"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, March 31, 2008

Wall Street

“The most valuable commodity I know is information.” – Gordon Gekko

When Oliver Stone made Wall Street (1987), he was riding high from the commercial and critical success of Platoon (1986). His father, Lou Stone, had been a stockbroker on Wall Street in New York City and this film was a son’s way of paying tribute to his father. Almost twenty years later, it has become one of the quintessential snapshots of the financial scene in the United States and epitomizes the essence of capitalism, greed, and materialism that was so prevalent in the 1980s.

Right from the opening frame, Stone establishes the dominant presence of greed and money by using a gold filter over shots of the New York City skyline with Frank Sinatra (known by his cronies as Chairman of the Board, no less) singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” foreshadowing the dizzying heights that the film’s protagonist, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), will briefly ascend. He is an up-and-coming stockbroker in the cutthroat financial world. He is hungry and willing to do anything to get rich. He idolizes Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), one of the most ruthless Wall Street tycoons who buys and then takes apart companies for profit. Bud aggressively pursues Gekko in the hopes that he can work for the businessman and follow in his footsteps. Bud soon finds himself in a moral dilemma: does he sell his soul for the gold key to Gekko’s world, or remain true to the blue collar roots of his labor union father (Martin Sheen)?

After the success of Platoon, Stone started researching a movie about quiz show scandals in the 1950s. However, at lunch with a film school friend and Los Angeles screenwriter Stanley Weiser, Stone heard an idea for a film that could be “Crime and Punishment on Wall Street. Two guys abusing each other on Wall Street,” as he remarked in James Riordan’s book, Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. The director had been thinking about this kind of a movie as early as 1981. He knew a New York businessman who was making millions and working long days, putting together deals all over the world. This man started making mistakes that cost him everything. Stone remembers that the “story frames what happens in my movie, which is basically a Pilgrim’s Progress of a boy who is seduced and corrupted by the allure of easy money. And in the third act, he sets out to redeem himself.” Stone and Weiser began researching the world of stock trading, junk bonds and corporate takeovers. They met a lot of powerful Wall Street movers and shakers. Reportedly, Bud Fox is said to be a composite of Owen Morrisey, who was involved in a $20 million insider trading scandal in 1985, Dennis Levine, Ivan Boesky, and others.

Stone met with Tom Cruise, who expressed an interest in playing Bud Fox, but the director had already committed to Charlie Sheen for the role. To research his role, the actor spent two days talking with David Brown, a Goldman Sachs trader who pleaded guilty to insider trading charges in 1986. Stone and Weiser began researching the world of stock trading, junk bonds, and corporate takeovers. They met a lot of powerful Wall Street movers and shakers. Weiser wrote the first draft, initially called Greed, with Stone writing another draft. Originally, the lead character was a young Jewish broker named Freddie Goldsmith, but Stone changed it to Bud Fox to avoid the misconception that Wall Street was controlled by Jews. According to Weiser, Gekko’s style of speaking was inspired by Stone. “When I was writing some of the dialogue I would listen to Oliver on the phone and sometimes he talks very rapid-fire, the way Gordon Gekko does.”

Stone wanted to shoot the movie in New York City, and that required a budget of at least $15 million. The studio that backed Platoon felt that it was too risky a project to bankroll and passed. Stone and producer Edward Pressman took it to 20th Century Fox, who loved it, and filming began in May 1987. Stone switched from 12 to 14-hours days in the last few weeks of principal photography before an impending directors' strike and finished five days ahead of schedule.

Stone brilliantly sets everything up in the opening minutes of the movie. Bud is first shown as an insignificant cog in the city. He’s mixed in with all the other 9-to-5ers — packed in a subway and then in the elevator up to the company where he works. Bud looks uncomfortable and unhappy. He does not want to be in there with all of these other people. He wants to be on the other side with all the money and with Gekko, who rides alone in his spacious limousine. As soon as Bud gets into work, Stone shows a montage of a typical business day — the hectic, rapid-fire pace as people buy, sell, and trade shares.

Taking his cue from another Faustian New York City tale, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Stone prolongs the first appearance of the film’s most charismatic character. When Bud goes to visit Gekko, we do not see him; we only hear his voice from within his office. It is an enticing teaser that makes Bud and the audience curious to see this man that everyone regards with such awe and reverence. When we finally do meet Gekko, it is a whirlwind first appearance. The camera roves around him aggressively as he never stops talking, making deals, and truly embodying the phrase, “time is money.” According to Stone, he was “making a movie about sharks, about feeding frenzies. Bob [director of photography Robert Richardson] and I wanted the camera to become a predator. There is no letup until you get to the fixed world of Charlie’s father, where the stationary camera gives you a sense of immutable values.” This is such a fantastic way to introduce Gekko as it perfectly conveys what makes him so alluring to someone like Bud: he is always in control, he is smart, and he knows exactly how to get what he wants.

Michael Douglas owns the role of Gekko, and by extension, dominates the movie with his larger than life character. He gets most of the film’s best dialogue and delivers it with such conviction. Douglas remembers when he first read the screenplay. “I thought it was a great part. It was a long script, and there were some incredibly long and intense monologues to open with. I’d never seen a screenplay where there were two or three pages of single-spaced type for a monologue. I thought, whoa! I mean, it was unbelievable.” There is a scene between Bud and Gekko in a limousine where he tells the younger man how the financial world works, how it operates and lays it all out, pushing Bud hard to go into business with him. It is one of the strongest scenes in the movie because you really believe what Gekko is saying and how Bud could be seduced by his words.

Douglas had just come off heroic roles, like the one in Romancing the Stone (1984) and was looking for something darker and edgier. The studio wanted Warren Beatty to play Gekko, but he was not interested. Stone initially wanted Richard Gere, but the actor passed and the director went with Douglas despite having been advised by others in Hollywood not to cast him. Stone remembers, "I was warned by everyone in Hollywood that Michael couldn't act, that he was a producer more than an actor and would spend all his time in his trailer on the phone." But the director found out that "when he's acting he gives it his all." The culmination of Douglas’ performance is his much lauded, often quoted, “Greed is good” speech that his character gives to a shareholders' meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over. He concludes by saying, “Greed is right; greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed – you mark my words – will save not only Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.” This is one of the best delivered monologues ever put to film, as Douglas goes from charming to downright threatening and back again, succinctly summing up the essence of ’80s capitalism and greed.

Stone was smart to cast Martin Sheen as Bud’s dad. He gets a lot of mileage out of the real father-son relationship between them. It makes their chemistry that much more genuine. It also lends itself to their heated conversations — especially the one in an elevator where Bud accuses his father of being jealous and ashamed that his son is more prosperous and successful. The shocked, wounded expression on the elder Sheen’s face says it all, and makes this scene that much more painful to watch. This scene also makes their tearful reconciliation at the hospital after the father suffers a heart attack all the more poignant. It is an intense, emotional moment as the tears start flowing and Bud begins along the gradual road to redemption.

However, Stone made the mistake of casting Daryl Hannah as Bud Fox’s materialistic girlfriend. She was having problems relating to her character, and struggled with the role and personal problems. The director was aware early on that she was not right for the role, but arrogantly refused to admit the mistake. He remarked, “Daryl Hannah was not happy doing the role and I should have let her go. All my crew wanted to get rid of her after one day of shooting. My pride was such that I kept saying I was going to make it work.” Stone also had difficulties with Sean Young, who made her opinions known that Hannah should be fired and she should play her role instead. Young would show up to the set late and unprepared. She also did not get along with Charlie Sheen, which caused unnecessary friction on the set. In retrospect, Stone felt that Young was right and he should have swapped roles between her and Hannah.

Critical reaction at the time was generally favorable, with Douglas consistently being singled out for his strong performance. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said of Stone’s film in his review, “His film is an attack on an atmosphere of financial competitiveness so ferocious that ethics are simply irrelevant, and the laws are sort of like the referee in pro wrestling — part of the show.” Desson Howe of the Washington Post wrote, “The film is best when Gekko and Fox power it up, but Wall Street falls into the red when Stone's heavy-handed moralizing takes over.” His criticism of the moralizing is one of the most common complaints of Stone’s films in general. Finally, the always witty Vincent Canby in the New York Times praised Douglas’ performance, but felt that “Mr. Sheen lacks the necessary, nervy intelligence, and Miss Hannah has the screen presence of a giant throw-pillow.” While a bit harsh on Sheen (who was better in Platoon, but does a fine job here, all things considered), he saves his venom for Hannah. True, she was horribly miscast, but wasn’t that bad.

