Classic Film Review: Gould and Segal partner in Altman’s Ultimate Buddy picture, “California Split”(1974)

Every film buff has her or his own interpretation of what “Altmanesque” means.

It’s the torrent of words, the hyper-naturalistic dialogue that has everybody talking at once, leaving it to the viewer — with a little help from the sound mixer — to pick out and concentrate on what the most important characters in a scene or situation are saying. A lot of the dialogue is improvised on set, and that simple aural touch gives many of the films their realistic feel, along with a camera plunging us into a seemingly familiar milieu and immersing us in the sights, smells and sounds of it.

He dabbled in a lot of genres, and not every movie Altman filmed fit that style or lent itself to his “Altmanesque” touches. But even in something like “Vincent and Theo,” the Van Gogh picture that preceded his big “comeback” with “The Player,” he could impose his idea of what reality felt like on the frame and in the soundtrack. He was perhaps the most influential filmmaker of his era, and you can see and hear his touches everywhere, on episodic TV, in any cinematic crowd scene, in the movies of Tarantino, Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson, Soderbergh, the Brit Michael Winterbottom and Mr. “Funniest line on the set wins,” Judd Apatow.

One trademark touch that really stands out in Altman’s grand gambling “bromance,” “California Split,” is the importance of milieu to Altman’s storytelling. In interviews with me and others over the years, he talked about the community he loved to create on the set, and how his archetypal movies mimicked that on screen.

The man loved creating chaos and letting his actors and us make sense of it.

He’d hurl them and us into an Army surgical hospital (“M*A*S*H”), “A Wedding,” a convention (“Health”). He’d visit fashion week (“Pret a Porter/Ready to Wear”), a traveling tent show (“Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson”), a live radio variety show broadcast (“A Prairie Home Companion”), a political campaign (“Tanner ’88”), a nascent jazz scene (“Kansas City”) or “Nashville” and an English manor house (“Gosford Park”). And he’d let humans act human, exposing character, story and themes from the chaos that might eventually illuminate the organizing order of life and human behavior.

Elliott Gould, one of the most popular leading men of his day, was a key to Altman’s rise to his 1970s peak. Gould joined an ensemble (“M*A*S*H”), showed off how good he was in buddy pictures (“California Split”) and helped bring Altman and the Altman Touch to classic film noir (“The Long Goodbye”).

Gould, like his “Split” co-star George Segal, was shockingly good at buddy pictures. Segal and Redford chased “The Hot Rock,” Gould and Donald Sutherland made “M*A*S*H” settle into buddy picture rhythms, paired up again for “S*P*Y*S,” and Gould almost made James Caan funny in “Harry and Walter Go to New York. Even Segal’s peak-years rom-coms (“A Touch of Class,” “The Owl and the Pussycat”) felt like buddy pictures, buddy pictures with a hint of sex.

Parking these two in the same picture pays off in pretty much every shared scene of “California Split,” with Gould playing the Jewish tummler here, although both actors took on that guise in films during their peak years, with Segal the better “reactor” and straight man of the two.

Charlie (Gould) is a chatterbox professional gambler, handsome and gregarious but seedy and an adrenalin junky looking for “action,” wherever it might be. William (Segal) is a magazine editor, separated from his wife and deep enough into gambling that his path is sure to cross Charlie’s in their corner of Southern Cal — at the poker room or at “the track.”

Charlie’s literal rough-and-tumble lifestyle — he gets beaten up by the pals of a poker player he humiliates, carelessly mugged on another occasion and crashes with a couple of call girls (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles) because he can’t be bothered to own more than one sports coat or rent his own place, even when he’s flush — is what William gets sucked into over the course of a long, indulgent dive into this form of addiction.

There’s the usual Altman love-hate relationship with women and sex here, as world wise Barbara (Prentiss, younger sister of Paula) and Charlie are constantly having to buck younger Susan up after she lets herself fall in love with some client and naively hope for a better, normal life out of what the men always treat as a transaction. Charlie and “Bill” hustle a transvestite client (Bert Remsen) of theirs without a hint of guilt, or prejudice.

And unlike most Altman films, you never lose the feeling that you’re immersed in the reality of the seedy bars, backroom poker games or Reno-sized casinos, which sometimes have actors in bit parts, but rely a lot of real dealers and barmaids and amateurs who seem like real gamblers. The crowd scenes here — at the track, at the fights — are the most realistic Altman ever filmed.

He even gave the cliched “get even with the guy who beat me up” scene Altman comic touches to go along with a degree of “What it worth it?” blood.

“California Split” is a classic “on a roll” gambling comedy, more “Let It Ride” than the tutorial and scary “Rounders,” and very much the inspiration for “Win It All” or the somewhat more straight-laced Ryan Reynolds/Ben Mendelsohn gambling partners tale, “Mississippi Grind.”

Segal’s William is either a chronic loser, or a guy who’s settled into a losing streak — a lost marriage, a teetering career and an increasingly intimate relationship with his bookie.

Gould’s Charlie takes his wins and never really lets us see his losses, which is where William’s complaint “Where do you get your CONFIDENCE?” comes from. We see Charlie snake some woman out of placing a winning bet at the track, a bet which he makes and becomes a huge score. We see him clean up at assorted poker tables, and hear where he went when he disappears for a chunk of the picture as William slides into debt and into trouble at work (a young and pimply Jeff Goldblum plays his callow editor in a single scene). Charlie went to Mexico, and the fact that we’ve seen him with rolls of cash just makes us realize that he’s a social media era gambler before there was social media.

“I’m in Tijuana. I’m at the dog track. What do I know about dogs?”

He only lets us see what he wants us to see.

Throw these two together, soak them in alcohol and flop sweat and let them sing and kvetch their way from Santa Anita to Reno, with Segal playing the straight man to Charlie’s offhand, laid-back but non-stop “Altmanesque” patter.

At a poker club’s table filled with little old ladies, overheard above the bets, antes and banter — “I don’t care how old you are, right in the choppers, lady.”

They sing songs from “Dumbo” and bet on everything from pick-up basketball games to who can name all seven dwarfs.

And when the end of the line comes, it lands with a soft thud. Because in gambling, as in life, there are no hard finales or final curtains, just a “streak” that ends, a chapter that closes and another one begins. There’s always another “40-80 lowball stud game in Reno” on the horizon.

“Deal me in.”

Rating: R, bloody violence, nudity, alcohol abuse, smoking, profanity

Cast: Elliott Gould, George Segal, Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles, Bert Remsen

Credits: Directed by Robert Alman, scripted by Joseph Walsh. A Columbia release on Tubi, Roku, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:48

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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