Bill Denny (George Segal) and Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) are as close to being professional gamblers as they're ever going to get. At public poker games held in a Los Angeles casino, they end up at the same table and all is going quietly until Bill, dealing, throws Charlie a card that almost flies off the table if Bill hadn't caught it in time. However, one of the other players objects strongly and a shouting match erupts with Charlie getting to keep his winnings and the objector carted away by security. Bill and Charlie are going to get along...
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.
Whereas most Altman films have a steely core, it's the goodnatured banter and friendship of Bill and Charlie that keep this one bubbling away nicely. Not to say there isn't cynicism here, because there is, but time and time again the two protagonists win on the horses or at a boxing match which makes the story stray into fantasy, wish-fulfilment territory. It's only the fact that they're soon parted from their profits that we can believe these guys as losers, when they are robbed.
If ever there was a film with a jazzy, loose structure it is California Split, and you have to concentrate at first to pick up on the plot in among all the riffing about naming the Seven Dwarfs or whatever. But eventually it emerges, with the always optimistic Charlie coasting through life while a few bumps and bruises don't get him down too much, yet the more serious Bill falling dangerously into debt and needing a big win to help him out. As he grows more gloomy, especially when Charlie disappears without telling him where he's going, the tone becomes darker.
On the other hand, this is a comedy as well, and there are a good few moments of hilarity. Bluffing the cross dresser and being pelted with oranges by an aggrieved woman are two of the funnier moments, but perhaps the best is Charlie's one-armed man playing the piccolo impression, not only because it's very funny but because it comes at a point where Bill needs cheering up and Segal's laughter seems genuine. For the grand finale, the duo head off to Reno so Bill can compete in a high stakes poker game, with Charlie as his lucky mascot - as long as he doesn't hang around during the game, that is. The last scenes where Bill reflects on his winning streak and reaches a conclusion are a little hard to swallow, but it's the two charismatic leads who make this worth watching.
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.