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The Gambler (1974)

With James Caan having just solidified his association with the gangster film via The Godfather as Sonny Corleone, he’s well suited to his role here as the gambler in over his head to local bookies and mobsters.

Long before this was remade with Mark Wahlberg, Caan starred as the English Professor by day who can’t help but self destruct when it comes to rolling the dice, betting the cards and placing heavy wagers on any sport available to him. The tone is set in the opening scenes as he drops 44K he doesn’t have at the tables of an illegal gambling joint. He’s got a friend in Paul Sorvino who runs the game but only up to a point. Sorvino subtly warns Caan that this is a heavy debt and he’ll need to see some serious cash to keep the muscle off his back and by extension, Caan’s.

Thankfully Jimmy comes from a family of wealth. He’ll turn to his mother Jacqueline Brooks for cash. She’ll cave and go visit the bank where an arrogant young teller in a suit and tie gives her a hard time making the withdrawal. HEY! That’s not just any young arrogant teller sitting there getting assaulted by an angry Jimmy Caan demanding respect for his Mother, that’s James Woods! And what does the wise Mr. Caan do with the 44K mommy just handed him? He grabs his trophy girlfriend Lauren Hutton and hit’s Las Vegas. Give the man a chance here. He makes good and triples up. Briefly I have to add. His profit is gone by morning and he’s foolish enough to roll his last 50K on the Lakers.

Yes, the term “born loser” has found a home. I think we need to call in Kenny Rogers to sing his hit song to the stubborn Mr. Caan. Learn how to “know when to hold’em and know when to fold’em.” Come on now. We all know the words so let’s all join in on the count of three.

Broke, Caan has to face Sorvino who he’s already told that he had the cash to pay his debt. It’s scenes like the one that follows that put Sorvino squarely in the gangland genre where he remains to this day on ads for Ignite TV. He’s pissed and violence is being threatened. Caan is on the run but not fast enough. A beating and then a meet and greet with Vic Tayback who is now going to use Caan to get to a star player on the college basketball team to shave points. Take care of that and all will be forgotten.

I’ll leave the balance of the story for you to discover but will add I’m not sold on the film as a whole. Love the cast, love the gambling angle but Caan is just too self destructive for me to like in the end. Speaking of the end, can’t say I liked the final scenes in this one as Caan tempts fate and you might even say say comes out a winner. At least in his own distorted way of thinking.

And how about that cast! It’s films like this that laid the groundwork for so many familiar faces moving forward in smaller roles. Alongside James Woods, Paul Sorvino and Vic Tayback you’ll spot Stuart Margolin, M. Emmet Walsh, Steven Keats, Gregory Rozakis, Antonio Fargas prepping for his role as Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch. Lastly in a fun pre-Rocky role, Burt Young as a thug who takes Caan on a ride to another chump who has avoided paying back his debt to local mobsters. It’s a scene stealing opportunity for the young actor on the rise and he delivers. I found it ironic that Burt is employed in the same way Stallone’s Rocky is in the first film of the long running series.

For those interested in a bit of useless trivia, 1974 also had another film in theaters that had Steven Keats, Stuart Margolin and Gregory Rozakis appearing. Care to name it? One hint. It’s the biggest title in the career of this 70’s action icon.

The Gambler is the first credited script to James Toback who would also pen and direct the gangland flavored Fingers in 1978 and be the credited writer on Beatty’s Bugsy in 1991. Gambler was directed by Karel Reisz. His previous successes include 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and 68’s Isadora. Following Gambler he’d helm The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sweet Dreams among others. Further names in the credits you might spot include film editor Roger Spottiswoode who would go on to directing and the well known Jerry Fielding supplying the musical score.

Previously highlighted in my monthly roundup of January 2017, here’s what I had to say about the remake of 2014…

Mark Wahlberg replays the James Caan role in this updating of the seventies flick. He’s in over his head to loan sharks and quite possibly John Goodman who packs a punch here every time he appears on screen. Nice performance from Mark here as a born loser who can’t seem to get out if his dead end future. Jessica Lange play his Mother who continually bails him out and in his last big screen role, Oscar winner George Kennedy has a cameo at the beginning of the film. I liked this one.

The 74 version is out on DVD and this proved my first viewing. Long overdue. Especially since I’ve had a one sheet tucked away for far too long and four aces up my sleeve. Man do I love that tag line above Caan.

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