The ‘Best Sports Sports Betting Scenes in Television and Movies’ series returns with a look at James Caan’s Golden Globe-nominated turn as the most hardcore gambling addict in cinematic history.
The most effective responsible gambling commercial ever made is not the NFL’s 30-second PSA starring former 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci or any other TV spot in the traditional sense, but rather a two-hour feature film starring James Caan and his steel-wool sideburns.
Axel Freed, Caan’s character in 1974’s The Gambler (not to be confused with a 2014 remake starring Mark Wahlberg, or 1980’s vastly inferior Kenny Rogers star vehicle of the same name), comes from serious money, his granddad having arrived on Ellis Island with nothing and proceeding to build one of America’s foremost furniture empires. Axel’s mother, who was widowed when he was young, is a doctor, and Axel is an Ivy League-educated English professor in New York City with a book-stuffed apartment and aspirations of becoming a writer.
But those ambitions — and pretty much everything else in Axel’s life — are put on hold due to the most full-blown, round-the-clock gambling addiction ever depicted onscreen.
As Axel makes clear at least twice during the tense, manic film, he gambles not so much to win as to defy long odds. Only a moron or adrenaline junkie would double down on 18, as Axel does during a hand of blackjack on a trip to Vegas, the only time (save for a few sojourns to Axel’s grandfather’s upstate mansion) The Gambler ventures outside the glorious grime of 1970s New York City.
Axel is charming, cunning, and book smart. His girlfriend, Billie (portrayed by Lauren Hutton, who gilds the celluloid, not vice versa), is out of his league, but Axel wins her over with unyielding confidence and a tuft of constantly exposed chest hair that makes you want to dive into his polyester shirt, which perpetually seems to be missing the top three buttons.
The thrill of losing
There’s a scene where two bookies awaken Axel to collect a pile of loot after a string of bad college basketball beats in which at least two of his touts held healthy halftime leads. He pays them off — and then proceeds to make a sizable impulse bet on the Lakers to beat the Supersonics. Proving that The Gambler is only partially based on reality (the film’s screenwriter, James Toback, was a Harvard-bred compulsive gambler), Jerry West, a career 81% shooter from the line, misses three straight free throws and the Lakers lose. For Ice Cube, then in preschool, it was not a good day.
Prior to West’s miscues, Axel is lounging in bed with Billie, who was unnerved by the late-night shakedown and wants to know why her boyfriend keeps betting and betting in spite of how hot or cold he is.
“I like the thrill of losing,” he tells Billie, before leaving her for the privacy of his bathroom, where he soaks in the tub and kicks a portable radio off its ledge when the final horn sounds in the Lakers’ loss.
The Gambler’s closing scene, which would never make it off an editor’s floor today due to the crass stereotypes it depicts, drives Axel’s love of losing home in the least subtle way possible. But it’s the film’s opening sequence that remains its most memorable.
Playing for a literal dime
Axel, who’s been playing poker all night with a crew of coke-snorting lowlifes, emerges from one of their apartments $44,000 lighter. He spends the entire film coming tantalizingly close to paying off that debt, building an insane amount of dramatic tension alongside his bankroll. But as he navigates his blue Ford Mustang through the streets of New York in the morning sun, there’s a playground basketball game that catches his eye.
As a handful of boys, none of whom look to be older than 16, hoop it up, Axel approaches two of them on the sidelines and asks who the best player is. When they wonder why he’s inquiring, Axel tells them he wants to play a little one-on-one for $20 a game. When the boys tell Axel they only have a dime — a literal dime, not $1,000 — he says he’ll stake his $20 against their tiny coin.
Playing in the clothes he’s had on all night, which are hardly of the athletic variety, Axel puts up a decent fight, but he’s ultimately defeated and forced to fork over the twenty. He then drives directly to campus, splashes cold water on his 5 a.m. shadow, and proceeds to competently hold forth on Dostoevsky in front of a throng of collegiate pupils.
A man in ruins. A man in full. Sometimes that man’s the same guy.