Breezy, funny, and feeling almost cinematically stoned, Robert Altman’s genial yet somehow distressing gambling comedy California Split is a film that has a deceptive undercurrent of sadness to match its potent study of male bonding while exploring the importance of true camaraderie. Centering on two life-long casino-junkies, one a bit more slightly involved than the other initially, the playful and observant narrative pivots on Charlie Waters (Elliot Gould in one of his loosest performances) and his buddy Bill Denny (George Segal, amazing as always), as we watch them search for the biggest jackpot of their lives in Reno. Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles were both extremely funny in supporting roles as Charlie’s prostitute roommates, and the film features an early screen appearance from Jeff Goldblum. I loved the naturalistic cinematography by Paul Lohmann, who had just previously shot the iconic Blaxploitation movie Coffy and would become a frequent Altman collaborator, while the editing kept a very quick pace without sacrificing any sense of heft or dramatic importance. The script was written by Joseph Walsh (who also appeared as Bill’s bookie, Sparkie), who reportedly worked on the script with Steven Spielberg for close to a year during the earliest stages of the script’s life.
Steve McQueen, Peter Falk, and Robert De Niro were all attached at various points during the film’s lengthy development process (it changed studios from MGM to Universal), and at one point while the film was at MGM, the studio wanted to position it as a Dean Martin-led project with a mafia flavor. Reviews were extremely positive and the film did solid box office despite not having a long theatrical life; various rights issues, mostly stemming from musical inclusions, have prevented Altman’s original cut to hit the physical media market. Former world champion poker player Amarillo Slim appeared as himself during the climactic match. The film is also famous for its pioneering sound techniques, as it’s the first movie ever to use the eight-track sound system, which allowed for eight separate audio channels to be recorded, which of course fed directly into Altman’s personal obsession with overlapping dialogue and ambient sounds. Last year’s fantastic and vastly underseen Mississippi Grind, with Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, was essentially a very smart updating of this timeless material. Available on DVD from Mill Creek, sans extras/special features, but showcased in 2.35:1 widescreen.