June 12, 2005
Director: Robert Altman,
Starring: George Segal, Elliott Gould, Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles, Edward Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Bert Remsen, Barbara London, Barbara Ruick, Jay Fletcher, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Colby, ,
In the 1970s, Elliott Gould and Robert Altman were an unbeatable team. The first teamed up with M*A*S*H (1970), a savage satire of the military, then worked together again on a radical contemporary reworking of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Long Goodbye (1973), and finally finished the hat trick with California Split (1974). For years, this film has been relegated to obscurity, showing up occasionally on TV and tied up in music legal issues which delayed its release on DVD. Finally, all these entanglements have been resolved and the movie has finally arrived the way it was meant to be seen.
A nice, self-reflexive moment kicks things off: gambler and card shark, Charlie Waters (Gould) is killing time before a poker match by watching an instructional video on the game. The voiceover narration says, “It has been said that everyone in America understands poker or wants to. It is one of America’s most popular games and since you’ve shown an obvious interest in coming here we have prepared a short film to teach you the fundamentals.” This voiceover could easily be talking to the audience watching this movie as Altman introduces us to the movie, its world and its characters.
While this video is playing, Altman’s camera sweeps across the game room, setting the scene and introducing the film’s other main character, Bill Denny (Segal). The video is also functional, providing a crash course on a couple of actual poker hands and the house rules. The opening poker game does a good job of showing the dynamics of professional poker playing and is also very funny as Charlie fleeces an irate player who then punches Bill, thinking that they are in league with each other. In a nice bit of business, a dazed Bill has enough sense to pick up his poker chips while all hell is breaking loose.
California Split is one of Altman’s trademark character-driven films. It is less concerned with plot than behaviour as we watch the friendship between Bill and Charlie develop over a mutual love of gambling. Charlie is a wisecracking joker and experienced gambler constantly looking for the next score. Initially, Bill isn’t as committed a gambler (he works at a magazine during the day) but he’s on his way and hanging out with Charlie doesn’t help. As the film progresses and the two men hang out more, Bill starts to become more addicted to the gambling lifestyle. He blows off work early to meet Charlie at the track and he sells possessions for money. They are gambling addicts who ride the high arcs and the low valleys, never passing up a bet. At a boxing match they bet with a fellow spectator on the outcome of the fight.
Those who know Elliott Gould and George Segal only from their contemporary sitcom appearances (Friends and Just Shoot Me, respectively), should see California Split if only to see these guys in their prime and working with a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Gould and Segal have never been better and play well of each other. There is good chemistry between them as Gould plays the more experienced gambler in contrast to Segal’s more naïve one.
Altman fans will enjoy the audio commentary included on this DVD. It features the director, the film’s screenwriter Joseph Walsh, Gould and Segal. They point out that all the extras in the opening sequence were ex-drug addicts. Altman and Walsh talk in detail about the filmmaking process with the latter pointing out the authenticity of the gambling lifestyle as depicted in the movie. Everyone recounts amusing anecdotes on this relaxed, informative track.
California Split is not afraid to show the ugly side of gambling. Bill sells his car and his possessions for a big poker game in Reno. Charlie exacts a rough, bloody revenge on the guy who mugged him at the beginning of the movie. These are not always likeable guys and to Altman’s credit he doesn’t try to romanticize or judge them, leaving that up to the audience. California Split is arguably Altman’s loosest film in terms of plot and one of the richest in terms of character and observing their behaviour.