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California Split

California Split(1974)


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It only took a scant 30 years after its theatrical debut, but California Split (1974), director Robert Altman's engagingly seamy character study of a pair of inveterate gamblers (Elliot Gould, George Segal) who live to feed their shared compulsion, has finally made its way to home video. This recent DVD release from Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment should delight the considerable cult that has built up around the film over the years, and will intrigue newcomers with its surprisingly edgy (for its time) approach to the material.

The project was obviously a personal one for co-producer Gould, whose own taste for action helped inspire the story; the script is the handiwork of co-producer, veteran character actor and Gould crony Joseph Walsh, who admittedly drew upon their own escapades in rendering his narrative. Bill Denny (Segal), one of the meandering tale's protagonists, puts in the occasional hour at his job as a L.A. magazine editor when he's not feeding his habit. His fate intertwines with that of Charlie Walters (Gould), who's got no apparent livelihood beyond his gaming, but seemingly does well enough to share a tacky rancher with a pair of amiable hookers (Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles). Their first encounter comes while sharing the table at a poker hall, where Charlie's success is sufficient to provoke one short-tempered player into slugging dealer Bill. In the wake of the melee that follows, they have a chance encounter at a local bar; this set-up allows for the film's signature moments, ad-libbed by the two leads, where they wager on Bill's ability to name all Seven Dwarves.

Charlie and Bill get to bond even further when they get mugged for their winnings and picked up on drunk and disorderly charges. As the friendship grows, Bill finds himself simultaneously discomfited and fascinated by Charlie's quirky existence, and gets himself all too easily coaxed out of the office when Charlie wants his presence at the track or at ringside. Bill's cravings, unfortunately, begin to run up against a seeming interminable losing streak, and he drives himself further and further into hock, incurring the wrath of his about-out-of-patience bookie (Walsh). With Charlie staking him, the pair head to Reno in order to buy into a huge-stakes game, with Bill's life riding on their success.

For that stretch between M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975), Altman was inarguably at the top of his game, enjoying his largest commercial successes and an unbroken string of critical acclaim. California Split is typical of his idiosyncratic approach, character-driven in the extreme and replete with the trademarked layers of dialogue and action that challenge the viewer's focus. (The film was the first to utilize eight-track recording, and Altman milks the effect for all it's worth.) Charlie's lifestyle is rendered with a singular earthiness; for the most part, the film's extras were recruited from the recovery house Synanon.

The movie benefits from the frequently improvised work of the two stars, each then at the height of his box-office appeal. Welles and Prentiss offered endearing characterizations, and enjoyable efforts abound throughout the cast, from Walsh's brother Edward as the boys' poker-hall nemesis to Altman regular Bert Remsen as a transvestite client of the girls. You can briefly catch Jeff Goldblum, in his movie debut, as Segal's boy boss.

The image transfer for the DVD leans toward the grainy, but for films of the era in general and Altman's efforts in particular, that's hardly surprising, and it therefore doesn't detract from the overall experience. The DVD's most noteworthy extra is the audio commentary, in which Altman, Gould, Segal and Walsh sit down to review their handiwork for the first time in an apparent while. It's nothing incredibly profound-- Altman, quizzed by one of the actors about a choice of camera set-up, declared that he didn't remember-- but the anecdotes are pleasant enough, and fans will have a good time.

For more information about California Split, visit Sony Pictures. To order California Split, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg