American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“Jeez, Axel, I never seen such bad cards,” Axel Freed’s friend tells him consolingly. They’re standing in the kitchen of a New York apartment, and gray dawn is seeping through the smoke. Axel has never seen such bad cards either. His disbelief that anyone could draw so many lousy poker hands in a row has led him finally $44,000 into debt. He doesn’t have the money, but it’s been a bigtime game, and he has to find it somewhere or be in heavy trouble.
And that’s how Karel Reisz’s The Gambler begins: with a problem. The way Axel solves his problem is only fairly difficult. He borrows the money from his mother, who is a doctor. But then we discover that his problem is greater than his debt, because there is some final compulsion within him that won’t let him pay back the money. He needs to lose, to feel risk, to place himself in danger. He needs to gamble away the forty-four grand on even more hopeless bets because in a way it isn’t gambling that’s his obsession-it’s danger itself.
“I play in order to lose,” he tells his bookie at one point. “That’s what gets my juice going. If I only bet on the games I know, I could at least break even.” But he doesn’t want that. At one point, he’s driven to bet money he doesn’t really have on college basketball games picked almost at random out of the sports pages.
And yet Axel Freed is not simply a gambler, but a very complicated man in his mid-thirties who earns his living as a university literature teacher. He teaches Dostoyevski, William Carlos Williams, Thoreau. But he doesn’t seem to teach their works so much as what he finds in them to justify his own obsessions. One of the students in his class has Axel figured out so completely that she always has the right answer, when he asks what Thoreau is saying, or what Dostoyevski is saying. They’re saying, as Axel reads them, to take risks, to put the self on the line.