Visually, Stone ends the film much as he began it, with Bud reduced to an insignificant cog in the city yet again, his future uncertain. Wall Street is a morality play about the seductive nature of greed, examining how far someone is willing to go and what they are prepared to do to become rich. The irony is that many people admired Gekko, and Stone has said on the supplementary material to the film’s DVD that people have approached him saying that they were inspired to get into the financial world because of this character. The 2000 film Boiler Room even features a group of young stockbrokers watching Wall Street on video and quoting along to some of Gekko’s more memorable dialogue. People who admire Douglas’ character don’t seem to realize that Stone is not idealizing him, but merely showing the seductive lure of someone like Gekko. He is not someone to admire, and the film leaves his fate somewhat ambiguous, while it is Bud who goes to jail. It is this stinging indictment that lingers long after the credits end — that rich, powerful men like Gekko never seem to get punished for their transgressions, while the common man, like Bud, suffer instead.
This article originally appeared at The Armchair Director's website.


Garcia, Guy D. "In the Trenches of Wall Street." Time. July 20, 1987.

Kiselyak, Charles. "Money Never Sleeps: The Making of Wall Street." Wall Street DVD. 20th Century Fox. 2007.

Leigh, Alison. “Making Wall Street Look Like Wall Street.” The New York Times. December 30, 1987.

McGuigan, Cathleen. “A Bull Market in Sin.” Newsweek. December 14, 1987.

Weiser, Stanley. “Wall Street’s Message Was Not ‘Greed is Good’” Los Angeles Times. October 5, 2008.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Insider

In the spring of 1993, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, head of Research and Development at Brown and Williamson (then, the third largest tobacco company in the United States), was fired from his job for refusing to go along with company policy. He was unable to find another job and complained to a friend at Brown and Williamson about his severance package. It included medical coverage for his chronically ill daughter but the rest of his package was not good enough to maintain his way of life. However, by voicing his displeasure, Wigand had apparently violated his extensive confidentiality agreement with Brown and Williamson that forbade him from talking about anything to do with the company.

Several months later, Brown and Williamson filed a breach of contract suit against Wigand that threatened to end his medical coverage. Lowell Bergman, producer for the television news magazine, 60 Minutes, received a box of confidential technical documents from Philip Morris. He started looking for someone to decipher them. A contact of his referred Wigand to him. The two men first met covertly in a hotel lobby in Louisville, Kentucky in February 1994. Wigand needed the money and agreed to be paid as a consultant on Bergman's Philip Morris story. Over the next few months, Bergman persuaded Wigand to tell his story on 60 Minutes.

Getting Wigand to talk was a big coup for Bergman in his fourteen-year stint at CBS. Working with Mike Wallace, Bergman had landed some of the most controversial interviews for the show. Wigand was the highest-ranking tobacco executive to talk about the industry's practices. In his interview with Bergman, Wigand accused then president of Brown and Williamson, Thomas Sandefur, of perjury when he and other tobacco CEOs told Congress that they did not believe nicotine was addictive. Wigand also said that Brown and Williamson stopped his search for safer cigarettes and fired him after he protested the use of a cancer-causing flavor addictive pipe tobacco.

Brown and Williamson denied these charges, but Bergman, Wallace and 60 Minutes' executive producer, Don Hewitt, planned to run Wigand's interview anyway. In the fall of 1995, CBS intervened and threatened to kill the Wigand interview. The network was controlled by Laurence Tisch and his family. The Tisch family also ran Lorillard Inc, a tobacco company that was negotiating with Brown and Williamson to purchase several cigarette brands. Tisch's son was also one of the CEOs who testified before Congress. CBS Inc. also feared that a threatening Brown and Williamson multibillion dollar lawsuit over the Wigand interview would kill a pending sale of CBS to Westinghouse Electric. This sale was anticipated to earn top CBS executives millions of dollars from stock options (which it in fact did, later on).

60 Minutes paid Wigand $12,000 to decipher the Philip Morris documents and agreed to indemnify Wigand against any libel suits brought against him as a result of the interview. This made it seem like the show paid a source. CBS lawyers feared that, as a result, Brown and Williamson would sue them for "tortuous interference" — that the network had induced Wigand to violate his confidentiality agreement.

