“I’ve had a couple of good wins, but they don’t compare to the losses. People only remember the wins.” – Robert Altman
In the 1970s, Elliott Gould and Robert Altman were an unbeatable team. They first worked together on M*A*S*H (1970), a savage satire of the military, then again on a radical, contemporary reworking of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye (1973), and finally completed the hat trick with California Split (1974), an ode to obsessive gamblers. For years, this film has been relegated to obscurity, showing up occasionally on television and tied up in legal issues over the music, which delayed its release on DVD.
A nice, self-reflexive moment kicks things off: gambler and card shark, Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) is killing time before a poker match by watching an instructional video on the game. The voiceover narration intones, “It has been said that everyone in America understands poker or wants to. It is one of America’s most popular games and since you’ve shown an obvious interest in coming here we have prepared a short film to teach you the fundamentals.” This voiceover could easily be talking to the audience watching this film as Altman introduces us to this world and the characters that inhabit it.
While this video is playing, Altman’s camera sweeps across the game room, setting the scene and introducing the film’s other main character, Bill Denny (George Segal). The video is also functional, providing a crash course on a couple of actual poker hands and the house rules. The opening poker game does a good job of showing the dynamics of professional poker playing and is also very funny as Charlie fleeces an irate player who then punches Bill, thinking that they are in league with each other. In a nice bit of business, a dazed Bill has enough sense to pick up his poker chips while all hell is breaking loose. For this scene, the poker club was built in a dance hall. Altman set up a few gambling situations and filmed them happening. None of the actual poker players’ dialogue was scripted.
Fed up with the unrealistic dialogue he and other actors were forced to say on a regular basis, struggling actor Joseph Walsh wrote a screenplay about his own gambling addiction in 1971. Steven Spielberg, fresh from directing the made-for-T.V. film Duel (1971), was originally supposed to direct. He and Walsh worked on the script every day for nine months. The director was fascinated by the characters and would react to Walsh’s script, offering suggestions. At the time, the screenplay was called Slide and the two men had a deal to make it at MGM with Walsh as producer and Steve McQueen in the starring role. The whole story was going to be set at Circus Circus in Las Vegas because the studio owned the casino.
A month before filming started, the studio experienced a shake-up at the executive level and with it came a new set of changes. MGM wanted the story to be a Mafia-related “sting” concept with Dean Martin as one of the two main characters. Walsh would no longer be the producer. He and Spielberg left MGM because he realized that they did not understand the point of the film: “I wanted the picture to be almost a celebration of the gambling, the joy of it, going along with it, and then, at the end, you could see where the trap comes in.” Spielberg and Walsh took the script to Universal Pictures where they had an agreement with executives Richard Zanuck and David Brown. However, Spielberg decided to work on another project called Lucky Lady (1975) leaving Walsh and his film stranded.
The writer’s agent, Guy McElwaine, contacted Altman’s agent, George Lito, and the director was given the script, read it and loved it. For years, he had wanted to do a gambling film with “the ambience of gambling, and then point out it had nothing to do with money.” He was drawn to Walsh’s script because he liked to gamble himself, his father was a gambler, and the director knew a lot of gamblers. David Begelman, the new studio chief of Columbia Pictures, was a former agent who knew Altman’s agent and greenlighted the screenplay to be made into a film. Walsh was a novice and unaware of Altman’s reputation for taking liberties with the scripts of for his films. However, Walsh was very protective of his script and argued with Altman numerous times over certain details. The only serious revisions to the script that the director made before filming were to background scenes. The writer had seen other Altman films and wasn’t always satisfied with how these scenes played out. He told the director that they could be changed but that he would rewrite them. Walsh wrote a full script for the background scenes, three to four page scenes for good actors to play.
George Segal was cast early on and Altman mentioned Gould but Walsh, even though he was childhood friends with the actor, held back. Altman and Walsh saw other actors, like Peter Falk and Robert De Niro, but kept coming back to Gould. Finally, the actor called Walsh and convinced him that he was right for the role. According to Walsh, on the set, Gould was full of confidence while Segal was insecure. The writer remembers that on the first day of shooting Gould “was there as that character…After seven days, George Segal came to me and said, ‘This guy’s [Gould] unbelievable. He’s an octopus. He is absolutely strangling me to death. I don’t even know what to do.’” Walsh told Segal that Gould had lived the life of his character and said, “Don’t try to act with him, don’t try to outdeal him…be off-base – just what you’re feeling – and it’s all working.”
Altman employed members of Synanon, the rehab organization of former convicts and addicts, as extras. The organization received a flat sum and delivered as many as needed each day. California Split marked the first time Altman experimented with the use of the eight-track sound system that allowed eight separate audio channels to be recorded and helped develop Altman’s trademark of overlapping dialogue. To this end, he gave the supporting actors and extras significant emphasis on the soundtrack. On the first day of shooting, the effort to keep eight separate channels clean and distinct made everyone very anxious. Haskell Wexler had originally been approached to shoot the film but Altman opted to go with relative newcomer Paul Lohmann who would go on to shoot Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).
California Split is one of Altman’s trademark character-driven films. It is less concerned with plot than behavior as we watch the friendship between Bill and Charlie develop over a mutual love of gambling. Charlie is a wisecracking joker and experienced gambler constantly looking for the next score. Initially, Bill isn’t as committed a gambler (he works at a magazine during the day) but he’s well on his way and hanging out with Charlie doesn’t help. As the film progresses and the two men hang out more, Bill starts to become more addicted to the gambling lifestyle. He blows off work early to meet Charlie at the track and sells his possessions for money. Bill and Charlie are gambling addicts who ride the high arcs and the low valleys, never passing up a bet. At a boxing match they put money on the outcome of the fight with a fellow spectator.
Those who know Elliott Gould and George Segal only from their contemporary sitcom appearances (Friends and Just Shoot Me, respectively), should see California Split if only to see these guys in their prime and working with a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Gould and Segal have never been better and play well of each other. There is good chemistry between them as Gould plays the more experienced gambler in contrast to Segal’s more naïve one.
California Split is not afraid to show the ugly side of gambling. Bill sells his car and his possessions for a big poker game in Reno. Charlie exacts a rough, bloody revenge on the guy who mugged him at the beginning of the film. These are not always likeable guys and to Altman’s credit he doesn’t try to romanticize or judge them, leaving that up to the audience. Altman wanted to convey the empty feeling that winning from gambling gives these guys as he told Film Heritage magazine, “The mistaken feeling that winning…you can’t spend that money; you don’t go out and pay the milk bill with it unless you’re about to go to jail. It just means that you can play that much longer…In other words, it’s passes. It’s more tickets to the amusement park – that’s all it is.” California Split is arguably Altman’s loosest film in terms of plot and one of the richest in terms of character and observing their behavior.