California Split (1974)

California Split (1974)California Split is a gambling movie released in 1974 by Columbia Pictures. The film follows the developing friendship of Bill Denny and Charlie Waters, played by George Segal and Elliot Gould, respectively. The film is driven by character development as opposed to an intricate plot.

Despite marketing woes and the fact that the film was pulled from theaters early, California Split was met with nearly universal critical acclaim, and made over five million dollars in the box office. The DVD of California Split was released in 2004, and has since gone out of print. A re-release is expected soon.

Cast and Crew of California Split

California Split focuses on two main characters, played by George Segal and Elliot Gould. Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles offer their services in supporting roles. The cast is rounded out by Edward Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Bert Remsen, and Jeff Goldblum. Professional poker player and gambler Amarillo Slim makes a cameo in the film, playing himself.

California Split was directed by Robert Altman, and produced by Joseph Walsh as well as the director. Joseph Walsh also served as the film’s screenwriter. Phyllis Shotwell and Paul Lohmann handled music and cinematography, respectively, why O. Nicholas Brown and Lou Lombardo edited the film. Steven Spielberg assisted Joseph Walsh in writing the script.

Plot of California Split

California Split is the story of two friends who bond based on their love of gambling. Charlie Waters, played by Elliot Gould, is the wisecracking veteran of the duo, while Bill Denny, played by George Segal, is a bit more reluctant when it comes to gambling, and has yet to quit his day job working at a magazine.

The pair develop a stronger and stronger friendship as the movie progresses, and Bill Denny becomes increasingly addicted to gambling and all of the luxuries that come along with it. He becomes indebted to his bookie, played by Joseph Walsh. Charlie and Bill head to Reno in order to attempt to pay off Bill’s debt. Bill sells some of his belongings, and they combine their funds to stake Bill in a competitive poker game. One of the players at the poker table is famous professional Amarillo Slim.

Bill ends up winning $18,000 during the poker game, enough to pay off the debt. Convinced that he’s hit a hot streak, Bill continues to gamble, winning at blackjack, roulette, and craps, and bringing his grand total to $82,000. After cashing out, Bill informs Charlie that he’s decided to retire from gambling, as the thrill is gone. The two split the $82,000 and part ways.

Production of California Split

Joseph Walsh wrote the screenplay for California Split in 1971, basing it on his own personal gambling addiction. Walsh, a struggling actor, was disillusioned with the corny dialogue being written for most films at the same time, and wanted to create a more realistic narrative that audiences could relate to. Steven Spielberg assisted Walsh in perfecting the script over the course of nine months. MGM accepted the script, with Walsh locked in as the producer and Steve McQueen set to act in the starring role. MGM started making unusual demands, however, such as wanting the script to fit an exact length, and to have the entire film be set at Circus Circus, a Las Vegas casino owned by MGM.

The final straw came when MGM decided that the film would be turned in a mafia story starring Dean Martin, with Walsh being relieved from his duties as producer. Spielberg and Walsh decided to instead take the story to Universal Pictures. Later, however, Spielberg left to work on another project. Ultimately, the script ended up with Robert Altman at Universal Pictures. Altman loved the script but wanted to make a few changes of his own. Walsh argued with Altman on many points, and California Split ended up being quite close to the original screenplay.

George Segal was locked into his role as Billy Denny, while Charlie Waters character was shopped around to other actors, such as Robert De Niro and Peter Falk, before Altman and Walsh settled on Elliot Gould. Segal was intimidated by Gould, who had led a life very similar to the character of Charlie Waters and was a natural fit for the role.

Additional Notes on California Split

California Split used an innovative eight-track sound recording system, allowing for eight channels of unique audio. This was new technology at the time, and California Split was the first movie to utilize it. The recording system was very cohesive with Altman’s tendency to feature overlapping dialogue.

California Split was shot in Los Angeles and Reno. The cast and crew shot the Reno scenes at the Mapes casino in Reno, where they frequently gambled while making the movie.

Roger Ebert gave the film an incredibly positive review in the Chicago Sun-Times, praising its realism, comedy, and drama. Vincent Canby wrote a similarly positive review for the New York Times, citing the film’s attention to detail and excellent acting performances. The film was profitable at the box office, staving off Altman’s fears that the California Split was poorly marketed.