Before Wigand's segment aired on 60 Minutes, Brown and Williamson threatened CBS with lawsuits. Hewitt sided with the network brass and agreed to air Bergman's story with a watered-down version of Wigand's interview that did not mention his name, show his face or include his devastating revelations. Bergman expected Wallace to side with him but the veteran newsman did not. As the November 14 air date approached, Wallace switched back to Bergman's side and fought to get the uncut Wigand interview but CBS refused. Bergman realized that he had challenged the wrong people. He leaked the story and the reasons why CBS killed the Wigand interview to The New York Times. When Michael Mann was in post-production on Heat (1995), Bergman was going through the events depicted in The Insider (1999). Bergman discussed his trials and tribulations with Mann and called his friend, Disney executive vice-president, Susan Lyne about getting a job as a consultant. There were many stories he had worked on during his stint with 60 Minutes that would make good films but she suggested turning his most recent troubles with CBS into one in 1996.

Mann first conceived of what would become The Insider (then known only as "The Untitled Tobacco Project") between the Wigand-lite aired interview in November 1995 and February 1996, when the segment aired in its entirety and Bergman was asked to leave 60 Minutes. Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," provided Jeffrey Wigand's side of the story and Lyne obtained the movie rights in April 1996.

In keeping with all of Mann's films, the viewer is immediately thrust into a situation with no explanation and no dialogue. The first image is that of an extreme close-up of some kind of white texture captured by a shaky, hand-held camera with a driving drum beat on the soundtrack. It takes a few seconds before it is revealed to be a cloth, a blindfold on man who is being driven through a busy, noisy Middle Eastern city. The rush of noises and images is an assault on the senses. The man is surrounded by dangerous looking men with guns who eventually lead him to a room with a man who is identified as Sheik Fadlallah (Clifford Curtis), leader of the terrorist group, Hezbollah. The blindfolded man, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), is here to set up an interview with the Sheik for 60 Minutes. Mann introduces Bergman in this fashion to grab the audience's attention with a single detail and then gradually expands out to the bigger picture, which symbolizes the film's structure and its style. The events in the picture are created from a single event and everything grows from that one incident.

This scene establishes the no-nonsense tone of the movie and the professionalism of the characters. Lowell Bergman is a worldly man who is not afraid to speak his mind even when talking to the leader of the Hezbollah. He is willing to go, literally, blind into a potentially dangerous situation to get what he wants. He is a consummate professional who knows how to handle things: the quintessential Mann protagonist. The punchline of this scene is that when Bergman finally removes his blindfold, the Sheik and his people have already expertly and quietly disappeared.

Jeffrey Wigand's (Russell Crowe) introduction is also important in how it establishes his character. He is shown in the foreground of the scene but is out of focus. There is a party going on in the background that is in focus but we cannot hear it. The film cuts to a reverse shot from the party's point-of-view. Wigand is almost obscured by the party goers who are oblivious to him. Wigand is all alone in his office which establishes right away that he is an isolated protagonist. This is reinforced by the shot of him in his office: it is dark, he is alone, very quiet.

Wigand is next seen in an elevator and the scene is filtered through a hellish red light. He is framed in an unusual close-up with the camera right behind his right ear — very close and intimate. He leaves the office building in slow motion with a half-circle camera movement so that a security guard's hearing device is the focal point. This hints at the paranoia that will invade Wigand's life later on in the movie and the first visual motif of the theme of communication that reaches its zenith in this film. The way Wigand's exit is framed also visually echoes Bergman similar exit at the end of the film, except that for Wigand this is not the end, but only the beginning of his problems.

Bergman and Wigand meet in person at the former executive's house to clear up a few things. Bergman knows that Wigand wants to talk and so they talk after dropping off Wigand's kids at school. Bergman is smart in how he handles Wigand. He slowly gains his confidence, gets to know him and then lays it all out:
"If you got vital insider stuff, the American people for their welfare really do need to know and you feel impelled to disclose it and violate your agreement in doing so, that's one thing. On the other hand, you were to honor this agreement then that's it. You do so. You say nothing, you do nothing. There's only one guy who can figure that out for ya and that's you."

Wigand is still on the fence and you can see the conflict on his face. Even though Bergman is telling him that it is his decision, ultimately, he's pushing for Wigand to talk. The composition of the shot of Wigand talking is significant in that there is a river behind him but his back is to it. Water is normally associated with safety and freedom in Mann's films but in this scene it provides none of these things. This is a signifier that Wigand should not be meeting with Bergman and talking about his work with Brown and Williamson because it could threaten his life and that of his family's.

