Screened November 15, 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD
TSPDT rank #968 IMDb Wiki
This tight, modest picture may not have the presumptions to Monumental Importance as Nashville, but in many ways it's a more quintessential Robert Altman movie, if not a better film. Whereas Nashville maintains an Olympian perspective on its swarming ensemble, California Split inhabits a more complicated space with its two leads, alternating between celebration and skepticism (but never scorn) of their high-rolling gamblers' lifestyle. It's a world that Altman knows well and it's what allows him to employ his prodigious gifts with a precision and an authenticity that exceeds even his most famous films. (It certainly surpasses the lesser works, where his attempts at naturalist satire are belied by lazy-eyed lensing and snark characterization.)
Take his groundbreaking use of audio in California Split, his first employment of the multi-track technology he developed. What he does with 8 audio tracks here makes the 24 tracks he used in Nashville seem excessive. It's a soundtrack that's as consuming as a gambler's weekend casino binge - and that's exactly the point. It plants us squarely in a subjective state, what it's like to be terminally hopped up on the high of tumbling dice on green felt, clicking roulette balls and the polite trash talking of pretty much everyone around you. The soundtrack shifts from one of these nodes to another, restlessly searching for some way in to a special insight leading to a big score. It's a real shame that The Conversation hogged all the attention for audio innovations in 1974, because this film does just as much to integrate its audio into the human experience it brings to life.
There are so many good moments, executed with such a natural flow that it transcends the script's imperative to touch on of all the different types of gambling going on in Sin City: from dingy poker halls to race tracks to grand casinos to putting $20 against a dude at a bar to name the Seven Dwarves. Gould and Segal are excellent, with such lively in-the-moment riffing between them that you wonder if Cassavetes stepped in to direct their scenes. They're matched in rapport by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as Gould's hooker roommates; Altman's camera, in full groupie mode, really gets cozy with them as they lounge around in their apartment. It's small moments and movements like in those scenes that are Altman at his best. They yield the full potential of his excitement and interest in the world and in people, without having to package the former into a big statement or belittle the latter in spite.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of California Split among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
David Ansen, Steadycam (2007)
Doris Kuhn, Steadycam (2007)
Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007)
Richard T. Jameson, Steadycam (2007)
Alain Resnais, Most Important American Films (1977)
Peter von Bagh, Most Important American Films (1977)
They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
The movie will be compared with "M*A*S*H," the first big hit by Altman (who is possibly our best and certainly our most diverting American director). It deserves that comparison, because it resembles "M*A*S*H" in several big ways: It's funny, it's hard-boiled, it gives us a bond between two frazzled heroes trying to win by the rules in a game where the rules re-quire defeat. But it's a better movie than "M*A*S*H" because here Altman gets it all together. Ever since "M*A*S*H," he's been trying to make a kind of movie that would function like a comedy but allow its laughs to dig us deeper and deeper into the despair underneath...
At the end of "California Split" we realize that Altman has made a lot more than a comedy about gambling; he's taken us into an American nightmare, and all the people we met along the way felt genuine and looked real. This movie has a taste in its mouth like stale air-conditioning, and no matter what time it seems to be, it's always five in the morning in a second-rate casino...
What Altman comes up with is sometimes almost a documentary feel; at the end of "California Split" we know something about organized gambling in this country we didn't know before. His movies always seem perfectly at home wherever they are, but this time there's an almost palpable sense of place. And Altman has never been more firmly in control of his style. He has one of the few really individual visual styles among contemporary American directors; we can always see it's an Altman film. He bases his visual strategies on an incredibly attentive sound track, using background noises with particular care so that our ears tell us we're moving through these people -- instead of that they're lined up talking to us. "California Split" is a great movie and it's a great experience, too; we've been there with Bill and Charlie.
- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, January 1 1974
Robert Altman's "California Split," which opened yesterday at the Cinema I, is a fascinating, vivid movie, not quite comparable to any other movie that I can immediately think of. Nor is it easily categorized.
Mr. Altman has been quoted as saying that "California Split" is "a celebration of gambling," which is, I think, to underrate it, at least so it seems to someone who is not a gambling nut. The director, his screenwriter Joseph Walsh and the actors have created a movie of so many associations that it's impossible not to see "California Split" as something much more complex and disturbing.
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, August 8 1974
One of Altman's surest talents is the creation of a whole world, slightly antic and off-center, so that his movies (like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us) have a look of surprise, of the familiar transposed in some evasive but still palpable way. Once again he enjoys the collaboration of his excellent art director, Leon Ericksen, who has constructed an entire casino, brightly seedy and lit like a yellow-fever ward, which Altman populates with 24-hour night people. Their faces are ridden with worry, briefly flush with success. Their babble, their half-heard hopes framed in gambler's jargon, are like the running response of some lost congregation. They are Altman's chorus.
Like all his work, California Split (slang for high-low-split poker) has its own bent rhythm. It gives the feeling of having been made with a stoned offhandedness. In fact, there is a relaxed precision governing everything, even Elliott Gould's mumbled throwaways.
California Split is a rejoinder to the terse, glamorously tense world of The Cincinnati Kid, where the green felt is turned into a field of honor. It may be the first movie about gamblers that does not require any knowledge of the rules of a game. California Split is about compulsion, not betting, so the conventions are disregarded. There are no looming closeups of nervously shifting eyes, sweaty foreheads and shaky hands. Altman's premise is that getting hooked on gambling is the kind of emotional brinkmanship that is suicide by inches. This knowledge runs through California Split like a cold current and is the source of the movie's stubborn power. "J.C.
