I'm surprised that this isn't a more talked-about picture. While nothing groundbreaking or powerful, "The Gambler" opens with a tense situation for the lead character and holds it over his head for the remainder of the picture. There aren't any action scenes or quick cuts - this is a quiet 70's drama that takes place on the streets, where the people who are seeking out the film's antihero could be around any corner.
James Caan stars as Alex Freed, a professor who also has a considerable gambling addiction. Although it seems as if Alex has a terrific losing streak going in the film, we get the sense that, at one point, he was coasting on the consistent high of winning. He is obviously not an unintelligent character, but the self-destructive side of himself wins every arguement - there's always going to be another good hand of cards, but they might not be turned over until tomorrow, next week, a month or maybe never.
As the film opens, Alex is sitting at a mob-run casino where he is definitely not ahead. Before he knows it, Alex is down $44,000 and, while it seems as if he's okay for the moment, he knows that things are going to tighten very quickly, very soon. While Alex eventually closes in on what he needs, it's not long before he's sunk himself even further.
Without the intense, sympathetic performance from Caan, the film wouldn't function nearly as well as it does. There's also terrific supporting performances from Lauren Hutton and Paul Sorvino. Well-written by director James Toback, beautifully filmed by Victor Kemper, well-edited by future director Roger Spottiswoode ("Tomorrow Never Dies") and strongly directed by Karel Reisz, "The Gambler" is an underrated gem. It's a really involving and often tragic portrayal of addiction.
VIDEO: I've really never been displeased by one of Paramount's catalog titles. While these films often show an acceptable amount of wear, it seems apparent that the studio is taking good care of their older titles. "The Gambler", for a 28-year-old picture, looks great. The picture reaches that nice line between looking soft and looking sharp: a crisp, "film-like" appearance that's pleasing.
As for problems, there's really not that much to discuss. The print is in awfully good condition for a 1974 picture, with a tiny speck or two and some quick instances of visible grain, but little else. No pixelation is scene, nor is any edge enhancement.
Colors are nicely presented, as the film's natural color palette is crisply offered, with no smearing. Quite good work from Paramount.
SOUND: Unlike most of Paramount's catalog titles, "The Gambler" has not been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1. Instead, the original mono soundtrack is the only audio option included. Probably, the studio simply realized that this was a perfectly fine presentation and that a remix wouldn't offer much difference. Audio quality is better-than-expected for a mono soundtrack from this era: dialogue is crisp and clear, while music and the few sound effects also sound clean.
MENUS: Very basic, non-animated main and sub-menus.
EXTRAS: Nothing. In this case, that's too bad, as I'd have liked to have heard some comments from either Caan or writer Toback (who has recorded a commentary or two in the past).
Final Thoughts: "The Gambler" is a powerful and well-acted drama that's lead by a superb performance from Caan. Paramount's DVD offers fine audio/video, but nothing in the way of supplements. Worth renting for those who haven't seen it. Fans might want to seek out a purchase.