One of Mann's strengths is how he conveys expositional dialogue. This is very difficult without boring the audience who is conditioned to tune out during long, talky scenes. The scene between Bergman and Wigand in a Japanese restaurant is the centerpiece of the film, much in the same way that the Hannibal Lecktor/Will Graham conversation in Manhunter (1986) and the Vincent Hanna/ Neil McCauley restaurant scene in Heat are important because they all represent the meeting of the driving forces of their respective films. The characters meet, verbally spar with each other, conveys, either implicitly or explicitly, their worldview and most important sort things out between each other.

Crowe is excellent in this scene as he reacts to Bergman asking him to list all the bad things he's done in his life that could be used against him in the media. Crowe looks down as if embarrassed. He hunches over defensively with his hands together and is visibly upset as he nervous pauses between each incidence or the way he pushes back his glasses with his middle finger every so often, and his jerky head movements. The tics and mannerisms are so believable here.

The Insider is a film about how these two men justify themselves in the eyes of their peers and their family. Bergman has to struggle with going commercial: the soft approach for a bigger audience versus critical stories on big topics for a smaller public. One could read this as a dilemma for Mann himself: how does he feel directing a multi-million dollar production about big tobacco for another big company like Disney. One of the questions that the film poses is how far can you go? Are you willing to sell out or can you remain true to your beliefs regardless of the external opposition and internal pressure? The characters in The Insider are not dodging bullets or getting into car chases on a daily basis. They have to worry about real issues and this gives the movie a ring of honesty to it.

Al Pacino attests to the value of underplaying his role (much as he did in Donnie Brasco and Insomnia). It is a very thoughtful, careful performance that does not resort to his usual over-the-top pyrotechnics evident in Heat and The Devil's Advocate (1997). Admittedly, those roles featured larger-than-life characters, whereas with The Insider, Pacino is playing a real person and is therefore responsible to play it more realistic. This is evident in the scene where Bergman meets again with Hewitt, Wallace and, this time, Eric Kluster (Stephen Tobolowsky), the head of CBS News. He suggests that an alternate version of the Wigand interview be done, just in case. When Bergman refuses Kluster says that the alternate will be done with or without him, which causes Bergman to say, "Since when has the paragon of investigative journalism allowed lawyers to determine the news content on 60 Minutes." Then, Bergman uses his trump card: the sale between CBS and Westinghouse – that will make CBS executives like Kluster very rich – could be threatened by a nasty lawsuit from Brown and Williamson. Pacino really shines in this scene as he defiantly stands up to Kluster and lays it all out: 60 Minutes is being compromised and pressured by internal forces.
"And Jeffrey Wigand who's out on a limb, does he go on television and tell the truth? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Yes. Are we gonna air it? Of course not. Why? Because he's not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth. That's why we're not gonna air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets."

The temptation for Pacino to go over the top in this scene is great but he keeps it contained. He is angry but does not chew up the scenery. And then he goes in for the kill when Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) doesn't back him up. He rages, "What are you? Are you a businessman or are you a newsman?" It is a rhetorical question because it is obvious what he is. Then, Bergman looks at Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) to back him up but he does not. The look on Pacino's face says it all: shock and amazement. Instead of exploding as we expect Pacino to do, he says nothing and just leaves the room. He plays against expectation. We expect the typical Pacino explosion but he does not go for it.

Mann received the largest amount of positive reviews of his career for The Insider. Brian Johnson of Macleans magazine wrote that it was "the best investigative thriller since All the President's Men dramatized the Watergate scandal 23 years ago." He also wrote that "for all its surface style, however, The Insider goes deep, penetrating the corporate mind-set that has sacrificed news to infotainment." One of the few less than ecstatic reviews came from J. Hoberman of the weekly alternative newspaper, The Village Voice. He criticized the film for "confusing self-importance with importance," and wrote that Mann "inflates his potentially nifty thriller with superfluous scenes extra-padded by wasted motion." When Hoberman did praise the film it was in a backhanded way. He wrote that "the movie is stolen by Christopher Plummer's hilarious Mike Wallace impersonation...His Wallace is the most naturalistic character in the film." One of the most insightful reviews came from Manohla Dargis of the L.A. Weekly who recognized that "the issue at its heart is free will - to smoke, to make right and wrong decisions, to sell out, to not sell yourself out and everyone along with you." She went on to also praise "Plummer's fiendish read on Wallace," and how it "makes it hard to imagine ever looking at the newsman with a straight face again."