- J.C., Time Magazine, September 2, 1974
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-TV 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 Martinas 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 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 Splitmarked 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).
- J.D., Radiator Heaven
Screenwriter JOSEPH WALSH discusses his original ending of the script - and how it was altered - in Stop Smiling Magazine
"I would say if you are a writer and you could produce a picture with Bob, it would be a very good [situation if] you could be right there," says Walsh, "because Altman would come in and say, 'Oh, I would like for this scene, twenty-two clowns, three hookers, nine dwarfs, and whatever.' And this [scene] is supposed to be about a lonely man and one person in the bar. So I would say, 'Well, why would you do that, Bob? Because I don't see it? Why would you come up with that? That feels like off the top of your head. Let's go into it a little more because, let me tell you, it took me about two and a half months to construct this scene, it all ties together into the thing, and...'
"I don't know, maybe it was a plainness, a bluntness of honesty of how I would ask questions, but Bob would - pout would be a good word. I guess that he would pout a little bit on me. You know he actually stormed out of the room many times on me during the picture, during these conversations, but he would always come back and listen as I got to know him more...
"Bob is really a guy who can't take restrictions. Restrictions of any kind. Just feels hemmed in by them. He's wonderful when he gets enthusiastic. So if he's enthusiastic, if you question that, right away it's a damper to him. Some part of him doesn't want to listen to questions. Eventually, if you say somethign clearly and you're not fighting him - at any level - because I really wasn't fighting him - he listens..."
"Remember, this was going to be Spielberg's picture, THE picture. This was a time when he wasn't making much in pictures. This is the one that really got to him. Steven said to me, 'It is good, but I would have made twenty-five, fifty million dollars with the picture.' Later on, after he had seen it three or four times, Steven said to me, 'The picture is much better than I thought it was. I had to see it again and again and again.'
"Steven would have built that last scene, that gambling scene, into one gigantic orgasm, climaxing the last forty pages of the script until you were on the edge of your seat. He would never have filmed it as loose [as Altman].
"He's a master at building it up, Steven is, whereas Altman comes from a whole different world. More of a European style. Steven could have manipulated that film into fifty million dollars at the box office, and that would have been exciting. But Steven knows it is a really special film. Yes, he might have made more money, but he didn't know if he could have made a better film."
- Walsh, quoted in Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff. Macmillan, 1989. Pages 375-376, 381.
Robert Altman's masterful 1974 study of the psychology of the compulsive gambler. Elliott Gould, loose, jocular, and playful, and George Segal, neurotic, driven, and desperate, are really two halves of the same personality as they move from bet to bet, game to game, until they arrive for the big showdown in Reno. As in all Altman films, winning is losing; and the more Altman reveals, in his oblique, seemingly casual yet brilliantly controlled way, the more we realize that to love characters the way Altman loves his, you have to see them turned completely inside out.
- Don Druker, The Chicago Reader
Gould and Segal on some wild casino sprees in Los Angeles and Reno, speeding through a compulsive night world of frenzied overlapping chatter. Like Hawks, Altman feels rather than thinks his way into a subject, with a special interest in how people relate to one another in moments of crisis. In the process he shows more of what's happening in America than most newsreels, coaxes jazzy and inventive performances out of his actors (Prentiss and Welles are particular treats), and asks for a comparable amount of creative improvisation from his audience while busily hopping from one distraction to the next.
- Time Out
California Split begins with Altmanesque babble, which is always in the background. We’re used to gambling movies made in a style as feverish as their protagonists. But Altman sits back and watches the ebb and flow—the traffic of lost souls.
- David Edelstein, New York Magazine
Bob (Altman) le Flambeur. The contrast is between the "daylight gambler and the player at night" (Balzac), the numb drifting of George Segal versus the nonstop vaudevillianisms that Elliott Gould breezes through to cloud his desperation. The two meet among the rummies, bond over bar counter improv: "Twenty bucks says you can’t name the seven dwarfs." "Dumbo... Dumbo flew." In their shadow world, everything is makeshift: Shaving cream is applied to welts, cereal and beer constitute a meal in a stranger’s home. Everything is performance: Segal and Gould pretend to be cops to scare off a jumpy john in matronly drag (Bert Remsen), Gould seduces Segal back into the game with his "one-armed piccolo player" bit. And everything is a bet, from playing basketball with a bunch of teens to slapping half of a night’s winnings on the hood of a car in an attempt to get a mugger’s gun away from your face. Play or get killed, play and get killed. "Don’t think about it, take the money and go!" Nothing enhances Altman’s visual-aural density like the bustle of poker circles, race tracks, boxing rings. The hooker-roommates (Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles) consoling each other in bed, the barfly yammering about her pooch, the casino janitor surreptitiously slipping a coin into a slot machine -- every character seems to carry an entire comedy of desolation inside.
