The Gambler (1974 film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Gambler
The Gambler (1974 film) poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKarel Reisz
Written byJames Toback
Produced byIrwin Winkler
Robert Chartoff
StarringJames Caan
Paul Sorvino
Lauren Hutton
Morris Carnovsky
Burt Young
CinematographyVictor J. Kemper
Edited byRoger Spottiswoode
Music byJerry Fielding
Chartoff-Winkler Productions, Inc.[1]
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • October 2, 1974 (1974-10-02)
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Gambler is a 1974 American crime drama film written by James Toback and directed by Karel Reisz. It stars James Caan, Paul Sorvino and Lauren Hutton. Caan's performance was widely lauded and was nominated for a Golden Globe.


Axel Freed is an English professor in New York City with a gambling addiction that begins to spiral out of control. In the classroom, Freed inspires his college students with his interpretations of Fyodor 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.

Axel's gambling has left him with a huge debt. His bookie, a mafioso known as Hips, likes the professor personally but threatens grave consequences if he does not pay it soon. 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 disapproving mother, Axel goes with Billie to Las Vegas and gambles it into a small fortune, only to lose back his last $50,000 on a last-second, incredibly-lucky shot in a Laker game.

Having subsequently won $12,000 on a fixed Laker-game gift from another gambler and paid it to the bookmaker, Axel is abducted by associates of the latter. The boss asks Axel if he has family who might help him pay. Axel mentions his grandfather and mother. The boss says he’d asked the grandfather who said no.

Acting on an offer from the mob, Axel lures one of his students, a star on the college's basketball team, to shave points in his next game, so the mob can bet big on the game to cover Axel's debt. The student accepts Axel's offer of $5,000 for the illicit play. Having set that up, Axel visits his grandfather, who, near the end of their conversation, asks if Axel needs his help. Saying he’s taken care of it, Axel leaves.

Watching the game from the stands with three of the mob's bookmakers, Axel is saved by the bribed player's final-minutes' point-shaving, which enables the team to win by only 6 and thus not cover a 7-point spread. Nixing a night of post-game celebration with Hips, Axel wanders off into a neighboring black ghetto, as Hips warns him the place is a "jungle."

At a ghetto bar, Axel meets a prostitute, and they go to an upstairs room of a hotel. Threatened by her pimp after refusing to pay her when she refuses to take off all her clothes, Axel eggs the pimp to cut him with his switchblade. The pimp, thinking Axel crazy, backs off, and Axel repeatedly punches him, knocks him to the floor, and kicks him over and over. Frantic, the prostitute picks up the fallen blade and slashes Axel across the face.

Bleeding from his facial wound, Axel staggers down the stairs, looks at himself in a mirror, and smiles enigmatically at his slashed cheek.



The film was the first produced screenplay by 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.

Toback 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.[2]

"Caan became a great Axel Freed, although obviously different from the character De Niro would have created", wrote Toback later.[2] It was filmed at a time when leading actor James Caan was battling his own addiction to cocaine. 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."[3]

Some see the film as a loose adaptation of the short 1866 novel The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.[4][5]


