Robert Altman's California Split (1974) opens unassumingly in a legal poker parlor populated not by the nattily dressed, epicurean cardsharps of a James Bond movie, nor even the cigar-chomping professionals out of The Cincinnati Kid, but an unglamorous and overeager throng of compulsive gamblers distinguishable only by the extent to which they're willing to let their desperation read through their actions. For Bill (George Segal), it's all right there in the grimace that welcomes both losing and winning; for Charlie (Elliot Gould), it's hidden under layers of pathological gregariousness that can prove quite the irritant when he's cleaning some unlucky schlub out of his weekly paycheck. It's this incessant trash-muttering that brings the two men together, when Bill winds up on the business end of a punch thrown in a pique of frustration induced by Charlie. The assaulter's dispute is that the two men must be working together, and, until they meet officially for the first time at a nearby nudie bar in the following scene, Altman refuses to tip his hand as to whether or not they really are a team. Though Bill seems weary of Charlie at first, as anyone with a lick of sense should, he's won over by his shambling charm, and, most importantly, the luck that seems to follow him around. After getting rolled in the bar parking lot by the tormented loser from the parlor, the two men wind up at the home of two daffy call girls (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles), enjoy a breakfast of Lucky Charms and Budweiser, and crash. When Bill awakens to find himself on a strange couch with very strange people, he retreats in apparent shame back to his workplace. But he's ensconced behind his desk for no longer than a few seconds before the itch overtakes him, and he realizes he's found a kindred wayward spirit in Charlie. From there, the two men set off on an odyssey of winning, broken up only by the occasional mugging, which Charlie casually bargains down at gunpoint, and Bill's bookie demanding payment on a debt racked up on bad sports bets. Throughout their journey, Altman, via his trademark overlapping dialogue, depicts a whole periphery world on the hustle where everyday people wheel-and-deal to get over or merely lose a little less than necessary.
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It's the latter concern losing that most intrigues Altman in California Split, and he's never had a more apt vehicle before or since through which to explore the intricacies of defeat. Though these two men would be considered sad sacks if encountered on the street, Altman confers upon them a modicum of risk-taking nobility that endears them to the audience, even as they gamble their way to ruin. Because sooner or later, they're bound to lose, even by winning, which may make the final scene a bit puzzling in particular for American audiences. Introspection at the top of one's game has never been this country's favorite pastime, but it's quintessential Altman, who was suspicious of success long before he eventually squandered his. And who better to play a discontented winner than Segal, who dials down his neurotic energy to deliver the most nuanced and soulful performance of his career. Altman regular Gould is an obvious happy-go-lucky foil, and while he's working a very minor variation on his stoned Phillip Marlowe persona from the previous year's The Long Goodbye, his Charlie is far too focused on simply playing the game to give a damn if the whole shebang is cruelly rigged to his ultimate disadvantage. 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. Columbia TriStar presents California Split in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a muddy source-print that's acceptable because the film (shot by the workmanlike Paul Lohmann) was never supposed to look that great to begin with. The audio is Dolby Digital 3.0 and generally does justice to Altman's brilliant sound collage. Extras include an enjoyable feature-length commentary from Altman, Gould, Segal, and screenwriter Joseph Walsh. Sure, it's probably too digressive, but just listening to these old friends and collaborators discuss one of the decade's most essential works can't help but be periodically illuminating. It's a rare instance when the company more than makes up for the lack of rapid-fire insight. Keep-case.