- Fernando Croce, CinePassion
This is a film about gambling, a metaphor-for-life which seems to have a particularly compelling pull for Altman. Altman, a self-confessed recovering gambler, returned to the theme with Quintet – a sci-fi picture which stands as one of his strangest and most gripping films – and increased the stakes: play the game or face death. Quintet was set during a future Ice Age in a world with dwindling resources; who lived and who died depended on participation in the game of the title. There's nothing so novel going on inCalifornia Split – a wholly naturalistic picture set in the 1970s – and yet its characters feel just as lonely and pathetic (and lovable) and the outcome of the games they play just as live-or-die important.
The director who pursued California Split most aggressively before Altman became attached was Steven Spielberg. While I don't want to make a snap judgment about what kind of film Spielberg would have made – indeed, his early work (eg Duel , The Sugarland Express ) showed just as much willingness to portray desperation and unhappiness as his most recent work does; it's only mid-period Spielberg which seems to me sappy or unambiguously sentimental – I think it's safe to say that it would have been a considerably different film from what Altman made. The very fact that an atmosphere existed in Hollywood where Altman could have access to properties being pursued by Spielberg – a player and company man even before Jaws (1975) validated him as a money-making player in the eyes of the studios – is astonishing.
But it's some measure of the greatness of this film that this fact is perhaps the least of the astonishing things going on in California Split: Altman's astonishing mise en scène – contemplative of every level of interaction within a room, a bar, a place – has rarely been put to more revelatory or personal ends. It's a masterpiece.
- Peter Tonguette, Senses of Cinema
IN DEPTH REVIEWS
California Split (1974) can be taken on one level as another entry into the buddy film cycle, though it manages to escape some of the more uncomfortable sexual evasions and misogynistic attitudes of these films by keeping its emotional level low, by allowing, as few American films do, emotions and emotional relationships to be chancy, fleeting, nondestructive, unscarring. Unlike other buddy films, it gives its women characters equal status and equal strength. Though the Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss characters are whores, they do not suffer and are not condescended to, nor are they any more oppressed by their situation than their male counterparts are by gambling. George Segal's Bill is sad a good deal of the time, but mostly because he does not experience eitehr the thrills or the agonies in gambling that so many other films on the subject have insisted one must feel.
In California Split, Altman substitutes melodrama a sort of emotional laissez-faire and does so mainly by organizing not only the subject but also the narrative form of the film around gambling. The film's structure is that of a game of chance, a playful, random, offhanded series of events full of accident, coincidence, and peripheral action brought to the center in a more extreme way than in the previous films. But the adjective is misleading, for the film is not "extreme" in any way. If anything, it is extremely gentle and undemanding, requiring only a pleasure in its playfulness and its improvisational effect. The film is carefully crafted to be open not to various interpretations but to various reactions to its juxtapositions and anomalies; it is made to be analogous to the wheel of fortune that closes the film, spinning and stopping where it will.
This is, of course, not improvisation in the usual sense. Though much of the dialogue may have been made up in rehearsal and in preparation for shooting, the structure of chance and coincidence, the joking interplay of events in the film and the expectations of the viewer would have to have been carefully planned. California Split holds an important place in Altman's work: experiement, joke, a game about gaming, it also moves him a bit beyond the generic revisionism of McCabe and The Long Goodbye into a greater revision of narrative structure in general, of the ways movies tell their stories and can be made to tell them differently.
- Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Oxford University Press US, 2000. Pages 384-385.
In California Split... the supplementary sound material has an inventive, dynamic function in relation to the action, serving more as a lively contrapuntal counterline than as a static one-to-one gloss. In the second scene at the local poker parlor, one of Shotlwell's songs begins loudly over a long shot of the card players, becomes faint and is overtaken by these players' dialogue in medium shot, and then resumes loudness over a close-up of Bill - delineating a dodgy kind of fan-dance in relation to a spectator's diverse routes into the scene. And when Charlie and Bill arrive in Reno, Shotwell's jazzy recitative-with-piano and Charlie's independent free-form rap suddenly (and gratuitously) converge on the phrase "nobody there" - a striking demonstration of the blind vicissitudes of chance (such as the curious proliferation of elephants and Barbaras), which operate throughout the film on multiple levels.
In all Altman's best films, the emotional center gravitates around a pronounced feeling of absence - a sense of opportunities lost, connections missed, kindred spirits divided and scattered - and in many respects the independent sound material serves to embody some form of this failed utopia: a "commentary" of lyrical idealism abstractly bridging discontinuous characters.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema. JHU Press, 2004. Page 84-85
What’s an 8-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system developed by Jim Webb known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries. Plant enough microphones around the set or on the location — in this case, eight — and one could always adjust the volume later, when the separate channels were being mixed together and one could decide which channels should predominate, and in which proportion. In other words, assuming that you had a certain amount of scripted dialogue and a certain amount of “background” improvs being delivered at the same time — the modus operandi of many Altman movies, especially this one — trusting to luck was a matter of recording all this dialogue on eight separate tracks. And listening to voices was what you did afterward — shoot first and ask questions later, working out a hierarchy of what should have the most clarity after the fact. If an improv was funnier or more relevant than a scripted line delivered at the same moment, allow the former to overtake the latter.
Even before the title sequence starts, over the familiar Columbia Pictures logo, California Split has already started to chatter. A steady rush of talk — telegraphed, overheard, sometimes barely audible — spills into the opening scenes like a scatter of loose change from a slot machine, meeting or eluding our grasp in imitation of a strictly chance operation. Admittedly, the overall odds of the game are somewhat fixed because the movie has a script (by Joseph Walsh, a gambler himself), two box-office favorites and hard Hollywood money behind it. But the improvisatory spirit is unmistakable, if only because an alert audience is obliged to ad-lib in order to keep up, compelled to shift its attention as often as the characters.
