Monday, October 29, 2007

No. 13 - The Gambler

Karel Reisz's 1974 film is probably the most insightful portrait of compulsive gambling ever made. James Caan stars as Axel Freed, a schoolteacher in New York who quotes Dostoyevsky and racks up huge gambling debts. Whenever he manages to pay off his debts, either through family loans or a lucky bet, he puts his winnings on the line again.

What drives a man to live on the edge, to risk losing it all? Screenwriter James Toback creates a highly complex character with an unconscious desire to destroy himself. This becomes apparent at the end, after Axel talks one of his student's into shaving points in a basketball game. Fixing the game has erased Axel's biggest debt, and yet he does not feel relief or gratitude. He decides to walk through the streets of Harlem late at night, picks up a prostitute and then gets into a fight with a pimp. Axel exposes himself to the greatest risk of all, putting his life on the line.

Many viewers have expressed confusion over the final scene, because it has nothing to do with gambling. But it reveals what has been driving Axel all along -- a desire to destroy himself. It is the addict's unconscious desire to hit bottom. Axel comes from a wealthy background, and he has always been able to rely on his family to get him out of trouble. But Axel wants to test himself, to see if he can survive on his own. He does, but the price is steep.

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