Robert Altman’s California Split capped one of the most remarkable five-year runs any director has ever had. Altman had already made six movies in that span, three of which—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and Thieves Like Us—had been masterpieces, and a fourth the Zeitgeist-defining M*A*S*H. All of these films were innovative exercises that reenergized worn-out genres by bending, but not breaking, their rules; despite radical differences in setting and style each of them flaunted a formal sophistication that gave artistic ballast to their seemingly tossed-off, often raunchy contents. Meanwhile, the huge canvas of Altman’s next film, Nashville, and its even larger subject—nothing less than “America”—would lead to its being taken for his “masterpiece” in a critical spasm that mistook ambitiousness for actual accomplishment. California Split has none of these claims to fame, and yet upon its arrival it felt like—it still feels like—the quintessential Altman movie.
Compared to the wide grasp of Nashville, it’s about nothing—nothing at all: just a pair of gamblers, and some stuff that happens to them. And that’s it. Though it’s familiar with every inch of the compulsive gambler’s mentality (Altman himself was a heavy gambler for years), it doesn’t bother dressing up its insights as formal observations; there’s no lesson to take away from California Split, and even less of a moral. Even that opium dream called McCabe & Mrs. Miller grows increasingly dependent on its plot as it progresses, but California Split is about as untethered from meaning as a film can be while still cohering as a narrative. At its conclusion its protagonists are left hanging at what may be (but probably isn’t) a pivotal moment in their lives, but we’re not really asked to consider whether they’re at a true crossroads. Instead of building to a single climactic point like a pyramid, the movie’s episodes are tied together like a string of Christmas lights, each colorful but each equally luminous, so that the sudden appearance of a frightening stickup artist receives no more emphasis than a frazzled call-girl splashing too much milk on her Fruit Loops.
Hot on the heels of Hawkeye Pierce and John McCabe, Charlie Waters and Bill Denny join Altman’s pantheon of emotionally stunted heroes. Charlie (Elliot Gould) wears loud shirts and has a louder mouth, and he’s filled with native wisdom—who else knows that shaving cream makes a bruise feel better? Bill (George Segal) is a magazine writer on the fast track to nowhere; affable but rudderless he watches the world at a remove, certain that a place awaits him in it but unsure where it is. Barely more than overgrown boys, Charlie and Bill play the ponies, sit in on some poker games, frequent a lot of watering holes, and get in a fight or two, but mostly they just talk. (Charlie especially has a lot to say.) Their lives are conspicuously incomplete by traditional standards: Bill is divorced and seems to know no one other than Charlie, while Charlie, despite housing with a couple of hookers who adore him, appears to have transcended sex altogether. Both too loose and too tight at the same time, bored to death by the straight life and absolute slaves to superstition, they don’t feel alive unless they’ve got a few bucks riding on some meaningless wager. (Their drunken bet to see which of them can name the Seven Dwarfs—“Here come seven like a Gatling gun”—comes to naught when they get lost in their memories of Dumbo.) After their random meeting we follow the zigzag, why-not course of their lives through a series of incidents which make us feel like we’ve laid our fingertips on the pulse of real life.
California Split is like a Cassavetes film with a more pronounced funnybone; not many movies this focused and “real” are also of such bracing good cheer. Despite being set in an American limbo—the bleached and barren spaces of racetrack concourses and used-car lots, the eternal twilight of coffee shops and casinos—California Split hums with a gambler’s energy and restless optimism. If Altman’s attitude towards acting might be summed up as “Behave, don’t act,” he gives us Bill and Charlie’s lives unburdened by any of the moral baggage other directors would have felt obligated to lay on them. A movie that’s almost entirely devoted to atmosphere—both in terms of its characters’ emotional terrain and the Dewar’s-rocks settings they thrive in—that’s California Split.