So using Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks was putting into practice a certain dialectic of chance and control, one of the cornerstones of Altman’s filmmaking style. And this would become even more systematic in the movie Altman made next, Nashville, where instead of having just two main characters, Altman opted, at least in theory, to feature two dozen. (Some of them proved to be much more prominent than others.) And when he made A Wedding in 1978, he arbitrarily decided to double that number to 48.
A compulsive casino gambler, Altman once boasted, “At one time I could stand at a craps table for two days.” And he inherited “by chance” a film project scripted by another compulsive gambler, Joseph Walsh, who had been developing his script with Steven Spielberg, of all people, during his pre-Jawsphase. (Walsh was a child actor in the Fifties and Sixties, prominently featured as Joey Walsh in such films as Hans Christian Andersen and The Juggler and countless TV shows; in California Split he plays Sparkie, a bookie owed a fortune by Bill.)
Of course Walsh was taking a gamble himself by trusting his script to a master doodler like Altman who favored improvs. Nevertheless, figuring out what’s prearranged or not in this movie isn’t always a simple matter, and it’s often the spirit and climate of improvisation that counts more here than anything else. The opening sequence, where Charlie and Bill first encounter one another at a poker table in a gambling hall, certainly looks and sounds authentic, but it was shot on a set designed by Altman regular Leon Ericksen, who redressed a dance hall. Most of the extras were hired from the drug rehabilitation center Synanon, although a few real gamblers were included as well, and some of the background dialogue was loosely plotted if not precisely scripted by Walsh (whose own brother Edward plays a pivotal role as another poker player — a sore loser who accuses Charlie of cheating, and later beats him up). So the mix between real and semi-real, simulated and actual, is pretty intricate, and it’s only because of the DVD commentary by Altman, Walsh, Gould and Segal that we know that Charlie and Bill’s drunken efforts to reel off the names of all the seven dwarfs were invented by the two actors.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Stop Smiling
Robert Altman's disgruntled comedy California Split, aside from its typically busy soundtrack (it was the first movie Altman used eight-channel audio to capture all the dialogue), seems a relatively straightforward buddy film... But it's also an anti-buddy parable in which George Segal and Elliott Gould's homosocial behavior is equated unflatteringly against their obsessive gambling addictions... Adding emphasis on the homo-ness of their lucrative bond are the repeated instances where the interference of women breaks both their concentration and their hot streaks. (At the climax of the film, a naïve PYT cuts $82,000 worth of momentum by placing a single chip on a game of craps, giggling, "It's my birthday.") At the film's open, Segal's character is separated from his wife and, thus, finds himself wandering amid the dozens of unattractive, pasty women who populate the low-stakes, rec center poker tables. It's almost as though he's predetermined to make another go at his marriage by surrounding himself by two types he's not attracted to: on one hand, chain-smoking, fat-jiggling, muumuu-wearing, cranky old housewives, and on the other, men. But Gould's rapacious mockery of the first category seems, at times, to give Segal pause over testing the viability of the second. Not necessarily because Gould rubs shaving cream into the bar-fight wounds all over their torsos, or because he's at least a more reasonable fuck buddy than Bert Remsen in drag. There's something in Gould, among the few scattered catcalls of "fag" from various bottomless dancers in various seedy floating casinos, that Segal gets. What exactly it is he gets is as mysterious to me as many of the half-caught conversations in Altman's films, but, then again, I am an actual fag with a predictable lack of interest in that definingly macho sport of throwing away my earnings on rounds of wallet-wrestling. People like me, I guess, are too busy spending their copious disposable income on end tables and as many subscriptions to Genre, Vice, and maybe Adbusters as it takes to cover them. Oh, and reading gay subtext into movies likeCalifornia Split.
- Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine
From Rhett Miller
Altman excels at the sound design of his films. It is commonplace to rely on sound to amp up action and horror films, but as far as drama and comedy go, there are few soundtracks as layered and complex as those found in Altman films. Splitis one of his finest examples of sound gradation, as each location surrounds itself from sounds from all directions. In the masterful opening poker sequence, you get the clanging of poker chips, conversation by the leads, the flutter of cards, people in the background talking about how much they are going to bet, and then finally narration from a television explaining the intricacies of the game. In one sequence Altman is able to convey so much audible information, and he does it with such a complexity that would make multiple viewings even richer, allowing you to focus your ears on different planes of conversation. Altman’s tracks mimic life, in that he gives you the ability to choose a conversation like you would at a party, but those lines of dialogue are there if ever you choose to go back and listen in. Like cinema verité aimed to capture visuals with an unbroken wholeness, Altman’s audio tracks capture locations above your standard boom mic. Sounds come from all depths and amplitudes, and don’t seem confined by the motivations of a script or story. Everything rings with messy authenticity, of an ambience taken right out of the streets and not the back lots of Hollywood. The sound design is paramount in establishing that Altman’s real characters inhabit a real world. Imagining an Altman film without sound would be like imagining a Lucas film without CGI, it couldn’t be.
