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Karel Reisz, "The Gambler"

minute biography of Isadora Duncan, starring Vanessa Redgrave, and its original version inspired praise but not much business. Its American distributor chopped whole scenes and sections out of it, released it as "Loves of Isadora," saw it do even worse business, and for a time made Reisz almost unemployable.

Those years were spent first on preparations to film Andre Malraux's "Man's Fate," a project that Fred Zinnemann had also worked on, and that proved too expensive; and then with a screenplay he worked on with John Le Carre and, as he says, "could never quite get right."

Then one day a first script by a young New Yorker, James Toback, came in over the transom, and Reisz liked it at once. It was about an intellectual college teacher who uses his compulsive gambling losses as a means of testing himself. Reisz, who hadn't previously worked in America, came to New York, spent six months with Toback rewriting the screenplay, and cast James Caan as the professorial risktaker The result, "The Gambler," represents filmmaking on an intense, fascinating scale a movie that's at once a character study and a thriller.

"The Gambler," which is playing now in neighborhood theaters, runs the risk of being considered merely a case study of compulsive gambling, sort of a tract for Gamblers Anonymous. But it is much more than that. It gives us a sense of three generations of a family, and we develop a pretty complete notion of why its hero, in his mid30s, seeks so desperately to fail.

He is the grandson of an immigrant, still active at 80, who came to America with nothing in his pocket, fought and killed his way into a position of power, and then went on to attain respectability as the head of the nation's largest chain of furniture stores. His mother is a doctor, capable and independent.

He is, he supposes, an intellectual but in his classes he seems somehow to select those authors and passages that reinforce his own personality: In Thoreau, Dostoyevsky and William Carlos Williams he finds support for his own behavior (behavior which, of those three, only the streak gambler Dostoyevsky. might have understood).

"This film doesn't make judgments," Reisz says. "It's a movie about what this man is like and how he feels -- not whether he's good or bad. He's a kind of hero, in a way, because he acts out his desires as an 18th Century Romantic might have. He doesn't sublimate, he knows the risks and he's driven to create uncertainty."

Reisz says his character has "the thirst of the intellectual to leave his books, to act, to experience life." At the same time, his immediate life offers him little opportunity to do that. His grandfather fought and won and his mother found a way to express herself importantly in a profession. But he finds his teaching ultimately sterile (even though he's good at it) and he has to structure these artificial ways to risk and win and, usually, lose.

"The film is being received in some quarters as a problem picture, a message picture, but at the narrative level this is a pure thriller," Reisz says, not without a trace of pride. "The film is dark and jagged and tense, and its structure is strange. We start at a high level of despair -- here's this man who owes $44,000 he doesn't have -- and then we decelerate, in a way, to look at his girl, his job, the fairly comic associates around him. And then we begin to build back to the crisis again. Since you already know how bad things can be, the fear that they'll get that worse again creates the tension."

All of Reisz' films have been about quasi-heroic people who exist resolutely on their own terms, and to hell with pleasing society. There was Albert Finney's rebellious, trapped working-class character in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," and David Warner's doomed Romantic in "Morgan," and poor Isadora Duncan, dancing herself into self-parody.

"There's a line there that connects those characters," says Reisz, "and yet I'm always being berated because I don't do just one sort of film. There you have a serious drama, and a comedy, and a biography, and here's a thriller. What I try to do is make the style consistent with the character . . . that we start by knowing him, and end by perhaps even understanding him a bit.

"There's a scene in 'The Gambler' that depends on that. James Caan is picked up by an enforcer for the mob and thrown into a basement room to wait until the big man can see him. I literally had Caan on the screen for two full minutes in that scene, doing nothing. It was a moment of contact with himself, a moment of truth. The scene could have been bloody boring, but it wasn't, because by then we knew this person so well that we were fascinated by the sight of him facing, with horror, what he had gotten himself into."

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