The Insider is Mann's masterpiece because it represents the perfect union of his highly stylized mise-en-scene with his thematic pre-occupations. The style never overwhelms the content. The film also shows an evolution in his themes. Once again, a protagonist's family life is destroyed as a result of his professional nature but in this case it was for the greater good. Wigand did what he did because he felt that the American public had a right to know that cigarettes were purposely made to be addictive. In doing so, he sacrificed his own happiness and security.

Monday, March 17, 2008

California Split

“I’ve had a couple of good wins, but they don’t compare to the losses. People only remember the wins.” – Robert Altman

In the 1970s, Elliott Gould and Robert Altman were an unbeatable team. They first worked together on M*A*S*H (1970), a savage satire of the military, then again on a radical, contemporary reworking of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Long Goodbye (1973), and finally completed the hat trick with California Split (1974), an ode to obsessive gamblers. For years, this film has been relegated to obscurity, showing up occasionally on television and tied up in legal issues over the music which delayed its release on DVD.

A nice, self-reflexive moment kicks things off: gambler and card shark, Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) is killing time before a poker match by watching an instructional video on the game. The voiceover narration intones, “It has been said that everyone in America understands poker or wants to. It is one of America’s most popular games and since you’ve shown an obvious interest in coming here we have prepared a short film to teach you the fundamentals.” This voiceover could easily be talking to the audience watching this film as Altman introduces us to this world and the characters that inhabit it.

While this video is playing, Altman’s camera sweeps across the game room, setting the scene and introducing the film’s other main character, Bill Denny (George Segal). The video is also functional, providing a crash course on a couple of actual poker hands and the house rules. The opening poker game does a good job of showing the dynamics of professional poker playing and is also very funny as Charlie fleeces an irate player who then punches Bill, thinking that they are in league with each other. In a nice bit of business, a dazed Bill has enough sense to pick up his poker chips while all hell is breaking loose. For this scene, the poker club was built in a dance hall. Altman set up a few gambling situations and filmed them happening. None of the actual poker players’ dialogue was scripted.

Fed up with the unrealistic dialogue he and other actors were forced to say on a regular basis, struggling actor Joseph Walsh wrote a screenplay about his own gambling addiction in 1971. Steven Spielberg, fresh from directing the made-for-TV film Duel (1971), was originally supposed to direct. He and Walsh worked on the script every day for nine months. The director was fascinated by the characters and would react to Walsh’s script, offering suggestions. At the time, the screenplay was called Slide and the two men had a deal to make it at MGM with Walsh as producer and Steve McQueen in the starring role. The whole story was going to be set at Circus Circus in Las Vegas because the studio owned the casino.

A month before filming started, the studio experienced a shake-up at the executive level and with it came a new set of changes. MGM wanted the story to be a Mafia-related “sting” concept with Dean Martin as one of the two main characters. Walsh would no longer be the producer. He and Spielberg left MGM because he realized that they did not understand the point of the film: “I wanted the picture to be almost a celebration of the gambling, the joy of it, going along with it, and then, at the end, you could see where the trap comes in.” Spielberg and Walsh took the script to Universal Pictures where they had an agreement with executives Richard Zanuck and David Brown. However, Spielberg decided to work on another project called Lucky Lady (1975) leaving Walsh and his film stranded.

The writer’s agent, Guy McElwaine, contacted Altman’s agent George Lito, and the director was given the script, read it and loved it. For years, he had wanted to do a gambling film with “the ambience of gambling, and then point out it had nothing to do with money.” He was drawn to Walsh’s script because he liked to gamble himself, his father was a gambler, and the director knew a lot of gamblers. David Begelman, the new studio chief of Columbia Pictures, was a former agent who knew Altman’s agent and greenlighted the screenplay to be made into a film. Walsh was a novice and unaware of Altman’s reputation for taking liberties with the scripts of for his films. However, Walsh was very protective of his script and argued with Altman numerous times over certain details. The only serious revisions to the script that the director made before filming were to background scenes. The writer had seen other Altman films and wasn’t always satisfied with how these scenes played out. He told the director that they could be changed but that he would rewrite them. Walsh wrote a full script for the background scenes, three to four page scenes for good actors to play.

