California Split (1974)

ROBERT ALTMAN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.  USA, 1974.  Columbia Pictures Corporation, Spelling Goldberg, Won World.  Screenplay by Joseph Walsh.  Cinematography by Paul Lohmann.  Produced by Robert Altman, Joseph Walsh.  Production Design by Leon Ericksen.  Costume Design by Hugh McFarland.  Film Editing by O. Nicholas Brown, Lou Lombardo

George Segal and Elliott Gould (centre) in California Split.

Compulsive gambler George Segal plays poker at a gaming venue where he meets motormouthed Elliott Gould.  The two of them do well at the same table and others suspect that they are cheating together, which then gets really bad when a sore loser follows them to the parking lot and beats them up for their winnings.  It inspires a friendship and they head back to the house that Elliott shares with two call girls (Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles) and Segal holes up with them for a while, enjoying some days at the horse races before Gould disappears for some time in Mexico, comes back and convinces Segal to join him in Reno for some high stakes games that will surely bring them a huge payload.  Robert Altman applies his casual, improvisational-feeling style to a film that moves smoothly without having a sharply defined plot, instead relying on the fiery chemistry between the two appealing stars whose camaraderie makes for great viewing.  Altman adds to the pleasure with the coaxing of two strange and wonderful performances from the women, while getting some marvelous footage of the gambling, most scenes involving real poker plays involved in real games.  This was the first time that Altman used an eight-channel sound design that allowed him to record everyone in a scene and choose whose conversations to highlight in the final edit, a technique that he would go on to master in his subsequent films.  This one is not up there with masterpieces like Nashville or Short Cuts, but it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable in his oeuvre, with a beautifully cynical ending that is wise and witty without being didactic or judgmental.

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