The Gambler
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The Gambler is a 1974 American crime drama film written by James Toback and directed by Karel Reisz. It stars James Caan, Paul Sorvino and Lauren Hutton. Caan s performance was widely lauded and was nominated for a Golden Globe.


Axel Freed is an English professor in New York City with a gambling addiction that begins to spiral out of control. In the classroom, Freed inspires his college students with his interpretations of Fyodor Dostoevsky s work. In his personal life, Axel has the affection of the beautiful Billie and the admiration of his family, including his mother, Naomi, who is a doctor, and his grandfather, a wealthy businessman.

Axel s gambling has left him with a huge debt. His bookie, a mafioso known as Hips, likes the professor personally but threatens grave consequences if he does not pay it soon. When Billie, having been informed by Axel that he owes $44,000, questions the wisdom of her associating with him, Axel confidently tells her she loves his life s dangers, including the possibility of blood .

After obtaining the $44,000 from his disapproving mother, Axel goes with Billie to Las Vegas and gambles it into a small fortune, only to lose back his last $50,000 on a last second incredibly lucky shot in a Laker game.

After winning 12K on a fixed Laker game gift from another gambler and paying it to the bookmaker, associates of that bookmaker abduct Axel. The boss asks Axel if he has family who might help him pay. Axel mentions his grandfather and mother. The boss says he’d asked the grandfather who said no.

Axel decides to lure one of his students, a star on the college basketball team, to shave points in his next game so the mob can bet big on the game to cover his debt. He does so by offering the student $5,000 which his student accepts. After setting up that deal, Axel visits his grandfather. Near the end of their conversation, his grandfather asks if he needs his help. Axel says he’s taken care of it and leaves. Axel watches the game with three mob bookmakers and gets incredibly lucky when his team gives up 10 points in the last 1 minute 28 seconds to win by only 6 not covering the 7 point spread. Axel nixes a night of celebration with Hipps and this time gambles with his life. He wanders off after the game into a black ghetto pub down the street.

Axel meets a prostitute at the bar and they walk upstairs where Axel is threatened by her pimp after refusing to pay the prostitute when she refuses to take all her clothes off. Axel gambles his life egging the pimp to cut him with his switch blade and, when the pimp backs off thinking Axel is crazy, repeatedly punches the pimp knocking him to the floor. The prostitute then picks up the fallen switch blade and slashes Axel across the face. Axel staggers down the stairs bleeding from his facial wound, looks at himself in a mirror, and smiles enigmatically at his slashed cheek.


  • James Caan as Axel Freed
  • Paul Sorvino as Hips
  • Lauren Hutton as Billie
  • Morris Carnovsky as A.R. Lowenthal
  • Jacqueline Brookes as Naomi Freed
  • Burt Young as Carmine
  • Carmine Caridi as Jimmy
  • Vic Tayback as One
  • Steven Keats as Howie
  • London Lee as Monkey
  • M. Emmet Walsh as Las Vegas Gambler
  • James Woods as Bank Officer
  • Carl W. Crudup as Spencer
  • Allan Rich as Bernie
  • Stuart Margolin as Cowboy
  • Ric Mancini as Sal
  • Beatrice Winde as Hospital Receptionist
  • Antonio Fargas as Pimp
  • Richard Foronjy as Donny
  • Frank Sivero as Donny s Driver
  • Frank Adonis as Man in Park with Donny
  • Philip Sterling as Sidney
  • Patricia Fay as Bank Teller


The film was the first produced screenplay by James Toback. Toback had worked as an English lecturer at the City College of New York and had a gambling problem. He originally wrote The Gambler as a semi-autobiographical novel but halfway through started envisioning it as a film and turned it into a screenplay.

Toback completed it in 1972 and showed it to his friend Lucy Saroyan, who introduced Toback to Robert De Niro. Toback became enthused about the possibility of De Niro playing the lead. He showed the script to his literary agent who gave it to Mike Medavoy who attached director Karel Reisz. Reisz did not want to use De Niro and cast James Caan instead.

Caan became a great Axel Freed, although obviously different from the character De Niro would have created , wrote Toback later. It was filmed at a time when leading actor James Caan was battling his own addiction to cocaine. Caan says the film is one of his favorites. It s not easy to make people care about a guy who steals from his mother to pay gambling debts.

Some see the film as a loose adaptation of the short 1866 novel The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.