Roger Ebert awarded his top grade of four stars and wrote that the film "begins as a portrait of Axel Freed's personality, develops into the story of his world, and then pays off as a thriller. We become so absolutely contained by Axel's problems and dangers that they seem like our own."[6] Vincent Canby of The New York Times was less impressed, writing, "The movie follows Axel's downward path with such care that you keep thinking there must be some illuminating purpose, but there isn't ... Mr. Reisz and Mr. Toback reportedly worked a couple of years putting the screenplay into this shape, which is lifeless."[7][8] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and said that director Karel Reisz "is most successful in presenting Axel as a true sickie and his adversaries as genuinely ruthless. The latter is no mean feat, inasmuch as ruthless movie mobsters are a dime-a-dozen in these post-'Godfather' days ... We know that the film is a success, because it doesn't really matter whether Axel is a winner or a loser as the film ends. 'The Gambler' is a personality study, and like 'California Split,' its story does not hang on its ending."[9] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety called The Gambler "way ahead as the better of two current films about the gambling compulsion. Director Karel Reisz has one of his most compelling and effective films. Title star James Caan is excellent and the featured players are superb."[10] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times declared it "a cool, hard, perfectly cut gem of a movie, as brilliant and mysteriously deep as a fine diamond. At its center is an hypnotically absorbing performance, at once charming and dismaying, by James Caan, who must certainly have an Academy Award nomination for it."[11] Pauline Kael of The New Yorker stated, "At 'The Gambler,' we're trapped at a maniacal lecture on gambling as existential expression. And, as almost always happens when a movie is predictable and everything is analyzed and labelled, the actions and the explanations aren't convincing. Gambling is too easy a metaphor for life; as metaphor, it belongs to the world of hardboiled fiction."[12] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post agreed, calling it "a well-made movie invalidated at every turn by a script with big, literary pretensions but little if any dramatic credibility."[13] Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that his problem with the film "is not so much a surfeit of psychological analysis—the script offers hints, not explicit causes explaining Axel's condition—as too little to account for his behaviour naturalistically, and too much to permit any sustained acceptance of the character on an allegorical or mythical level ... there is nothing in Axel that suggests hidden depths; indeed, despite Caan's consistent professionalism, the actor seems to be as disinterested in his character as Axel seems to be in himself."[14]

The film holds a score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 10 reviews.[15][16]


In August 2011, Paramount Pictures announced a remake of the 1974 film The Gambler with the original producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Intended as a new directorial project for Martin Scorsese, it was reported that Leonardo DiCaprio was attached as the star and William Monahan would write the screenplay.[17]

In a 2011 interview, screenwriter James Toback gave the story of the original film's autobiographical background and development, and criticized the announcement of the remake.[18]

Scorsese left the project and filmmaker Todd Phillips was in talks to take over as of August 2012.[19]

In September 2013, Mark Wahlberg and director Rupert Wyatt expressed interest in remaking the film.[20] The film was released on December 25, 2014.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Gambler at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ a b James Toback, "A Hollywood Mis-Education" Vanity Fair, March 2014 accessed 10 February 2014
  3. ^ Siskel, Gene (Nov 27, 1977). "James Caan's career hitting tough times". Chicago Tribune. p. e6.
  4. ^ Lyons, Paul. The Quotable Gambler, Globe Pequot, 1999, ISBN 1-55821-949-8, ISBN 978-1-55821-949-6, p.305.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 3, 1974). "The Gambler". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent (October 3, 1974). "Screen: Professor Bucks Odds in 'The Gambler'". The New York Times. 50.
  8. ^ Canby, Vincent (3 October 1974). "Screen: Professor Bucks Odds in 'The Gambler':Caan, in the Title Role, Fights Compulsion". The New York Times.
  9. ^ Siskel, Gene (October 18, 1974). "'Gambler' wins where others fold". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 3.
  10. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (October 2, 1974). "Film Reviews: The Gambler". Variety. 24.
  11. ^ Champlin, Charles (October 6, 1974). "Cool, Hard Look at the High Cost of Losing". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 30.
  12. ^ Kael, Pauline (October 14, 1974). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 174.
  13. ^ Arnold, Gary (October 17, 1974). "'Gambler': Nice Try, But Finally a Loser". The Washington Post. E13.
  14. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan (March 1975). "The Gambler". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 42 (494): 56.
  15. ^ "The Gambler". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 24, 2021.
  16. ^ "The Gambler". Metacritic. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  17. ^ Mike Fleming (2011-08-26). "Leonardo DiCaprio Attached To 'Gambler' Remake At Paramount With Martin Scorsese". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 2011-08-29.
  18. ^ Nikki Finke (2011-08-28). "James Toback On 'The Gambler' Remake: "Not Possible… Rudeness And Disrespect"". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 2011-08-29.
  19. ^ "Todd Phillips in Talks to Direct First Drama 'The Gambler' (Exclusive) | Hollywood Reporter". The Hollywood Reporter.
  20. ^ Mike Fleming Jr (11 September 2013). "Mark Wahlberg And Rupert Wyatt Eyeing 'The Gambler' Remake For Paramount". Deadline Hollywood.

External links[edit]