From Shawn McLoughlin:
These two prostitutes that play the “heroes” lovers are an absolute joy if only because they also seem real. They aren’t typical downtrodden and drugged up whores. Nor are they of the highest-class call girl stock. But they relate well to each other, and throughout their scenes we get a sense of who they are and what they could be, even though it is never really mentioned. The last time we see them one is holding the other in bed, consoling her after the gambler she had a crush on leaves her. For a good minute this consolation goes on, and there is an importance to the consoler discussing the future even though the characters do not return. It further defines them as people and by this point in the movie it is easy to admire them as such. Without this scene, the film would be at a loss, because the audience would be without knowing their story. They parallel the gamblers and are just as important. It is almost too perfect a match play.
From Adam Lippe:
Luckily, California Split was made before Altman developed this hatred for his casts, when his focus was more on developing his style. Here his methods are the long, slow zoom-ins, his cross cutting of sound – forcing the viewer to pay close attention if they’d want to catch everything (packing in as much information audibly as De Palma does visually, check out the side conversation in an early scene at a bar, where a mother begs her half-naked stripper daughter to spot her $30 so she can gamble) – and an ear for casual dialogue, which appears rambling at first, but is clearly carefully chosen. It falls in line with the way that he seems to be learning about his settings and locations as we do. Like Gould’s house in The Long Goodbye and the whorehouses in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he hasn’t made up his mind about how he feels in advance. Altman’s lighter touch, allowing the movie to build around the actors, means that Elliot Gould and George Segal have no fear about making fools of themselves, yammering nonsense and even singing and dancing – badly – to old minstrel songs. Just one year later, Altman would use poor singing against his characters, in Nashville, by having a female disrobe and embarrass herself on stage, (probably the first instance in which his cruelty was so exposed.) This style of mocking is never evident in California Split. Altman easily could have made the part time hookers the butt of the joke and the cross dresser would have been just as easy bait, but he avoids the nastiness to his own credit.
- Adam Lippe, Shawn McLoughlin and Rhett Miller, posted on A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity
Film Misery ranks California Split as the 10th best Altman movie of all time.
As one of the most deliriously entertaining movies ever made about the sport of gambling (and it is a sport, given the mental and physical punishment these men endure), California Split is Robert Altman at his best, complete with all of the standard features — overlapping dialogue, casual asides, random noises, and effortless, seemingly unscripted banter. Elliott Gould and George Segal star as, yes, “loveable losers,” but they never resort to manipulation in order to secure our empathy. If truth is to be told, they couldn’t care less what we or anyone else might think, as they’re fevered engines of compulsion — always pushing forward in search of that next fix. From poker parlors to the gaming tables of Reno, these two men always seem to be chasing the big score, yet even when they realize their dream, it never seems to be enough. After Segal’s big poker win against the likes of Amarillo Slim (who makes a brief appearance), Gould says, “It doesn’t mean a fucking thing, does it?” Of course it doesn’t. And why would it? Gambling, at least in terms of an obsession, has little to do with money and everything to do with feeling alive for yet another day. Why else engage in deliberate recklessness?
The wide-screen compositions are typically lush and buzzing with activity, and despite the lack of plot, we accept Altman’s vision because we’re having too much fun to care. And let it be said: Elliott Gould, now an all-but-forgotten entity, was, for a brief time, a genuine screen presence. In back-to-back Altman features (this film and 1973’s The Long Goodbye), Gould was so engaging as to be the perfect representation of the Everyman, although an Everyman who was smarter, sharper, and more appealing than anyone else. He could size up the competition (in a great sequence at the backroom poker game), beg for credit from the cashier, attempt to use a Milky Way as an ante, and play nickel slots with all the gusto and seriousness of a master gambler, all without seeming forced or obvious. Segal is more desperate, while Gould is the sort of man who would (and does) laugh in the face of an ass-kicking, and argues — persuasively, I might add — with a gunman in a casino parking lot. Now this is a man I’d like to have at my craps table.
- Matt Cale, Ruthless Reviews
Bill and Charlie are the heroes of California Split, if such a term can be applied. The performances by Elliot Gould and George Segal are perfect; there is a naturalism here that makes the whole thing feel so off the cuff, improvised. The interplay between the two of them is endlessly fun to watch. Both actors are very engaging, and they do well with the hilarious script by Joseph Walsh. This film came on the heels of MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and was made a year before Nashville, but California Split seems not to be mentioned as often. The film could most closely be compared to MASH, as both films are funny, cynical, gritty, and feature two frazzled main characters. Despite the similarities, California Split is the better film. Altman was obviously trying the same thing, but here he nails it, perfects every theme he hits on.
The acting in the film is terrific, but the direction is masterful. There are more audio and visual layers in this film than there are in any ten films. The way Altman weaves in and out of comedy and tragedy is assured, and we follow along willingly. We do not have to know anything about gambling to enjoy this film, and in the end we know something that we did not know before.
California Split has an almost documentary feel to it, both in the improvisational way the actors perform, and in the style in which the film is shot. We are there with Bill and Charlie, from top to bottom, in every bar and track, at every mugging. We feel for these guys, and Altman creates a palpable world for them to exist within. The script is solid, and the supporting roles are fully realized.
