The Gambler, produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff for Paramount Pictures in 1974, is a typical example of the gritty realism in films of the time, exploring social issues that Hollywood had previously ignored or sugar-coated. It stars James Caan as Axel Freed, the gambler of the title, a Harvard-educated English professor at a New York college whose life spirals out of control as he succumbs to his gambling addiction.

Fans of 70s architecture, design and fashion will find a wealth of retro interest in the visuals, from Caan’s permed ’fro and chest-baring shirts to the blocky radios, cars and buildings. There is also a tendency to plaster clashing patterns across every available surface, including the cast. The score, by Jerry Fielding, is adapted from Mahler, and helps turn The Gambler into a drama that develops like a thriller. Fans of James Woods will enjoy seeing him in an early role as an officious bank clerk.

Based on Real-Life Experience

The screenplay for The Gambler was written by James Toback, who in real life was a college English professor with a gambling addiction. Toback’s tale can be linked very loosely to a Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, as both stories explore the compulsive urge that drives gamblers, even when they have won big and should simply walk away from the game. Desire, and the will to attain a desire by that act of will, is at the heart of the philosophy both stories contemplate.

The Gambler was directed by Karel Reisz, who had made his name in cinema realism with Saturday Night And Sunday Morning in 1960. His most famous film is most probably The French Lieutenant’s Woman, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, released in 1981.

Plot a Sequence of Wasted Chances

The Gambler begins with Axel in his safe, comfortable life, lecturing English students on the ideas expounded by Dostoyevsky. But the love of his partner, Billie, played by Lauren Hutton, and of his successful doctor mother and rich grandfather, is soon contrasted with his other life. He’s in debt to the tune of $44,000 to a bookie, Hips, played by Paul Sorvino, after a run of disastrous sports bets.

If he doesn’t pay up, Hips’ muscle will start breaking his limbs. Alex borrows the money from his mother, but instead of paying Hips, he heads to Vegas where he wins a fortune. But he loses it all betting on sports again. When his grandfather turns down his plea for help, Axel is forced even further into the corrupt underbelly of illegal sports betting. He pays his debt, but ends up seeking violent confrontation. He has to bleed just to know he’s alive.

A Stark Look at Gaming Pitfalls

As a cautionary tale about the dangers of addiction, The Gambler received generally positive responses from critics and audiences. What is often overlooked, however, is the film’s subtext concerning legal and illegal gambling. In the Vegas segment, Axel is a winner, whether he’s playing craps, baccarat or online blackjack games for real money. Of course, gambling is legal in Las Vegas.

All Axel’s problems with debt and threats of physical harm, on the other hand, are the result of his involvement in illegal sports betting, which necessitates him mingling with bookies, loan sharks and mobsters. It is this world that engineers his downfall. The film makes a very subtle point.