California Split (Robert Altman / U.S., 1974):

Bob (Altman) le Flambeur. The contrast is between the "daylight gambler and the player at night" (Balzac), the numb drifting of George Segal versus the nonstop vaudevillianisms that Elliott Gould breezes through to cloud his desperation. The two meet among the rummies, bond over bar counter improv: "Twenty bucks says you canít name the seven dwarfs." "Dumbo... Dumbo flew." In their shadow world, everything is makeshift: Shaving cream is applied to welts, cereal and beer constitute a meal in a strangerís home. Everything is performance: Segal and Gould pretend to be cops to scare off a jumpy john in matronly drag (Bert Remsen), Gould seduces Segal back into the game with his "one-armed piccolo player" bit. And everything is a bet, from playing basketball with a bunch of teens to slapping half of a nightís winnings on the hood of a car in an attempt to get a muggerís gun away from your face. Play or get killed, play and get killed. "Donít think about it, take the money and go!" Nothing enhances Altmanís visual-aural density like the bustle of poker circles, race tracks, boxing rings. The hooker-roommates (Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles) consoling each other in bed, the barfly yammering about her pooch, the casino janitor surreptitiously slipping a coin into a slot machine -- every character seems to carry an entire comedy of desolation inside. Gambling and risk here are not metaphors for living (thatís Quintet) but for filmmaking, sublimely realized as a ninny alters the narrative by betting a single buck on a number and smashing the protagonistsí lucky streak in Reno (thereís no such thing as a bit player in Altmanís democracy). The bucket of cold water hits as Segal unloads the victorious chips and feels "suddenly very tired." He sets out to return to a "home" thatís long dissolved, Gould stays trapped in the Chuck-a-Luck roulette (or is it a mandala spiral?). Cinematography by Paul Lohmann. With Edward Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Barbara Ruick, Barbara London, Jeff Goldblum, John Considine, and Phyllis Shotwell.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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