(director: Robert Altman; screenwriter: Joseph Walsh; cinematographer: Paul Lohmann; editor: Lou Lombardo; music: Phyllis Shotwell; 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), Jeff Goldblum (Lloyd Harris); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert Altman/Joseph Walsh; Columbia Pictures; 1974)

“Funny as hell.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An obscure rambling character study comedy that smartly gets into a gambler’s head and realistically catches the highs and lows of the bleak racetrack, casino and sporting worlds they frequent. It’s filmed with a series of vignettes and much amiable colorful banter, that’s brilliantly directed by Robert Altman (“Nashville”/”Popeye”/”MASH”) as a celebration of gambling that is believable because the gamblers are so expressively alive in their narrow world. The enjoyable slice of life Americana story just washes over you, if you allow it to, and is the kind of unique and aimless film a bottom-line Hollywood no longer green lights because it’s too edgy and too unpredictable at the box office.

It’s about two LA residing compulsive loser gamblers, separated upper-middle-class magazine writer Bill Denny (George Segal) and low-life gambling bum Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould), bonding after meeting at a public poker game in a sleazy casino after Charlie’s winning hand is challenged by an irate player, Lew (Edward Walsh), who falsely claimed a card dealt by Bill to Charlie hit the floor and is therefore out of play. After Lew is escorted out of the Vegas casino by security for attacking Charlie and the boys are mugged by the sore loser in the parking lot, they team up to go on a gambling spree that takes them around the LA area to Tijuana and to Reno. After making a big kill in the Reno climax, one gambler is puzzled that he’s still left with an empty feeling while the other remains stunted as a happy-go-lucky idiot going around aimlessly in circles.

It’s a quirky, plotless and realistic atmospheric film that’s as funny as hell and also quite perceptive about catching the gambler’s psyche, the low-level gambler’s raunchy lifestyle and the sleazy places they hang out. The script is by Joseph Walsh, who has a role as a patient bookie now putting the squeeze on Bill because he thinks he’s being made to look like a schmuck for not collecting sooner. Despite the script in place, it seems as if much of it is improvised by the marvelous stars.

The supporting cast is equally brilliant, with nice-girl hookers Barbara Miller (Ann Prentiss), Charlie’s unambitious live-in girlfriend, and the insecure younger hooker Susan Peters (Gwen Welles), with eyes for the confused Bill. The broads hang out with the boys and feel like queens in their fun and games, while still sort of keeping an eye out for their business interests–that includes a ridiculous date with a scaredy-cat cross-dresser (Bert Remsen).

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