The Gambler (1974) should have a better remake
The Gambler (1974) is an angry, sad, depressing movie, but ten times better than the stupid remake starring Mark Wahlberg, which lacks the guts to do anything like the original. James Caan plays Axel in the movie, and he is the picture of dysfunctional. He has an addiction to gambling, and by about the second or third minute into the movie, he’s lost everything, and in dept up to his ears. This movie is not about the glory of gambling. We don’t revel in the games and it’s not like the World Series of Poker. The movie steps on gambling’s reputation. It infects Axel’s family, his soul, and it turns him into a sadistic weirdo.
The remake doesn’t take any risks and actually has an upbeat ending. It misses the point of the whole concept of the movie. The remake is stupid and it’s no surprise that it is bombing on the box office. Axel is addicted to risk, because he admits he could win the games he’s good at, but that’s no fun. When he’s playing blackjack, he wants to hit an eighteen, like an idiot. Yeah, he likes risk, like a wacko.
He risks everything, and is moody, sullen, and unhappy. Even when his luck comes through, you can tell he’s still unhappy, as if he wanted to lose to wallow in his own self-pity. His girlfriend can’t understand him, and his grandfather is disgusted with his behavior. His mom slaps him.
Jacqueline Brooks plays Axel’s mom Naomi, and she does a great job. She’s a stage actress and it shows, taking time with the lines and stressing the emotion. Overall, the presence of a big name star is missing, but Brooks makes up for it by becoming one of the stronger supporting actors in the cast. She invests in the character and you can see her effort.
One scene that shows her complementary nature is the bank scene, where Naomi is trying to withdraw some money from the bank for Axel, but the bank teller won’t cooperate. Looking tired and frustrated, Brooks is able to contrast James Caan’s contributions to the scene, as he lashes out at the guy and demands he give his frustrated mom the money. He gets a little physical with the guy and it is an angry-good performance, but wouldn’t be possible without the setup by Brooks.
Axel is a literature professor and lectures about Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman. The guy is smart. Why does he gamble? He likes the risk, and he’s the most classic case of degenerate gambling I’ve ever seen, putting no value on money, on family, or on himself. Teaching is boring and monotonous, and his intelligence is no comfort for him. He actually finds justification for his actions in DH Lawrence, Cummings and others. Maybe he’s afraid to grind out his life as a teacher or maybe the death of his father has had some impact. Whatever the case, he plunges into everything with reckless abandon. He speaks in absolutes, and criticizes America like DH Lawrence, painting himself as a true original, a justified risk-taker.
The world doesn’t fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can’t pigeon-hole a real new experience. It can only dodge. The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest. Because they dodge their own very selves.
Lauren Hutton plays Axel’s girlfriend and Paul Sorvino plays an Italian once again, like in every movie he’s in. His character is not very well-written, and he’s just there for support, to move the plot, and that’s it. Sorvino is way better in Law & Order and Goodfellas.
Most people don’t understand the ending to the 1974 version, so the remake throws it out and drops in a more upbeat ending, even proposing that Axel frees himself of his addiction by the end. This is the stupidest idea ever. At the end of the 1974 version, James Caan as Axel begins gambling with his own life, and seems pleased when his own blood is drawn. The movie ends without any specific conclusion, but I think we can safely assume Axel will not live very much longer.
The superb script (and James Caan) shows the slow descent of Axel as a character. By the end of his losing tirade, he’s willing to risk his own life in a gamble against a pimp with a knife. It’s a slow progression to get there and uses some detailed character development, which is fascinating to watch. Caan does a great job being patient with the character. He could have gone way over the top right from the start, but he didn’t. He let it simmer and boil until just the right moment.
This is an angry, punishing movie. It has no jokes or light moments. There is a ton of swearing, violence, and dark drama. Axel abuses his girlfriend physically. He’s really an awful guy, and only his supporting cast make us like him. His friends and family cry for him to change, and I think we can sympathize with their feelings for Axel. More to the point, Caan actually shows Axel struggling, which is a nice break from anger.
Overall, this is a great movie, and rightfully was singled out for a remake, though the result was awful. James Caan carries this movie, and delivers with an emotional performance. He certainly understands the character, and where he is in life, addicted to risk, desire, and losing. The 1974 version of The Gambler is one of those lost gems, and I wouldn’t have even known about it without the crappy remake, so I guess it deserves some credit for that. The 1974 version succeeds because of the story, which is able to force me to keep watching for the drama, while I’m smirking at the unlikable characters.