The Gambler (1974 film)

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The Gambler
The gambler.jpg
Directed by Karel Reisz
Produced by Robert Chartoff
Irwin Winkler
Screenplay by James Toback
Based on The Gambler 
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Starring James Caan
Lauren Hutton
Paul Sorvino
Music by Jerry Fielding
Cinematography Victor J. Kemper
Editing by Roger Spottiswoode
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • 1974 (1974)
Running time 111 min.
Country United States
Language English

The Gambler is a 1974 feature film starring James Caan, Lauren Hutton, and Paul Sorvino.

The film is loosely based on the short novel The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky[1][2] and was filmed at a time when leading actor James Caan was battling his own addiction to cocaine. Caan was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.


Axel Freed is a New York City English professor with a gambling addiction that begins to spiral out of control. In the classroom, Freed inspires his college students with his interpretations of Dostoevsky's work. In his personal life, Axel has the affection of the beautiful Billie and the admiration of his family, including his mother Naomi, who is a doctor, and his grandfather, a wealthy businessman.

Unbeknownst to them, Axel's reckless gambling has left him with a huge debt. His bookie Hips likes the professor personally but threatens grave consequences if he doesn't pay up. When Billie, having been informed by Axel that he owes $44,000, questions the wisdom of her associating with him, Axel confidently tells her she loves his life's dangers, including "the possibility of blood."

After obtaining the $44,000 from his mortified mother, Axel goes with Billie to Las Vegas and gambles it into a small fortune, only to blow it all again on basketball bets. He takes out his anger on Billie, who does not appreciate having loan sharks come to their apartment in the middle of the night. Expecting help from his grandfather, Axel gets nothing but the older man's disappointment and disgust.

Axel's only way to avoid the debt is to lure one of his students, a basketball star, into accepting a bribe from Axel's creditors to shave points in a game. He does so. When the game has ended in accordance with the plan, Axel says good-night to Hips by wandering off into a black ghetto near the gymnasium where the game has been played; he ignores a warning from Hips that the area is a jungle.

Axel proceeds to lure a pimp into a life-or-death fight by refusing to pay a prostitute. As Axel beats him, nearly to death, the prostitute slashes him across the face. As Axel is leaving the scene of the fight, he studies himself in a mirror and smiles enigmatically at the blood coming from the wound.



The film was the first script of James Toback. Toback had worked as an English lecturer at the City College of New York and had a gambling problem. He originally wrote The Gambler as a semi-autobiographical novel but halfway through started envisioning it as a film and turned it into a screenplay. He completed it in 1972 and showed it to his friend Lucy Saroyan, who introduced Toback to Robert de Niro. Toback became enthused about the possibility of de Niro playing the lead. He showed the script to his literary agent who gave it to Mike Medavoy who attached director Karel Reisz. Reisz did not want to use de Niro and cast James Caan instead.[3]

"Caan became a great Axel Freed, although obviously different from the character De Niro would have created," wrote Toback later.[3]


Caan says the film is one of his favorites. "It's not easy to make people care about a guy who steals from his mother to pay gambling debts."[4]


Paramount Pictures is currently developing a remake "Gambler" film with the original producers, Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. Intended as a new directorial project for Martin Scorsese, it was reported in August 2011 that Leonardo DiCaprio was attached as the star and William Monahan would write the screenplay.[5] Scorsese has since left the project and filmmaker Todd Phillips is in talks to take over as of August 2012.[6] In September 2013, Mark Wahlberg and director Rupert Wyatt expressed interest in making the film.[7] Brie Larson and Jessica Lange are under consideration to appear.[8] James Toback, the screenwriter of the original, has criticized the development of the remake.[9]


  1. ^ Lyons, Paul. The Quotable Gambler, Globe Pequot, 1999, ISBN 1-55821-949-8, ISBN 978-1-55821-949-6, p.305.
  2. ^ Bronson, Eric. Poker and Philosophy: Pocket Rockets and Philosopher Kings Open Court Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0-8126-9594-1, ISBN 978-0-8126-9594-6, p.57.
  3. ^ a b James Toback, "A Hollywood Mis-Education", Vanity Fair, March 2014 accessed 10 February 2014
  4. ^ James Caan's career hitting tough times Siskel, Gene. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 27 Nov 1977: e6.
  5. ^ Mike Fleming (2011-08-26). "Leonardo DiCaprio Attached To ‘Gambler’ Remake At Paramount With Martin Scorsese". Retrieved 2011-08-29. 
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ [2]
  8. ^ [3]
  9. ^ Nikki Finke (2011-08-28). "James Toback On ‘The Gambler’ Remake: "Not Possible… Rudeness And Disrespect"". Retrieved 2011-08-29. 

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