George Segal is Bill, an anal retentive, overly cautious magazine writer who has recently separated from his wife due to a gambling addiction. Elliott Gould is Charlie, a happy-go-lucky cardsharp who lives with two call girls. Bill and Charlie happen to occupy the same table at a Los Angeles poker club, and a brief but intense friendship begins. They win big at the track, blow it all at the poker tables, then split for Reno, where they pool their respective savings for a climactic high-stakes poker game. In the end, winning big turns out to be an empty experience.
Robert Altman's California Split expertly captures both the euphoria and the seediness of the professional gambler's lifestyle. Altman was known to gamble in his free time, and he understands the rush of taking crazy risks.
Altman refuses to ratchet up the tension in a conventional way. He simply kicks back and observes with an air of detachment and an eye for atmosphere and characterization. He is the master of the telling detail that is plucked out of a densely layered mise en scene. He also lets Segal and Gould fully explore their respective characters. Altman has always favored the details of characterization over the demands of dramaturgy. Even so, by the time the final poker match rolls around, we are drawn into the story and we feel the tension, the elation and the let-down of risking it all, playing and winning.
Fun fact: Steven Spielberg was attached to this film, before Altman came on board. Also, Jeff Goldblum made his film debut here (Goldblum is one of many noteworthy actors who were discovered by Altman).
The final poker match was filmed at the Mapes Hotel in my home town of Reno. The Mapes was imploded in 2000, so it's nice to see it captured on film.