George Segal was cast early on and Altman mentioned Gould but Walsh, even though he was childhood friends with the actor, held back. Altman and Walsh saw other actors, like Peter Falk and Robert De Niro, but kept coming back to Gould. Finally, the actor called Walsh and convinced him that he was right for the role. According to Walsh, on the set, Gould was full of confidence while Segal was insecure. The writer remembers that on the first day of shooting Gould “was there as that character . . . After seven days, George Segal came to me and said, ‘This guy’s [Gould] unbelievable. He’s an octopus. He is absolutely strangling me to death. I don’t even know what to do.’” Walsh told Segal Gould had lived the life of his character and said, “don’t try to act with him, don’t try to outdeal him . . . be off-base – just what you’re feeling – and it’s all working.”

Altman employed members of Synanon, the rehab organization of former convicts and addicts, as extras. The organization received a flat sum and delivered as many as needed each day. California Split marked the first time Altman experimented with the use of the eight-track sound system that allowed eight separate audio channels to be recorded and helped develop Altman’s trademark of overlapping dialogue. To this end, he gave the supporting actors and extras significant emphasis on the soundtrack. On the first day of shooting, the effort to keep eight separate channels clean and distinct made everyone very anxious. Haskell Wexler had originally been approached to shoot the film but Altman opted to go with relative newcomer Paul Lohmann who would go on to shoot Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).

California Split is one of Altman’s trademark character-driven films. It is less concerned with plot than behavior as we watch the friendship between Bill and Charlie develop over a mutual love of gambling. Charlie is a wisecracking joker and experienced gambler constantly looking for the next score. Initially, Bill isn’t as committed a gambler (he works at a magazine during the day) but he’s well on his way and hanging out with Charlie doesn’t help. As the film progresses and the two men hang out more, Bill starts to become more addicted to the gambling lifestyle. He blows off work early to meet Charlie at the track and sells his possessions for money. Bill and Charlie are gambling addicts who ride the high arcs and the low valleys, never passing up a bet. At a boxing match they put money on the outcome of the fight with a fellow spectator.

Those who know Elliott Gould and George Segal only from their contemporary sitcom appearances (Friends and Just Shoot Me, respectively), should see California Split if only to see these guys in their prime and working with a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Gould and Segal have never been better and play well of each other. There is good chemistry between them as Gould plays the more experienced gambler in contrast to Segal’s more naïve one.

The film reportedly grossed over five million dollars at the box office despite the studio pulling it early from theaters. It was well-received by critics, making it on The New York Times annual Ten Best list of that year. Roger Ebert in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "At the end of California Split we realize that Altman has made a lot more than a comedy about gambling; he's taken us into an American nightmare, and all the people we met along the way felt genuine and looked real," and praised it as "a great movie and it's a great experience, too." Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, praised the film for being "dense with fine, idiosyncratic detail, a lot of which is supplied by Mr. Gould and Mr. Segal as well as by members of the excellent supporting cast.” In addition, Walsh received a Writers Guild of America nomination.

California Split is not afraid to show the ugly side of gambling. Bill sells his car and his possessions for a big poker game in Reno. Charlie exacts a rough, bloody revenge on the guy who mugged him at the beginning of the film. These are not always likeable guys and to Altman’s credit he doesn’t try to romanticize or judge them, leaving that up to the audience. Altman wanted to convey the empty feeling that winning from gambling gives these guys as he told Film Heritage magazine, “the mistaken feeling that winning . . . you can’t spend that money; you don’t go out and pay the milk bill with it unless you’re about to go to jail. It just means that you can play that much longer . . . In other words, it’s passes. It’s more tickets to the amusement park – that’s all it is.” California Split is arguably Altman’s loosest film in terms of plot and one of the richest in terms of character and observing their behavior.


Macklin, F.A. “The Artist and the Multitude Are Natural Enemies.” Film Heritage. Winter 1976/77.

McGilligan, Patrick. Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff. St. Martin's Press. 1989.

Reid, Max. "The Making of California Split: An Interview with Robert Altman". Filmmakers Newsletter. October 1974.