Robert Altman’s California Split must be the greatest film about gambling that I am aware of. It also happens to be a comedic character study heightened by the rich performances of Elliott Gould and George Segal as compulsive gamblers Charlie and Bill. The two thirtysomething men meet by chance in the film’s opening scene and later bond over getting beat up and robbed. They soon discover their shared passion for gambling, with Bill clearly excited by Charlie’s caution-to-the-wind approach to life and Charlie happy to have a buddy. The movie weaves between the two characters’ exploits as Bill first tries to keep up with Charlie before realizing that the two men may not be as alike as he had first thought.
Released in 1974, one year after Altman had teamed with Gould for The Long Goodbye, it fell in the middle of the director’s most prolific and fertile period. Altman’s films from the 1970s have only risen in stature as the years have passed and he has emerged as arguably the most important American director of that landmark decade for American film. The first time I saw California Split, on the Sony/Columbia DVD with roughly three minutes cut out due to music rights, I was a little underwhelmed. Charlie and Bill seemed like two immature men approaching middle age and undeterred by some of the seemingly inalienable truths of life (e.g., get and maintain employment, support a family, don’t run off to Mexico on a whim solely because of a dream you had). Yet, I was excited to see it again, this time in its full uncut form and in a cinema setting. I’ve now come to realize it’s place as a borderline masterpiece, possibly even as accomplished as any of the films Altman made in that fruitful ’70s era.
Much of the film’s success lies with the lead performances from Segal and, especially, Gould. The latter has the showier role and takes full advantage of his character’s idiosyncrasies. Charlie is incredibly charming and frequently hilarious, attributes of a great movie character, but not the type of person most sane people would actually want as a friend. It might just be pure coincidence, but Gould’s characterization reminded me of the Seinfeld character Kramer as played by Michael Richards. Given that character’s own problem with gambling (played for laughs on the television show), I would not be surprised if Richards was inspired by Gould’s performance in this film. Segal is quite effective as well, adding little touches here and there that make for a fully realized portrayal. He has the more difficult role, playing a character who evolves throughout the film, and Segal still manages to turn in a performance as good as anything he’s ever done.
After Charlie and Bill are first robbed and thrown in prison for being drunk and disorderly, Charlie’s semi-girlfriend Barbara (a name that Altman and screenwriter Joseph Walsh get a lot of mileage from here) and her roommate/co-worker Susan bail them out. We then see that Charlie also lives with these two women, who support themselves as occasional escorts. After returning to the house, Charlie instructs Bill to put warm shaving cream on his soon-to-be bruises and encourages him to eat breakfast. His choices are Lucky Charms, Froot Loops or the previous night’s half-eaten leftovers from the plates still on the table. Charlie then decides to have a beer with his cereal. The amazing part about this scene is that Charlie seems completely unflustered and prepared for this situation. The two men have gotten drunk, beaten up and arrested, yet Charlie acts like this is standard operating procedure. We can tell this is probably not the first time he has nursed his wounds with warm shaving cream, Lucky Charms, and a Budweiser.
California Split is, ultimately, about gambling as compulsion and addiction. Gould’s Charlie cannot pass up an opportunity to bet on most anything, even a brawl that breaks out in the audience of a boxing match on which he also has numerous bets. When the men are robbed for a second time, by a man with a gun pointed at him, part of Charlie’s rationale in offering the thief only half of the winnings seems to be a gamble on whether the man will actually take it or shoot him and grab it all. While the final segment in Reno provides Gould ample opportunity for comedy, the more telling result is that Charlie is at his most manic when Bill refuses to let him watch his high-stakes poker game or give him any money to gamble away. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Bill’s calmness in the same scenes provide the realization that he’s not like Charlie and he understands it’s not healthy for him to continue as his gambling buddy. Charlie’s inability to see the amount of their winnings as an opportunity for anything other than more gambling money is a testament to the sickness of addiction.
There are a few things in the film that stand out for me as being especially well done. At the beginning, we see Gould watching an instructional film in the casino and a voiceover explains not only the rules of poker, but also much of what the audience is seeing on the screen. This brilliant stroke is reminiscent of the final intercom narration at the end of Altman’s M*A*S*H. The two men’s continued insistence on turning everything into a wager is also a nice touch, most notably when Bill bets Charlie he cannot come up with the names of the Seven Dwarfs. The humor in Charlie’s struggle to name them is matched by the seriousness in which he approaches the task.
Unfortunately, the R1 DVD is not only edited by about three minutes (which Altman apparently did himself when faced with the choice of making the film available without part of the music or it not being released on DVD at all), but it’s also now out of print for reasons not readily apparent. As of now, it’s still fairly easy to obtain (cheaply) at various internet retailers and through third-party sellers. There’s always hope that the music rights might be reacquired by Sony (the DVD Beaver review has a detailed description of the edits), but it seems doubtful that they would go to those lengths at this point. That’s a shame though, since the film is such an essential work in the career of a great director who’s always avoided compromise whenever possible.