Wednesday, April 06, 2011

California Split and First Impressions

It's a sweet game. It is.“It’s a sweet game. It is.”

So says Charlie (Elliott Gould) to Bill (George Segal) as the pair wait for Bill to sit down in a 40-80 stud game in Reno in the 1974 film California Split.

Directed by Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player), Split is one of my favorites when it comes to poker and/or gambling films, although to be honest it took a few viewings for me to come around to that view.

California Split features what might seem at first glance to be an arbitrarily arranged series of set pieces. Like a lot of Altman's films, it has an episodic, wandering plot that mostly resists following the typical exposition-climax-resolution arc we often expect to see. The fact that Altman often allowed his actors freedom to improvise sometimes adds to the apparent chaos.

After a few viewings, though, I came to appreciate the way the plot is put together so as to highlight the way Bill changes as he becomes more and more immersed in Charlie's world of constant action. And the film really does have a climax of sorts, if not a clear resolution. (Here’s a full review, if you’re interested.)

There are many memorable scenes, some of which definitely grab you even on a first viewing. One is the tour de force-like opening sequence, lasting about 10 minutes, in which Charlie and Bill get seated at the same table at a lowball game being dealt at the California Club. Looks so authentic you’d swear it was filmed in an actual California card room, but in fact it’s all happening on a specially-constructed set with the seats mostly filled with extras from a nearby rehab clinic-slash-commune. (No shinola!)

There’s more poker here and there as the pair continue their Don-Quixote-and-Sancho-Panza-like quest from one gambling adventure to another, but it isn’t until the end that poker returns in a significant way when Bill decides to sit down in the Reno game.

Thus begins another of my favorite sequences in the film, one that in fact explores the whole idea of “first impressions.” This is the one in which Charlie offers to handicap each player at the table while Bill awaits a seat to open up. It takes Charlie less than two minutes to go around the table, his profiles delivered straightforwardly at first before ending with tongue firmly in cheek.

“Let's start with the bald guy,” Charlie begins. “A percentage player, doesn't take many chances, right? No flare. Guy, I say, is part of a two- or three-man combination. No sweat but if you find him after the fourth card you're not in the hand unless you got the nuts, right?”

Cowboy“Cowboy… I don't know. Lyndon Johnson is definitely his hero. I figure he owns a piece of the town haberdashery. It looks like he sells cowboy hats.” Bill notes that the game appears to be played according to Cowboy’s “rhythm.” “It’s his rhythm, absolutely right, but with your natural ability and your strength you don’t have to let him have much....” Bill likes the reassurance, and tells Charlie to keep talking.

The kid“The kid… seen The Cincinnati Kid too many times. He’s been trying to beat this game since before he was born, right?”

The doctor“He’s a doctor, right. The doctor. He's been here playing this game forever. He’s probably patient with the hands. Not much of a problem. You don’t want to get involved.”

Red coat“Red coat. Well, my call is small time… right? That’s your chair, right? One-time buy-in. He used to be a cha-cha dancer, I dunno. That guy’s gonna be falling out and that’s where you're going to be sitting.” (Charlie turns out to be correct.)

Empty chairThen comes the empty chair. “Who can tell, right? Very tall stack of chips. A little impressive... I dunno... unless it’s Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. If you see your chips floating up away from you, you know the game is too tough for us and we’re going and we hit something else, right? All right.”

A tall, angular fellow in a cowboy hat who answers to the name of Slim will eventually be taking that seat -- it’s “Amarillo Slim” Preston, at the time the film was made perhaps the most recognizable poker player in America, here essentially playing himself.

Bright eyes“Bright eyes,” says Bill, alluding to the player sitting to the left of the empty chair. “Well, that man sitting there… sounds deep drawl Mississippi. Best in the game. Best in the game. Learned to play in the Ku Klux Klan with a big sheet over his head.”

Chinaman“Chinaman… looks like an Oriental prince. Father probably made a fortune selling egg rolls. If he starts talking… if he starts yapping and yapping, you know he’s cracking.”

Charlie seems like he might be cracking a little at this point. “I gotta have a drink,” he says, punctuating his catalogue of characterizations, an excellent mix of seriousness, silliness, and stereotyping such as often occurs during such efforts to get a fix on the significance of first impressions.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Great post! I'll have to rewatch this.

4/06/2011 8:51 PM  

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