California Split (1974), at Film Forum from October 13-19, is one of Altman’s lesser-known films; the script is the only one Joseph Walsh ever wrote (or, at least, got produced). Despite its obscurity, the film is pretty incredible even if it’s not quite a masterpiece. The irrepressible Elliott Gould gives a performance on par with his classic roles in MASH and The Long Goodbye and George Segal is great as—would you know it?—a magazine editor.
The film is essentially a series of scenes of Gould and Segal riffing (and usually drinking) as they place wagers at casinos, race tracks and anyplace else that takes bets. Gould’s character, Charlie Waters, lives with two “ladies of the night” and meets Bill Denny (Segal) at a poker club. The plot doesn’t develop very much from there. Charlie and Bill become fast friends and there’s an ill-fated romance between Bill and one of Charlie’s roommates, a sweet, lovesick prostitute who falls for most of her johns.
The highlight of the uneventful film (besides the garish ‘70s interiors and wardrobes) comes when Charlie gets held up after a successful night at the casino and drunkenly tries to negotiate with his gun-wielding mugger. Charlie offers the stick-up artist half of his winnings and the bewildered thug accepts the offer before scurrying away.
A one-man acting tornado, Elliott Gould (seen most recently in the unfortunate Ocean’s 12) is the dominant presence in the film, and one is left wondering what happened to him. Besides his collaborations with Altman, he rarely seemed to find projects that fully utilized his comedic gifts. That’s a shame but it also seems somehow appropriate to the lazy, underachieving style of his on-screen characters.