Roger Ebert awarded his top grade of four stars and wrote that the film begins as a portrait of Axel Freed s personality, develops into the story of his world, and then pays off as a thriller. We become so absolutely contained by Axel s problems and dangers that they seem like our own. Vincent Canby of The New York Times was less impressed, writing, The movie follows Axel s downward path with such care that you keep thinking there must be some illuminating purpose, but there isn t … Mr. Reisz and Mr. Toback reportedly worked a couple of years putting the screenplay into this shape, which is lifeless. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and said that director Karel Reisz is most successful in presenting Axel as a true sickie and his adversaries as genuinely ruthless. The latter is no mean feat, inasmuch as ruthless movie mobsters are a dime-a-dozen in these post- Godfather days … We know that the film is a success, because it doesn t really matter whether Axel is a winner or a loser as the film ends. The Gambler is a personality study, and like California Split, its story does not hang on its ending. Arthur D. Murphy of Variety called The Gambler way ahead as the better of two current films about the gambling compulsion. Director Karel Reisz has one of his most compelling and effective films. Title star James Caan is excellent and the featured players are superb. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times declared it a cool, hard, perfectly cut gem of a movie, as brilliant and mysteriously deep as a fine diamond. At its center is an hypnotically absorbing performance, at once charming and dismaying, by James Caan, who must certainly have an Academy Award nomination for it. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker stated, At The Gambler, we re trapped at a maniacal lecture on gambling as existential expression. And, as almost always happens when a movie is predictable and everything is analyzed and labelled, the actions and the explanations aren t convincing. Gambling is too easy a metaphor for life; as metaphor, it belongs to the world of hardboiled fiction. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post agreed, calling it a well-made movie invalidated at every turn by a script with big, literary pretensions but little if any dramatic credibility. Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that his problem with the film is not so much a surfeit of psychological analysis—the script offers hints, not explicit causes explaining Axel s condition—as too little to account for his behaviour naturalistically, and too much to permit any sustained acceptance of the character on an allegorical or mythical level … there is nothing in Axel that suggests hidden depths; indeed, despite Caan s consistent professionalism, the actor seems to be as disinterested in his character as Axel seems to be in himself.

The film holds a score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 10 reviews.


In August 2011, Paramount Pictures announced a remake of the 1974 film The Gambler with the original producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Intended as a new directorial project for Martin Scorsese, it was reported that Leonardo DiCaprio was attached as the star and William Monahan would write the screenplay.

In a 2011 interview, screenwriter James Toback gave the story of the original film s autobiographical background and development, and criticized the announcement of the remake.

Scorsese left the project and filmmaker Todd Phillips was in talks to take over as of August 2012.

In September 2013, Mark Wahlberg and director Rupert Wyatt expressed interest in remaking the film. The film was released on December 25, 2014.

Year 1974
ReleaseDate 1975-02-17
RuntimeMins 111
RuntimeStr 1h 51min
Plot Axel Freed is a literature professor. He has the gambling vice. When he has lost all of his money, he borrows from his girlfriend, then his mother, and finally some bad guys that chase him. Despite all of this, he cannot stop gamb…
Awards Awards, 1 nomination
Directors Karel Reisz
Writers James Toback
Stars James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton
Produced by Robert Chartoff,Irwin Winkler
Music by Jerry Fielding
Cinematography by Victor J. Kemper
Film Editing by Roger Spottiswoode
Casting By Cis Corman
Production Design by Philip Rosenberg
Set Decoration by Edward Stewart
Costume Design by Albert Wolsky
Makeup Department William A. Farley,Robert Laden
Production Management Hal W. Polaire
Second Unit Director or Assistant Director Thomas Lofaro,Bruce S. Pustin,Ted Zachary
Art Department Connie Brink,George Maxfield,Eugene Powell,Jules Wollock
Sound Department Derek Holding,Dennis Maitland,Terry Rawlings,Doug E. Turner
Stunts Gene LeBell,Jimmy Nickerson
Camera and Electrical Department Jack Brown,James Finnerty,Leo Lebowitz,Richard Quinlan,Algernon Ramirez,Jack Stager,Brian Hamill
Casting Department Sylvia Fay
Costume and Wardrobe Department George Newman,Marilyn Putnam
Editorial Department Sue Kingsley,Jim Rivera
Location Management Ellie Linas
Music Department Jerry Fielding,Dick Lewzey,Greig McRitchie,Lennie Niehaus,Tommy Tedesco
Additional Crew Ronnie Caan,Barbara De Fina,John Martin,Howard Newman,Tom O’Brien,Julia Tucker,Ralph M. Leo
Thanks A.R. MacAndrew
Genres Crime, Drama
Companies Paramount Pictures
Countries USA
Languages English
ContentRating R
ImDbRating 7.1
ImDbRatingVotes 5553
MetacriticRating 65
Keywords two word title,basketball player,basketball,african american,basketball game