definitely attest to Axel’s inability to just leave at zero. When you’re down, you want to gamble until you get back to zero. When you’re back at zero, you want to gamble until you get high, and when you’re high, you never feel like you’re going to go back down. You start making compromises, things like choosing only to pay half of your intended credit card payment so you can hit the Blackjack table again, or carve out some time in the future for more Uber driving so you can try your birthday number at the Roulette wheel. Gambling is a carnival of sights, sounds and cold hard cash that never satisfies. Luckily, The Gambler does.