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Jackpot! Altman’s ‘California Split’

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Among the marvelous works of Robert Altman in that breathless stretch from M*A*S*H (1970) to Nashville (1975) is his gambling movie, California Split, which inexplicably disappeared from circulation for decades. On VHS, it made for the usual muddy pan-and-scan nightmare, and a recent DVD lost a good three minutes of crucial footage over problems with music rights. Now a sparkling new print will play the Film Forum for a week, from October 13 to 19. Is this a good bet!

Written by Joseph Walsh, the movie is a mood piece, a low-key but intense study of an ecosystem that centers on a gambling-addicted magazine writer (George Segal) and his companion and enabler (Elliott Gould, doing the same inspired muttering he did in Altman’s The Long Goodbye). What a pair of jokers: Segal high-strung, his eyes shocked open; Gould the quintessential stoner type—a go-along-to-get-along wastrel who lives happily with two hookers (Ann Prentiss and the touchingly vulnerable Gwen Welles).

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.


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