- Dylan Grant, Movie Freak.com
As always in Altman’s films, the roster of supporting performances add indelibly to the movie’s richness and charm. In this case, Ann Prentiss (Paula Prentiss’s sister — their resemblance is uncanny) and Gwen Welles shine as a pair of “happy hookers” who take on decidedly unusual jobs — including, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, spending “quality time” with an “elegant” transvestite (Bert Remsen). Welles’ romantic interest in Segal — and the ultimate outcome of their potential tryst — is handled especially well. Equally impressive is Altman’s ability to evoke the various milieus of the gambling world — poker halls, race tracks, boxing rings, casinos — with characteristic attention to detail; throughout the film, we genuinely believe we’re “there”, wherever we are.
Towards the end, California Split becomes somewhat challenging to sit through, simply because we feel such anxiety about Segal’s situation (he owes a loan shark, played by screenwriter Walsh, $2200 — but instead of paying him off once he secures the funds by selling his car, he goes to Reno to gamble instead). Ultimately, however, this simply demonstrates how well Altman has done his job: we really get itthat gambling is an addiction like any other, one that has the potential to ruin lives within just a few short hours. It’s a good thing Altman made this one a comedy rather than a tragedy, or we’d really be clenching our teeth.
- Film Fanatic.org
There are a few things in the film that stand out for me as being especially well done. At the beginning, we see Gould watching an instructional film in the casino and a voiceover explains not only the rules of poker, but also much of what the audience is seeing on the screen. This brilliant stroke is reminiscent of the final intercom narration at the end of Altman’s M*A*S*H. The two men’s continued insistence on turning everything into a wager is also a nice touch, most notably when Bill bets Charlie he cannot come up with the names of the Seven Dwarfs. The humor in Charlie’s struggle to name them is matched by the seriousness in which he approaches the task.
- Clydefro Jones
The film does have a truly terrible strained scene, that seems dropped into the film from some other universe. It involves the sudden introduction of a pair of transvestite `dates' of the girls Charlie lives with(for one 5 minute too long scene). Actor Bert Remsen humiliates himself with full commitment playing an old nervous transvestite (he does a great job). It's a mis-fired comedic bit that calls too much attention to itself. It feels completely artificial in a movie that had seemed utterly real previously. Thankfully the scene is not very long and the movie goes right back to being as honest and authentic as it had been before.
It turns out this is one of Altman's most personal films. He had a gambling addiction, he identified completely with these characters which is why he wrestled the project away from up and coming Steven Speilberg (who had t.v.'s Duel and the feature Sugarland Express under his belt at this point). That left Speilberg free to do JAWS!!!
- Chris Jarmick, Viewpoints.com
The screenplay's masterstroke—seemingly improvised through Gould and Segal's rapid and relaxed deliveries and Altman's trademark overlapping style, but which is credited to Joseph Walsh (his only writing credit)—is that it never places judgments on its characters or subject matter. This is not a film designed to condemn gambling or gamblers. It's like a film about alcoholism that admits that sometimes, drinking can be fun—when you're gambling, it's possible to win as much as lose. That this idea comes across more here than in other films about gambling addiction (James Toback's The Gambler, Owning Mahowny) may be because it often has the look and feel of a comedy, albeit a hard and cynical one. The film manages to find humor in its own desperation, with scenes that are often as funny as they are sad—both the sequence in which Charlie and Bill bet on who can name all Seven Dwarfs, and the one in which Charlie risks his life at gunpoint to talk down a mugger's asking price, come to mind.
- Patrick Bromley, DVD Verdict
“California Split” is an unbelievably entertaining movie. Altman’s choices are so surehanded. I was stunned anew at his unself-conscious genius when I saw the tracking shots that follow Bill and Charlie through the streets of Reno, on the way to the casino: Bill walks as fast as he can, and Charlie buzzes along by his side, making small talk and idle suggestions. I get the feeling little of this was scripted, that Altman just told Segal to walk with singleminded determination and advised Gould to riff on that. In these few breezy shots, which cover less than a minute, Altman establishes the physical and emotional milieu for the thrilling climax. Moviemaking — the alchemy between actors and director, between form and content — doesn’t get any better.
- Ben, Ill-Informed Gadfly
It's a film wherein Altman is in his most excessive. The overlapping dialogues make an entry right from the start with an introductory lesson on poker-playing overlapping with Charlie's monologues turning into a very heightened and exciting game of poker (which Altman denies us from actually taking part in). We only see what Altman wants us to see. He envelopes us immediately with an atmosphere of constant chaos; the same chaos that addicted gamblers breath and take in as fuel for their supposed streaks of good fortune. It takes time for the audience to get used to Altman's unsparing techniques, yet its quite rewarding. There's so much to observe from Altman's filmed surroundings (the other gamblers' quirks and characteristics, the whore in the casino-bound bar and her gambling mother, the like-minded excitedness of those betting on their favorite horses or boxers). California Split is much a film that delights in the gambling subculture as it is a film about the two buddies' road to huge dollar wins.
- Oggz Cruise, Ogg's Movie Thoughts
That there's no palpable despair or discernable anger in Altman's realization of this is why California Split remains one of the filmmaker's finest accomplishments. As rambling and anarchic a comedy as M*A*S*H, but devoid of that film's gag-writer broadness, this sober but kind-hearted paean to the dignity of losing winds up feeling awfully precise in its seeming looseness.
