In 1970 Robert Altman came barreling out of nowhere with M*A*S*H, on my personal Top 25 Best Films Ever List. Well … not exactly. He had actually served a 20-year apprenticeship in series television (everything from “Peter Gunn” and “Maverick” and “Bonanza” to “The Gale Storm Show” and “The Millionaire”) and made a few minor movies. But nothing prior to 1970 would have hinted that he had a movie like M*A*S*H in him. It was revolutionary in more ways than I could count. It came out the same year as Catch-22, based on the best anti-war book ever written, and directed by hotshot Mike Nichols … and completely blew it away. For the next 5 years he made a string of movies hardly ever matched by a Hollywood director before finally coming a cropper with Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Not every one of them was a box-office smash, and California Split is the most obscure of them. Until recently it wasn’t even available on video. And I can’t understand why, because it’s as good as any film he ever made.
It is a story about two gambling addicts, played wonderfully by George Segal and Elliot Gould, but like so many Altman films, it isn’t really about anything as simple as that. It’s a series of episodes, and in a normal film about gamblers it would chronicle a steady descent into desperation and, at the end, either redemption or final ruin. There’s really no other way to go when you’re talking about compulsive gamblers, right?
Wrong. Altman isn’t interested in moral lessons or tales of triumph. He simply shows us some guys who aren’t alive unless they have some action. They’ll bet on anything, and seeing them in their sleazy natural habitats, and the crazed characters that surround them, is the real delight of this film. Then Segal gets desperate, he owes a lot of money to a guy you don’t want to cross, and decides to solve his problem by—what else?—making a big, big win in Reno. Not bloody likely, right?
Wrong. He wins very big, and we are exhilarated along with him, and agonized along with Gould, who is banished from the games by Segal because he’s bringing bad luck … and then Altman goes one step further, which is to show the emptiness after the big win, the momentary realization by both of them that it isn’t about winning, for them. It’s about action. You know they will blow the big score, and so do they. But who cares, as long as you have some action …