"James Caan portrays a compulsive gambler who can't quit or win."
Axel Freed (James Caan, The Godfather) is a New York college professor of literature—and a gambling addict. He owes the mob $44,000 and has no idea how he's going to pay them back. Like most gamblers, this idea both terrifies and thrills him. Axel finally squeezes some dough out of his mother and takes his girlfriend, Billie (Lauren Hutton, American Gigolo), to Vegas to earn even more. Unfortunately, he blows a lot of the profit on college basketball bets. In the meantime, he's trying to hold on to a semblance of normal life in his classroom, where to his students he seems cultured and in control. But with the mob on his trail and a debt on his back, Axel is in over his head!
The Gambler could have been a winner—a great cast, an interesting plot (intellectual by day, sleazebag gambler by night), thoughtful direction by Karel Reisz and beautiful New York scenery. Eerily quiet shots of Caan intercut with mute flashbacks of significant moments of his life display a directing style that is unique and ahead of its time (the film was released in 1974). However, the movie drags in all the wrong places, which often makes for a sluggish sitting. As Axel hits up various family members and bickers with his girlfriend, time ticks by. The moments when the Mob catches up with him—where his vices hit him hardest—are the highlights of this film. There's also a nice twist at the end where his academic life merges with his shadier pastime. More mob action and less wheedling money out of relatives would have served this movie well; in fact, about 20 minutes could easily be shaved out of the picture, which clocks in at under two hours and still feels too long. Not surprisingly, the odds are not with The Gambler.
Though the DVD is very short on extras—not even a trailer is included here!—the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks beautiful. The colors all appear clearly defined and sharp while the black levels are solid and well saturated. Only the slightest amount of dirt or grain shows up in the image, though it's nothing to get your shorts in a bundle about. The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack in English and French is nothing special, though it is well-mixed and sharp (small consolation).
Personally, I'd take a pass on this disc—the story drags and the extras are nonexistent…just like Axel's bank statement.
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