—Clarence Beaks, DVD Journal
Working from a script by Joseph Walsh but appearing to be almost totally improvised, this was director Robert Altman's tribute to gamblers and gambling, turning out what was really a film for insiders rather than casually interested parties who had never so much as dabbled in the pasttime. The whole film has the ring of authenticity when it comes down to the performances and Segal and Gould were rarely better as the shady friends whose easygoing nature - Gould in particular - masks a desperation to win, a need to succeed as far as the next race or poker game.
- Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image
ABOUT THE COLUMBIA TRI-STAR DVD
NOTE: Gregory tells us (August 2009): I just been informed re: my California Split review that currently streaming version of this film on Netflix is in complete form without music edits that are on DVD. The DVD rented from them most likely will have the same edited version currently available, so it's strictly on-line version.
NOTE (as sent to us in email): Unfortunately, music rights problems have obliged Columbia to remove almost three minutes of footage and make several soundtrack alterations. Their end product is perhaps the most extreme home viewing travesty since those notorious early video transfers of The President's Analyst. The cut/rescored scenes are as follows:
1- 11m 42s. A 32-second shot has been cut during Bill and Charlie's initial conversation. This showed Bill scat singing while Charlie informed him that "I love to play poker with those redneck fish. Y'now, who think they're Nick the Greek. Love to get 'em steamed. Easy to beat. Suckers".
2- 31m 50s. A scene showing Bill and Charlie at the racetrack ends as Charlie says "Let's go see a man about a horse". This scene originally continued for an additional 8 seconds as the men walked off singing together.
3- 35m 30s. After Barbara (Ann Prentis) opens the door of her house, Bill and Charlie enter. Charlie then turns to a man standing in the doorway, gives him a coin, and says "Here you are, Mr Tenor". This will make no sense to anyone who has not seen the original version, which contained an additional 24 seconds of footage showing Barbara opening the door and finding 'Mr Tenor' singing 'Happy Birthday To You'. Bill and Charlie then appeared and joined him in the song (while Barbara insisted "It's not my birthday").
4- 52m 32s. As Bill enters the strip club where a poker game is taking place, we see a basketball-themed cartoon playing on a television. In the original version, we also heard the song ('Basketball Joe') that accompanied this cartoon. (Incidentally, this animated clip can also be seen - and heard - in Hal Ashby's Being There.)
5- 77m 20s to 79m 16s. The two Phyllis Shotwell songs - 'Goin' to Kansas City' and 'Me and My Shadow' - heard during Bill and Charlie's journey to Reno have been replaced with an instrumental piece. 'Me and My Shadow' provided one of the film's most striking moments. As Shotwell arrived at the line "We never knock, 'cause there's nobody there", Charlie gestured at a passing car and shouted "there ain't nobody there". Although this scene is visually unchanged on the DVD, Charlie's line has been removed from the soundtrack (at 79m 2s). Incredibly, Joseph Walsh can be heard describing this moment (which he refers to as "a miracle") on the commentary track!
6- 86m 46s to 88m 4s. As Charlie walks away from the poker table, the sound of Phyllis Shotwell singing 'You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You' has been replaced with Shotwell's rendition of 'The Lonesome Road' - a reprise of the song we'd already heard her singing a mere 85 seconds ago!
7- 90m 12s to 90m 53s. A shot of Bill playing poker no longer includes that Shotwell song heard dimly in the original.
8- 92m 9s. After Charlie leaves Bill at the blackjack table, a 1m 40s scene has been cut. This showed Phyllis Shotwell behind a piano singing 'Georgia On My Mind'. While Charlie struck up a conversation with a fellow gambler sitting near Shotwell's piano, Bill continued playing blackjack, and we saw that the woman dealing him cards was wearing a badge revealing her name to be Barbara (making her the last of this film's many Barbaras). Columbia's editing has Charlie return to the blackjack table only a few seconds after he left.
Here's what Altman said about the cuts (from an interview in StopSmiling magazine):
"And a lot of them weren't [released] because of music clearances, or certain copyright problems. We had to make adjustments. The cost of the music track on California Split was so high that Columbia just couldn't put it into video or DVD. That kept it out of circulation for years. Finally, Elliot Gould went in to find out why they weren't releasing it. When they told him it was because of music, he said "Isn't there something we can do about that?" So I made some cuts and took a couple of songs out. We got it into what they considered a reasonable budget. The picture wasn't hurt by it. And that's out now. It doesn't make any difference, the quality of these things. It's as good as anyone sees them..."
- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
In the commentary, Altman says that California Split is his least plot-driven film, and while that may be debatable, this is a great example of how concentration on two protagonists can result in a fascinating character study. Screenwriter Joseph Walsh is responsible for many of the highlights of the film, including a scene where Charlie refuses to give a robber all of his winnings and offers him half instead, but filming in sequence allowed Altman to take advantage of the many improvisational scenes, and it's through these scenes that we gain most of our insights into the personality of both of the leads. Segal and Gould's quick wit are responsible for the amusing conversation where they both try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves (surely an influence on Quentin Tarantino's extensive pop-culture name-dropping in Pulp Fiction and beyond), but it's the continuity filming that allowed Altman to take advantage of this spontaneous creativity.
