California Split Is the Raging Bull of Poker Movies

AFS double bill pairs Altman film with Ron Mann's biographical doc

A great poker film comes around as infrequently as a straight flush over quad aces. The allure of gambling is easy to understand but difficult to quantify. The peaks and valleys are so emotionally internal that most cinematic attempts to codify them are lost in translation.

Any list of good poker films is sure to include The Cincinnati Kid, Maverick, Casino Royale, and the quintessential Rounders. The first three, while quite entertaining, suffer from outlandish scenarios and highly improbable set-up hands. Rounders, for all its merits as a cult favorite among poker players, can’t escape the kitsch of its caricaturish characters, it being to poker what Rocky IV is to boxing. As it were, to extend the boxing analogy, poker’s Raging Bull is the 1974 Robert Altman masterpiece, California Split.

At its core, California Split is a comedic buddy film. The film follows everyman Bill (George Segal), a magazine writer with a penchant for poker and gambling. He meets a free-spirited compulsive gambler named Charlie (Elliott Gould) at a California card room and the two become fast friends. The duo meander through the same gritty Seventies Los Angeles that served as both setting and muse for Charles Bukowski's peak novels. Bill starts to delve further and further into the gambling underbelly, and a few bad runs leave him in debt with a loan shark. Bill and Charlie eventually partner up and make a run for Reno to try and change their luck.

California Split succeeds in the way it showcases the everyday ennui of the gambling world. There is an aloofness to time in which days blend into one another without the rigors of a 9-to-5 grind to keep them separated. There are wonderful scenes throughout the film that provide authenticity in a way that no other gambling film has done before or since. From card rooms and racetracks, to shady back-parlor games and cathouses, Altman gives us glimpses into an underground subculture and economy that are considered free from Uncle Sam’s tithing. That our guides are a charismatic pair of rogues makes the journey even more engaging.

Actor Keith Carradine defined the term "Altmanesque" as "showing Americans who we are." Altman was masterful at providing glimpses into slice-of-life moments, and this film ranks among his best in that regard. The film is light on plot and heavy on improvisation, which serves it well as co-stars Segal and Gould were at the peak of their profession. When pitching the film to Columbia Pictures, Altman remarked, "This film is reverse commercialism. We want to get to all the people who know what we’re talking about. The rest of the audience doesn’t care, they just want to root for their hero, do they win or do they lose." Altman's commitment to authenticity is commendable. Sadly, a film like this is highly unlikely to be released by a major studio these days.

California Split never achieved the popularity of some of Altman's other works. It remains tragically underseen, partially because music licensing issues kept it out for print for nearly 30 years, and the 2004 DVD release remains compromised with roughly four minutes trimmed because of said music disputes.

The Austin Film Society is presenting a rare screening of California Split on Friday, Jan. 9, at 10pm. Preceding the film will be a 7pm screening of Ron Mann's new documentary biography, Altman. Mann will be in attendance for both films.

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California Split, Robert Altman, Ron Mann, Elliott Gould, George Segal, poker films

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