Most of the movie sways to the rhythms of smoky lounge standards, perhaps the goofily bouncy “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown” that Bill and Charlie take up as their theme song. (Altman’s editor was Lou Lombardo, who’d previously cut McCabe and The Long Goodbye, as well as that seminal editing textbook known as The Wild Bunch. Some men leave their mark on the world.) But the movie takes a stark emotional downturn occasioned by the one thing resembling a plot point in California Split: Bill’s debt to his bookie, Spark. Trying to raise the money in an all-night poker game only wipes him out, leaving him stumbling into the glare of a L.A. sunrise, and the ensuing coffee-shop scene is an exercise in desperation as Spark effortlessly dismantles his bullshit. The threat Spark poses to Bill’s confidence—the one weapon a gambler relies on more than his luck—is even larger than the threat to his well-being, so it’s a good thing when that picture of conviction, Charlie Waters, reappears fresh from beating some teenagers out of their pocket-money in a pickup game of basketball. (The sight of Charlie pulling up his sweat socks is almost as satisfying as the moment when John McCabe proves that he indeed carries a derringer.) Bill hocks his last few possessions and sets off for a high-stakes poker game in Reno, with Charlie in tow as much talisman as partner. California Split comes to a delirious boil during Bill’s long winning streak in a Nevada casino, a 20-minute outburst of fractured yet free-flowing filmmaking.
People who know Segal and Gould from Just Shoot Me! or Friends are going to be especially surprised by California Split. Gould was busy rehabilitating a career he’d all but destroyed through egotism and overexposure after his successes in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and M*A*S*H, and the first step in his recovery had been playing Philip Marlowe as an accomplished monologist in Altman’s The Long Goodbye. But there his mumbled soliloquies were for self-amusement only; Charlie Waters’ logorrhea is intended for the world to hear. An incorrigible optimist (“I’d like a thousand dollars’ worth of credit,” he tells a casino cashier before finally settling for, “Tell you what, just give me a roll of nickels”), Charlie wanders through the movie firing off salvos of questions, complaints and bits of trivia that keep all deeper thoughts safely at bay. With his unkempt hair, Hawaiian shirts, and (for the latter part of the film) a large bandage over his nose, he exudes a wonderful casualness which toggles back and forth with surprising cloudbursts of serious-as-a-heart-attack sobriety. George Segal gave so many fine performances in movie after movie during the ’60s and early ’70s, but as Bill Denny he mostly maintains a melancholy watchfulness until Bill’s hot streak, when he stitches together a seamless emotional arc—from wariness to manic glee to soul-weary heaviness—as all hell is breaking loose around him.
A lot of things help make California Split a special movie, but the biggest one might be its bit players and extras. The biggest cast names after Segal and Gould belong to Ann Prentiss and a couple of Altman’s stock players (including a not-yet-famous Jeff Goldblum), but beyond these special cases Altman scorned the practice of using proximate “types” and instead went for originals, filling the corners of his movie with the lived-in faces of real gamblers and ex-addicts from Synanon. (The movie’s writer, Joseph Walsh, brings his refined spookiness to the part of Sparkie; his brother Ed plays Lou, the skuzzy troglodyte who becomes Charlie’s recurring nemesis.) For long stretches Altman pays as much attention to these anonymous faces as he does his stars, bringing them close enough to us that we can smell the cigarettes on their breath, and by using an eight-track recorder he was able to cherry-pick the highlights of these veterans’ table talk—a technological first. The result plants us right in the middle of Charlie and Bill’s world, until we feel like we’re bumping elbows with its cardsharks and slatternly barflies.
Too many people think of Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue as a gimmick or joke nowadays; earlier this year the Academy had Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep pretend to step on each other’s lines before giving him a there-there Oscar because it didn’t know how else to approach him. But Altman, like Renoir and Ford before him, has always been about people, and catching the particularities of their speech and behavior on film. As Bill Denny is just setting out on his big night of winning, he notices that the plate on his blackjack dealer’s vest carries the same name—“Barbara”—of a series of women who’ve been sprinkled along his path throughout the movie. Recognizing it as a good sign he exchanges a smile with the woman, and their affectionate, knowing, slightly tired faces hint at the mysteries of the world; it’s an irreducible moment, practically a living exemplar of William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things.” It’s exactly the type of gesture—luxurious, utterly useless, but alive and generous to its core—that makes Altman’s films breathe as they do. The industry has always suffered from philistine producers and the egos of its superstars, but the big thing holding back American movies is that they aren’t more like California Split.