The slightly inaccurate colors are typical of films of the '70s, but skin tones are good. There's a fair bit of grain, but black levels are good, and there are no distracting compression artifacts.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Altman's multi-tracked audio comes through clearly despite the limited fidelity. There are a few scenes where it's difficult to make out the dialogue, but this is clearly intentional and not a limitation of the transfer.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Altman is joined by scriptwriter Joseph "Joey" Walsh and stars Elliott Gould and George Segal for a commentary track that is continuous, except for brief interludes where they pause to appreciate a few select scenes. From their occasional attempts to recall details, it's obvious that they haven't seen the film for a while, but this is a relaxed and amiable chat. Altman gives us details of location shooting versus constructed sets, and claims that this is his first film to use the Lions Gate 8-Track Sound System (which seems at odds with the multi-tracked soundtrack from M*A*S*H). Walsh explains how many of the scenes in the film were based on his own experiences, as well as those of his relatives, and explains some of the character motivation. There are some amusing anecdotes, such as how they forced newbie George Segal to spend a night gambling his own money, which to their dismay unravelled when he won. While not the most enlightening of commentaries, it's enjoyable and reasonably informative.
Trailers for Easy Rider and Big Night are presented full frame, and Altman's latest movie, The Company, is shown in an anamorphic 2.35 transfer.
Extras Grade: C
- Robert Edwards, Digitally Obsessed
ABOUT ELLIOTT GOULD
The Elliott Gould Zone - with bio, filmography, articles, interviews, trivia, etc.
Elvis Presley never made it. Bob Dylan did but he was more than three decades into his career at the time and the Al Hirschfeld illustration pictured him serenading Lucille Ball. Clint Eastwood, perhaps the most durable film star of the past 30 years, made it but had to share the honor with fellow superstar Burt Reynolds.
The "it" to which I refer is the cover of Time magazine, once considered the ultimate sign that one had arrived at the pinnacle of fame and cultural significance. After all, Time is not Photoplay or People but a newsmagazine whose pages chronicle world leaders and world events that impact the lives of people around the globe. It’s one thing for FDR or Adolf Hitler to be designated the week’s top story, but for a performer it is heady stuff indeed.
Presley, perhaps the most popular entertainer of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most influential, was never favored by this prestigious publication, the editors having found his swiveling hips distasteful and his singing "awful" (their description of his performance on a 1960 Frank Sinatra TV special). Dylan was condescending to the media, aggressively challenging a Time reporter’s values in a memorable scene in Don’t Look Back. Before his double Oscar victory for Unforgiven, Eastwood made genre movies mercifully free of pretention and, therefore, he made the grade only in tandem with the even less pretentious good ole boy Reynolds.
Ah, but Elliott Gould, with only six movies in release, made the cut, hogging one of Time’s 52 covers for the year 1970. "He embodies an inner need to be hip at the risk of seeming silly, the struggle not to give in to the indignity and/or insanity of contemporary life," Time wrote, calling the shaggy haired actor a "star for an uptight age."
- Brian Fairbanks
To grow up Jewish in the 1970s was to be in the thrall of Elliott Gould.
Sure, the suburban teenage Semite had his Woody Allen for comic relief and his Paul Newman for confirmation that he was, indeed, a member of a Chosen People, but the sight of the mangy, Jew-fro-covered head of Gould on the big screen during that long-forgotten decade got more than a few movie geeks through adolescence.
“I was such a scared kid,” he said.
So, naturally, Gould went into acting.
“No, I went into song and dance, because I was shy, repressed, inhibited — but I found that if I learned routines and memorized them, I could communicate.”
The result, of course, was an actor who did more than communicate. He created an entirely new Jewish cinematic archetype.
“He was a superstar,” said Jake Perlin, programming associate for BAMcinematek.
Perlin said that most filmgoers would focus on the three Robert Altman films in the series — “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye” and “California Split” — but the real gems are Peter Hyams’s “Busting” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Touch.”
“In both movies, he’s incredibly brave,” Perlin said. “He puts it all on the line. Actors today are so unwilling to play a conflicted or negative character. And when they do, it’s still so neutered. Elliott Gould in ‘The Touch’ is anything but neutered.”
Gould offered his take on working with Bergman, plus his thoughts about the other films in the fortnight-and-a-half of fun:
“It was so fabulous for me to be so free [in creating the role of Trapper John]. That performance was more spontaneous and freer than anything I could do in real life. Altman originally offered me Tom Skerritt’s role. I never question an auteur, but I told him I’d drive myself crazy playing a southerner, so he gave me Trapper John. Good thing, too, because Trapper John gave me the juice and the spirit.”
The Long Goodbye
“That movie was my favorite, because it came out when I could not get myself arrested. I was out of work for a year and a half. I thought the script was a little old-fashioned, but I was looking for a job. Peter Bogdanovich [the original director] didn’t want to use me, because he thought I was too young. But then Altman directed, and he called me.”
“That was semi-autobiographical — though I am the character that George Segal played. I only got the role because Steve McQueen dropped out. On this film, I finally learned how to work with Altman. On ‘M*A*S*H,’ he thought I was my enemy. I said, ‘Don’t look at me — I’m always in character.’ But on this movie, he finally got me.”
“Working with Bergman, I learned that I couldn’t fully accept all the privileges I was given, because I was given them too soon. Bergman said to me, ‘You’ve gone beyond your limits, and you’ll have to live more to understand what you’ve done.’ The great privilege is to be conceived, born and know yourself and everything else follows.”
- Gersh Kuntzman, The Brooklyn Rail, July 24 2008