A slightly shorter, and quite late entry, but here it is!

The Gambler (Karel Reisz, 1974)

Hosted by Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema (http://www.octopuscinema.blogspot.com/)

‘An investigation of the appeal of a quick decline’

This is one essay where the title says it all. When I went into the viewing of this film, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The obvious appeal to the film was the presence of James Caan, and the possibility of a thrilling film about ‘risk.’ However upon watching the film, I found myself lost in a somewhat gripping and utterly depressing investigation of addiction.

In the film, which is said to be loosely based upon the Dostoyevsky story of the same name, director Karel Reisz is not afraid to present us with a, for the most part, quite unlikable character. James Caan’s Axel Freed, although he has his brief shining moments, is a despicable personification of a gambling addict. In the beginning of the film we’re first introduced to Axel in a particularly pathetic and pitiable predicament. Throughout the rest of the film, while his situation waxes and wanes from the two extremes of human experience, a sympathetic viewer such as myself had a hard time feeling anything other than resentment for Axel.

This, however merely proves that Reisz succeeded in evoking an emotional stir within me. Through various techniques Reisz forced the viewer to bear witness to Axel’s quick and painful decline. Minute by minute during the film Axel loses one thing after another and we watch him break down and crack under all of the different pressures and situations he places himself in. “It’s no good, if there’s no risk… you need the Juice!” This is an overarching theme through the film that Axel as well as a fair amount of addicts, “want to lose,” they can’t help but be addicted to the danger, they seek the rush.

By using many different techniques such as perspective shifts, as in the constant use of mirror, static shots coupled with silence (or a shrill sustained note), like when he sat in the tub as the viewer gazed up at him from a voyeuristic perspective at him as he loses, yet again, truly place the viewer in the hellish demise of an individual. His downward spiral which is mirrored in the editing and the clever utilization of telling snippets of flashback, as well as the soundtrack which at times borders on Brechtian, culminates in an aesthetic representation of what he has been doing to his ‘soul.’ By having our ‘hero’ physically scarred by his actions, the damage he has done to himself take on a corporeal as well as metaphorical representation.

In the end, this is not an enjoyable film to watch. It’s not a film to pop some popcorn and sit with the family for, it’s a gritty presentation and investigation into the human psyche and it’s inherently flawed nature, corruption from within. However, while this wasn’t a fun film, it was an interesting and worthwhile viewing. The references to literature further added insight. The acting on the whole was rather good (although there certainly were some cardboard portrayals). And while the film at times felt like watching an anti-gambling after-school special, in the end it came out as a more serious film to be scrutinized, and while the direction of the film on the whole was a tad on the bland side (the cinematography often left something to be desired) there were certainly enough instances of interesting or intriguing filmic technique to at least placate this cinematography nerd. Overall an interesting film.