- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Belatedly, I’ve caught up with the DVD edition of “California Split,” one of the disarming high points of Robert Altman’s career in the early 1970s. A 30th anniversary release that passed me by a couple of years ago has resurfaced as a bargain item in the Daedalus Books catalog.

This revival was enhanced by a commentary track with the director and three indispensable collaborators — co-stars George Segal and Elliott Gould and screenwriter Joseph Walsh. Usually billed as Joey Walsh when he was a prominent juvenile actor in the 1950s, Mr. Walsh had his most prominent movie role of that period in “Hans Christian Andersen,” playing Danny Kaye’s young sidekick. When offers declined in later years, he found it more dependable to concentrate on his avocation, gambling.

Mr. Walsh and Elliott Gould had been youthful cronies in New York City. The movie drew on aspects of their misadventures and found a sympathetic patron in Mr. Altman, who acknowledged a fondness for card games and sports bets when publicizing the picture. Their project became a modest plunge into theatrical features for the TV moguls Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg. It opened in mid-August 1974, an emphatically slack box-office season at that time. Numerous movie critics were probably on vacation, and only a fraction of the public would have been paying attention.

Nevertheless, “California Split,” which observes the fleeting camaraderie of two gamblers with very different temperaments — Mr. Segal’s apprehensive Bill Denny and Mr. Gould’s happy-go-lucky Charlie Waters — succeeded in ingratiating itself as a cult favorite, slowly but surely. At this late date, its entertainment value is augmented by nostalgic reflection.

Mr. Walsh takes the lead in the four-part interplay, with Mr. Gould and Mr. Segal as the next most active kibitzers and Mr. Altman as the least active. If you’ve experienced commentary tracks on other Altman films, you’ll realize that this division of labor is likely to be the most prudent and diverting. The pace can slacken when Mr. Altman is unaccompanied by talkative cast members or a knowing screenwriter. After introducing the participants, the director is content to take a conversational back seat. His best contributions tend to be semi-deflating quips. For example, when Mr. Segal praises his style by observing “You let air into the scenes,” the director replies, “Yeah, and not much audience to get in your way either.”

Since the content originates with Mr. Walsh, it’s appropriate to defer to him as the resident expert on “California Split.” More things than you might have imagined were borrowed from real life. For instance, Mr. Gould has an electrifying comic moment when Charlie is confronted by a stick-up man in the parking lot of Olympic Stadium in Los Angeles. He’s carrying a considerable roll. Incensed at being victimized, he stares daggers at the armed assailant, counts off half the cash and tells him to take it or leave it. The robber literally takes the money and runs.

Mr. Walsh confides that this episode was “pure Charlie,” alluding to an older brother, Charlie Walsh, evidently his mentor in gambling lore, hazards and resourcefulness. Mr. Gould’s role was partly homage to Charlie and partly a self-portrait by the actor-turned-gambler-turned-screenwriter.

It’s amusing to discover that Mr. Walsh had a casting blind spot: he couldn’t envision Mr. Gould as Charlie at the outset because he associated the character so much with himself and his brother. The cast does teem with family members. Another older brother, the late Edward Walsh, plays a belligerent nemesis, who robs and stomps new acquaintances Bill and Charlie after they meet at a poker club. Barbara London has a delightful small role as a horse player who becomes furious when the guys win with a long shot, Egyptian Femme, she had touted and then abandoned. She was the wife of Joseph Walsh at that time. Her successor has a bit part as the photo editor in Bill Denny’s office. The writer reserved a stunning bit for himself as Bill’s indignant bookie, Spark. “California Split” turns out to have been a Walsh family festival.

It’s a movie that frequently excels at throwaways. Miss London hurls oranges and a purse at Mr. Gould and Mr. Segal, whose lame return throw proves an accidental keeper of a sight gag. A bit actress with the supremely improbable name of Sierra Bandit became a surly immortal during a saloon sequence that also flatters Jack Riley as a sarcastic bartender. At this juncture, Mr. Riley was a weekly fixture as one of Bob Newhart’s patients in his TV sitcom psychology practice.

The throwaway potential was enhanced by a sound recording innovation. This was the first movie in which Mr. Altman used the eight-track system that became synonymous with Lion’s Gate for a period of time. It proved even more insinuating and effective in his next project, “Nashville,” which was seen and heard by more moviegoers than the undersold “California Split.”

Doing things on the sly was often an Altman strong point. This slight but felicitous comic fable preferred to sneak up on spectators and profited expressively from conversation that seemed spontaneous, offhand and unrehearsed. It was often improvised but recorded with a precision that allowed a good deal of flexibility in the final mix. The “air” that Mr. Segal appreciated was a function of live but multilayered sound as well as roomy compositions and a relaxed tempo. A distinctive blend of congenial and bittersweet attributes, “California Split” seemed to crystallize the early Altman mix at its most engaging and promising.

TITLE: “California Split”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual allusions; fleeting nudity and graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay by Joseph Walsh. Cinematography by Paul Lohmann.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

DVD EDITION: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.SonyPictures .com

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