Poker, hookers, and Elliott Gould with a nose bandage

Poker, hookers, and Elliott Gould with a nose bandage

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Just in time for Runner Runner, we deal five movies about gamblers.

California Split (1974)

Robert Altman’s most overlooked gem, California Split charts the friendship of two inveterate gamblers, Elliott Gould’s devil-may-care rabble-rouser and George Segal’s writer, as they wend their way through a series of casino misadventures. Theirs is a bond first forged over a game of poker in which Segal covers for Gould’s con and—after they properly meet-cute at a bar, drunkenly failing to name all seven of Snow White’s dwarfs—suffer a parking lot beat down for their earlier swindle. It’s a bromance predicated on a shared addiction to the thrill of the high-stakes win, and Altman dramatizes their union with his usual overlapping-dialogue acuteness. Conversations flow so naturally and messily that the film exudes a ragamuffin charm, bolstered by the director’s canny use of quick cutaways and evocative framing.

California Split’s loose, freewheeling spirit doesn’t prevent the comedy from occasionally going a bit too broad, as in a prolonged bit that finds the duo posing as vice cops in order to save their hooker girlfriends from a night with a cross-dressing customer. Nonetheless, even that scene underlines Altman’s consistent desire to define Segal and Gould—the latter eventually sporting 1974’s second most iconic nose bandage, after Jack Nicholson’s in Chinatown—in sexual terms. That tack is most clear once Gould randomly disappears to Tijuana and, left alone without his kindred spirit, Segal goes flaccid both at the gambling tables (wracking up huge debts) and in bed with Gwen Welles’ working girl. (Segal immediately re-acquires his mojo after Gould returns, and promptly makes a phallic-piccolo joke to honor the occasion). One long bout of male-camaraderie jerking around, California Split builds to a climax of temporary excitement—a fleeting rush before the inevitable return to mundane daily life.

Availability: California Split is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and for rental or purchase from the major digital services.

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