Caan plays Axel Freed, a professor teaching English in a prestigious New York college. However, his main preoccupation is with gambling. Axel is completely addicted and thinks nothing of betting in high-stakes games with money he doesn’t have. This gets him into trouble with the bookmakers as he ratchets up a debt of $44,000!
The film was released in 1974, so just for some extra financial perspective, that 44 grand would work out as $273,000 in 2023.
With no chance of paying back the debt, Axel turns to his mother for help. Realising how much danger he is in, Axel’s mum empties her bank accounts and gives her son her life savings in order to save his life. She does this with a warning, saying, “unless you come to terms with why you’re doing this, no money’s going to get you out.”
These prophetic words go unheeded as Axel immediately hatches a plan to gamble with the money instead of paying off the bookie. In his mind, he can win back what he owes and pay everyone off, including his mum. But deep down, subconsciously, Axel is not playing to win. Instead, he is addicted to losing, a problem that goes way beyond vices such as gambling and the story’s central theme.
Here is a character who is very flawed to the point of ruin and self-destruction. Not only does Axel spoil his relationships with loan sharks and bookmakers, but he also jeopardises his relationships with those closest to him. We have seen the undue stress he has put on his mother’s shoulders, and we quickly see that he is also completely obnoxious to his girlfriend. These are the people who care for him the most and they only wish to see him shake his gambling habit and cease the toxic lifestyle he has repeatedly plunged into.
But for Axel, dicing with danger is the juice. That’s how he gets his kicks, and the deeper he delves, the more dangerous the consequences.
He is a man who has it all. He comes from a wealthy family. He is well-educated and successful in his chosen profession. He has the love of his mother and a caring girlfriend. Yet he consistently puts himself in harm’s way, willingly risking everything in order to briefly satiate his destructive compulsion.
Despite a brief stroke of luck in Las Vegas, Axel soon ends up in hot water again, and the money he manages to win is immediately chewed up and disposed of via more irresponsible betting. As his luck runs out, so does his girlfriend and any further hopes of leniency from the nefarious gangsters he owes the money.
Ultimately, the story of The Gambler is a tragedy. A stark reflection on the ills of addiction and an even darker meditation on a person who is uncontrollably at war with themselves.
James Caan is excellent as Axel, bringing to life a man who is consistently preoccupied with self-destruction. He portrays an intelligent person, who is likeable and full of prospects, but also a slave to his own subconscious and compulsions, and therefore powerless to prevent his own downfall. On a more superficial level, The Gambler reminds us of what an incredibly stylish dude James Caan was.
The supporting cast are all excellent in their roles, with Jacqueline Brookes as Naomi Freed, Axel’s long-suffering mother, Lauren Hutton as girlfriend Billie, Paul Sorvino as affable mobster Hips and Burt Ward as the not-so-affable Carmine.
There are also other notables dotted about in smaller roles which include James Woods as a slimy bank clerk, M. Emmet Walsh as a Vegas casino gambler, and Antonio Fargas unsurprisingly cast as a Harlem pimp.
Director Karel Reisz does a fantastic job of building tension, and with the aid of Jerry Fielding’s sparse and ominous score, this bleak story reflects the highs and lows of a life hopelessly tumbling into a void of annihilation.
Loosely inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name, this quintessential New Hollywood movie was not a huge hit upon its release but has since garnered well-deserved critical acclaim. Fans of this period of American cinema, James Caan’s work or the British neo-realist stylings of Karel Reisz will revel in the tense and seedy exploits of the protagonist as he backs the wrong team, plays a losing hand and ultimately gambles with his life in a desperate attempt to fathom some kind of meaning beyond the safe and assured comfort of love and compassion.
Read our review of Thief (1981) another excellent crime drama starring James Caan here.
That concludes our review of The Gambler!
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