No matter how much of a sure thing it might appear to be, every creative endeavor is a gamble. It can involve the greatest artistic minds in its medium, it can be released at a moment that seems to reflect the zeitgeist, it can have all the right stuff…and still land with a quiet thud. That isn’t exactly what happened with 1974’s California Split — it made a few million at the box office, back when making a few million still seemed like kind of a big deal — but considering all the talent involved, you’d think it would have been the type of major hit that’s still widely remembered today rather than a cult favorite footnote in its principals’ careers.
The film got its start with screenwriter and veteran actor Joseph Walsh, who channeled his own gambling addiction into the story of Bill Denny, a writer who picks up the bug after meeting Charlie Waters, a professional hustler who always has one eye on the next score. Walsh developed the picture with his friend Steven Spielberg, and the duo actually sold it to MGM at one point before the deal fell apart due to studio shenanigans; they then took it to Universal, where Spielberg ended up being hired to direct The Sugarland Express, dropping California Split into limbo.
Enter Robert Altman, who was riding an early ’70s hot streak that included M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. With George Segal on board to play Bill opposite Elliott Gould — who’d already worked with Altman on M*A*S*H and the Some Guy Cinema favorite The Long Goodbye — as Charlie, all the pieces were in place for a smash hit. It didn’t really turn out that way — chances are you’ve never seen California Split, and maybe you’ve never even heard of it — but like I said before, every creative endeavor is a gamble.
The picture’s ungainly stint at the box office certainly wasn’t due to issues of quality. According to Walsh, the studio ended up pulling it from theaters as part of a tax shelter deal in order to drum up funding for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (there’s Spielberg again!), but whether or not that’s actually true, California Split was warmly received by critics and did decent numbers when people were able to purchase tickets to see it. And aside from a handful of issues not uncommon to films of the era, chiefly a rather childlike view of women, it’s aged really well — Walsh did a fine job of distilling gambling’s queasy appeal by forking off the highs and lows between a guy who’s experiencing the rush for the first time and one who simply isn’t interested in living any other way.
Altman, meanwhile, ended up being a terrific pick as director. He gives California Split an appropriately ratty, lived-in feel, right from the opening moments when Charlie strolls into a card room and uses an unwitting Bill — who he’s never met before — to help him goad another player at the poker table into losing his shit. This sequence, and a subsequent one in which Bill and Charlie have their first conversation at a nearby bar, are classic Altman, with the nominal focus of the scene used as a hub for a patiently roving eye that drifts from side character to side character and conversation to conversation without ever straying too far from the people driving the story. He’s more disciplined throughout the rest of the film, but it still has that unique Altman feel, which basically means it feels like you’re watching someone’s life happen one scene at a time.
All that being said, the heart of this movie lies in the easy chemistry between Gould and Segal. On its face, this is the story of a high-strung character (Segal) and a more laid back one (Gould), a dynamic that’s been used as fuel for countless stories across various mediums. But neither of these guys are content to play those archetypes truly straight; there’s a little of Charlie’s fondness for the knife’s edge in Bill, and Charlie is more compassionate than he might initially appear. Its moral might be focused on gambling’s ultimately hollow thrill, but this is really a story of friendship.
As previously mentioned, California Split‘s story picks up after a chance meeting between Charlie and Bill at a card room poker table where Charlie enrages a fellow player by winning a hand through allegedly dubious means (and insulting him besides). They end up at the same bar later and strike up a friendship that’s quickly cemented when the two of them get rolled in the parking lot by the guy who lost the hand, which leads Charlie to invite Bill over to his place for a little R&R.
Bill, a magazine writer, can’t help being fascinated by Charlie. He doesn’t see him as a story — not officially, anyway — but Segal lets you see how the pieces of Charlie’s life would click for Bill on a human interest level. He’s carefree, he has an unorthodox living arrangement with a pair of women (played by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles), and he seems to have a real knack for knowing when a bet’s about to pay off, as well as a way of shrugging it off when those hunches don’t deliver. It doesn’t take long for Bill to start shirking his responsibilities in order to hang out and gamble with Charlie, and for a while, it’s nothing but fun — much to the annoyance of Bill’s young editor (Jeff Goldblum), who he sarcastically refers to as “the dauphin.”
Of course, this being a gambling movie, you know those good times aren’t meant to last. There’s bound to be a sting in the tail eventually, and it comes for Bill as he falls deep into debt with a patient yet increasingly aggravated bookie (played by Walsh). He’s forced to depend on more and more unlikely bets paying off in order to stay current — a desperation that’s reflected in a quietly harrowing visit to an all-night backroom card game that leaves him deeper in the hole than ever and running out of time.
When Bill’s at his lowest, naturally, Charlie isn’t around — as it later turns out, he’s fucked off to Mexico in pursuit of another score without giving anyone so much as a heads up. It’s reflective of the way even your closest friends can really end up not being beholden to you at all in that lifestyle, and it’s written exactly the way it needed to be — but again, Gould and Segal bring it brilliantly to life. There isn’t a buddy picture that’s ever been made without the bond between the main characters being sorely tested somehow, and you can feel this moment coming as soon as Bill and Charlie throw in together. But in the hands of two actors as soulful as these, it’s more than just a tired plot point.
Gould and Segal are both quintessential Some Guy Cinema actors, in other words, and California Split offers a comfortably roomy platform for their talents. Gould’s role is the showier of the two by far, and he was already being sort of pigeonholed at this point as a guy you’d call when you wanted someone to play a casually anarchic character. Still, I’d argue that his portrayal of Charlie is a lot more than just a M*A*S*H retread, and that has a lot to do with the way he plays foil to Segal. Bill’s basically the straight man in this story, but he covers a lot of ground — not least in the film’s closing moments, when Segal needs to convey a tricky blend of emotions in order to deliver an ending that initially feels abrupt and a little unsatisfying, but was probably the best (and maybe the only) way for these characters to go out.
This whole series of posts started as a lament that they don’t make leading men like they used to, and a tribute to a window of time when runty, older, and/or vaguely schlubby guys carried major motion pictures on a more regular basis. California Split fills that brief nicely, but it’s also an example of another type of movie that isn’t really made anymore — the type that feels like it takes place in a world regular people would have no trouble recognizing. The homes and businesses feel shabby in a way that makes them more real. Nothing is “Hollywood clean.” The whole thing reeks of sweat and stale air. It’s a feeling that’s aimed for but mostly missed by Mississippi Grind, the 2015 Ben Mendelsohn/Ryan Reynolds movie that tells a very similar story.
And yeah, okay, it’s nice to get some sparkle and glitz and glamor sometimes, but it’s nice when the movies can give us another perspective on real life too. California Split locks into that rhythm immediately and never falls out of step. It isn’t the best thing Altman, Gould, or Segal ever did, but it’s well worth watching the next time you want to spend a couple of hours with some deeply flawed yet wholly identifiable characters. I give it four out of five Scheiders.