Down From the Shelf ~ The Gambler (1974)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Axel Freed is a literature professor with a gambling vice.

Stars: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, Jacqueline Brookes, Burt Young, M. Emmett Walsh, James Woods

Director: Karel Reisz

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Movies like 1974’s The Gambler exhaust me.  Like, honestly exhaust me.  Though clearly a product of its time in direction, production design, costume design, and performance it features the same hopeless characters that still populate movies 40 years later.  I call these Lost Cause Characters because it’s clear from the get-go that no amount of mountain moving or lesson learning will move them from their path to ruin.

With his star on the rise after his tough-guy role in The Godfather earned him an Academy Award nomination, James Caan (Misery) plays the role of the lit professor by day / gambling addict by night (and sometimes day) with all the right moves.  With his groovy print shirts never having more than three buttons in use, he looks the very image of 70s hunk with a tough edge.  Opening on a daytime binge of cards, dice, and lost cash the movie wastes no time in establishing that he’s an experienced gambler but one on the endless hunt for a winning streak.

Even in his early 30s Caan always looked like he was pushing 40 so it’s hard to buy him as a spoiled trust fund kid that manages to weasel out of any sticky situation.  His doctor mother (Jacqueline Brookes, playing conflicted to the point of incapacitation) continues to bail him out even when his wealthy grandfather won’t.  His relationship with a pretty thing (Lauren Hutton, American Gigolo) isn’t fleshed out enough to give audiences anything to grasp onto and the overall effect is that this character is very much alone in his universe…with his best relationship a shady guy (Paul Sorvino) who would just as soon break his legs as he would sit down for dinner with him.

James Toback’s script is heavy with far too many scenes that feel repetitious but light on the kind of forward momentum that would allow director Karen Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) the opportunity to make something memorable out of this mish-mash.  Maybe the whole point was for the audience to be talking back to the screen yelling “Don’t double down!” and if that’s the case then bravo to all involved…but I doubt that an early 70s film would be (or could be) that self-aware.

The film totally loses all focus in the last twenty minutes and never more so than in the final moments.  I had to rewind it to see if I missed a key plot point but alas, it’s just another bust for this rough crap table of a film.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Misery (1990)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtely of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it alot.  So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them.  Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.


Misery (1990)

My dad was cool for many reasons, not the least of which was that he’d gladly take me to most any film as long as I’d steal, ahem, BORROW the salt from the concession stand so he wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the movie for a light re-dusting of his popcorn.  I vividly remember seeing Misery at Centennial Lakes 8 in Bloomington on a Wednesday evening and even as a 10 year old I knew it was the blackest of black comedies.

While a later trailer fell into the trap of providing perhaps too many details, this ultra brief teaser for Misery, like the teaser poster, gives you precious little information about the movie itself and instead focuses on the people behind the scenes.  Those familiar with Stephen King’s novel knew the dark tale of an obsessed fan imprisoning her favorite bestselling author would provide the thrills, but who could have predicted that Kathy Bates (Titanic) would win an Oscar for her role as a benign caregiver that slowly shows how unhinged she can become when crossed.  Don’t forget the important work of James Caan or director Rob Reiner (The Magic of Belle Isle) either…

Miss yesterday?  Check out my look at the teaser for Alien!