May 21, 2022 – Decades ago, when visiting my late cousin Fred, my attention was divided between him and a movie he had playing on his TV, “California Split.” When he died recently, my thoughts about him wandered back to that visit and that movie, among other things. I finally got around to watching the movie.
“California Split” is a 1974 Robert Altman film starring the very likable Elliot Gould as small time gambler Charlie Waters and his casual gambling friend, Bill Denny (George Seagal of “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). About the only other actor in the movie I recognized was Jeff Goldblum (“Jurassic Park”) in one of his very first films in a small role as Bill, Denny's largely ignored boss.
Following this film, both Seagal and Gould would continue on with long, successful careers as movie actors. Gould was a regular in Altman films, appearing as Trapper John McIntyre in “MASH” and as legendary detective Philip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye,” as well as appearing in “The Player” and “Nashville.” He starred in one of my favorite conspiracy movies, “Capricorn One” (1977).
Charlie and Bill meet while playing poker at the same table. They are winning, while everyone else is losing. They are accused of cheating. A fight ensues. The two are later attacked outside in the casino parking lot by a player who thinks he was cheated by them. They are beaten and their winnings are stolen.
The two men become friends and hang out at Charlie's place, where he lives with a couple of low-rent prostitutes, Barbara Miller (played by Ann Prentiss) and Susan Peters (Gwen Welles). Charlie is a superstitious, full-time gambler who will gamble on anything, while Bill has a real job, but his real passion is gambling. He is attracted to Charlie's carefree gamble-all-the-time lifestyle. Both of them are addicted to gambling.
While Charlie floats along free and easy, Bill is more buttoned down. Bill has racked up serious gambling debts. He is getting very anxious because of constant pressure from people he owes money to. He decides to bet everything he has on one big score, a high-stakes poker game in Reno, Nevada. He sells his car, pawns everything else of value and heads to Reno with Charlie, who scrapes enough money together to help stake Bill to the big poker game. A seat at the poker table requires a $2,000 buy-in.
While getting the money, Charlie spots the very man who earlier beat him up and robbed him. Confronting the man in a restroom, the man breaks Charlie's nose. Charlie jokes about it, but his easygoing charm belies the fact that he is also a lot tougher than he looks. In another scene, he wins more money for the Reno trip from some kids in a game of one-on-one basketball. Like the man who earlier beat up Charlie when he was down, the kids also underestimate Charlie, and pay the price for their mistake.
At the big Reno poker game, Bill insists that Charlie stay away from him during the game so that he can concentrate. This drives Charlie crazy. One of the players at the table is famed player and actor “Amarillo Slim” Preston, who, in one scene, casually pulls a roll of bills out of his pocket big enough to choke a horse. Two years earlier, in 1972, Amarillo Slim won the World Series of poker.
Charlie, banned from the room where the poker game is being played, frantically tries to gamble at the gaming tables, but only has enough money for slot machines. Every once in a while, Bill emerges from the room to report on his progress while taking a break from the game. The movie does not show the game at all, just Charlie's reactions to Bill's winnings.
Charlie is far more excited on this gambling trip than Bill is. Bill looks like he is losing, even when he is winning. The movie ends up being more about the psychology of gambling, rather than gambling itself. It features Altman's trademark free-flowing, overlapping dialogue, liberal use of tracking shots and a sympathetic eye for those trapped in this seedy, dangerous side of life. These characters can see the good life, but are cursed by the knowledge that for them, the road to the good life is a dead end.
The absurdities of a gambler's life prove to be fertile ground for a filmmaker as gifted as Robert Altman. If he was still alive today, he would be able to tap a vast wealth of absurdities for his movies. This is a tragedy, in many ways. This film rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.