His best films from this period - eight acidic masterpieces, from McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) to 3 Women (1977) - play still like Lasik cuts into American mythology. (I'm excluding the bizarrely overrated M*A*S*H, from 1970, an unfocused and infantile anti-war farce better remembered than freshly seen.) Arguably the least remembered from those years, California Split (1974) is American film's greatest, savviest, most convincing indictment of gambling culture, and because it's so incisive in its textures, it also treats gambling as a metaphor for all variety of American narcissism and folly. Altman makes it look so easy - just be real, he's saying, just watch these fools for who they really are. The fools in question are Elliott Gould and George Segal as, respectively, a committed no-holds-barred gambling junkie and an angsty journalist on the verge of vanishing like his friend into the grimy, smoky, high-strung universe of all-or-nothing betting. They meet (in an old-lady-packed poker den), they bond, they drink, they get mugged, they share flops and hookers, they come up with schemes, they abandon responsibility and bounce from Vegas to Tijuana to Reno - and all the while Altman doesn't recreate this all-American landscape accurately as much as visit the real deal with his camera, shooting conversations from across the room as if by accident, hunkering down with his protagonists in hotel bars and parking lots and listening to them spin their wheels, letting the spectacle of the self-destructing American Dream play itself out in our nation's least reputable corners. The '70s were a new era in American movies for a lot of reasons, but let us not overlook that it was the time in which movies discovered American subcultures, and placed them center stage.
For the first time, the real America of rodeo, auto-racing, beauty pageants, cockfighting, nomadism, football, door-to-door salesmen, dance marathons, skiing, prostitution, oil rig work, forgotten small towns, hillbillies, low-rent boxing, hobo-dom, ad infinitum, was what the nation's movie culture was interested in, as if Hollywood had suddenly discovered this fascinating and unknown country of obsessives and lost boys for the first time. The truth of what being American was like was suddenly a priority, and no one explored this idea as thoroughly and evocatively as Altman, who liberally sprinkles in real gamblers and bystanders, always uses authentic locations, and never forces drama or comedy when an organic implosion is always possible.
Of course, in the 'Nam-Nixon' era, the news wasn't optimistic. California Split dives into the maelstrom, and we smell trouble on these bad boys from the word go, even though Altman and screenwriter Joseph Walsh are wise and wicked enough to not give us quite the disastrous third act we might be expecting. In the meantime, the contrast between the two men is potent: Gould's loudmouth nut expects nothing (not even profit) and owes nothing, and so he is the classic up-tempo idiot, only interested in the juiced feeling of risking everything, while Segal's Everyman has a foot in both worlds, and is mired in gambling debt - he makes the mistake of letting the final Big Score, at a heavy-hand invitation-only poker game in Reno, matter to him. It's Segal's soul that's on the line here, sacrificed to the unstoppable whims of easy money and sky-high daydreams, which is why the intensely sneaky ending has the unforeseeable existential impact it does.
Certainly, it's a film, like all of Altman's best, that is contingent on performance, but a particular kind of performance - the '70s style of post-Brando, post-Cassavetes naturalism. Gould has never been as smooth and irritatingly believable as he is in California Split - it's just as difficult to remember today how natural it seemed in the '70s to have unglamorous, gnarly-looking people like Gould and Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman serve as bona-fide movie stars, as it is to recall Gould's nascent authenticity then in light of his stilted appearances during the last few decades, as in the Ocean's 11 series. But Altman's film really belongs to Segal. One of that decade's genuine miracles, Segal nailed down comic self-doubt and shame-poisoned intelligence like no one else, and watching him twist in the wind of this high-tension scenario is a dazzling spectacle.
California Split is by definition a comedy, and it is often brilliantly funny. But in its bones the movie actually scans more like American-century Dostoyevsky, with comp cocktails and cheap casino carpet. There's a dark river of loss and delusion running beneath the yocks and men-behaving-badly shenanigans, because that's what the era demanded: no bull. Win or lose, the film's heroes are lost in the funhouse.
Producers: Robert Altman, Joseph Walsh
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Joseph Walsh
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Art Direction: Leon Ericksen
Film Editing: O. Nicholas Brown, Lou Lombardo
Cast: George Segal (Bill Denny), Elliott Gould (Charlie Waters), Ann Prentiss (Barbara Miller), Gwen Welles (Susan Peters), Edward Walsh (Lew), Joseph Walsh (Sparkie), Bert Remsen (Helen Brown), Barbara London (Lady on the Bus), Barbara Ruick (Reno Barmaid), Jay Fletcher (Robber)
by Michael Atkinson