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Film / California Split

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"...being the story of two bet-on-anything guys who happily discover something called a winning streak."

The tagline isn't quite accurate, but this 1974 Robert Altman comedy is nonetheless full of gambling, gambling, and more gambling.

Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) and Bill Denny (George Segal) meet at a poker game in Los Angeles, and quickly become best friends. Together they ride the highs and (mostly) lows of cards, ponies and general hustling, ending up in Reno, Nevada, where they wander from game to game in a casino.

With a witty script and excellent acting from the two leads, the film became a Sleeper Hit in 1974. It's also remembered for the innovative approach to sound mixing that Altman employed, with multiple wireless microphones fed into a mixer, a technique he would further refine on his next project, Nashville.


This film has examples of the following tropes:

  • Arc Words: The name Barbara.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Bill and Charlie win $82,000 in Reno—about half a million in today's money—but Bill feels empty and hollow, which Charlie understands, and they go their separate ways.
  • Bromantic Comedy: The film plays Bill and Charlie's relationship as being like a whirlwind romance, with Charlie acting as a Manic Pixie Dream Boy for Bill. They even kiss each other at one point late in the film.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: One client of Barbara and Susan is a rather masculine middle-aged man who wears a wig, dress and perfume and calls himself Helen Brown.
  • Dedication: "For Barbara"—Barbara Ruick, the wife of John Williams, played the barmaid who Charlie and Bill meet at the final poker game. She went to Reno to film the part, but after completing her initial scene, she died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in her hotel room.
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  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: Takes place around the holidays, but we only know that because Barbara and Susan have decorations up.
  • Double-Meaning Title: "California split" is a nickname for high-low split poker, but it also refers to Bill and Charlie "splitting" from LA to go to Reno, and then the pair splitting their winnings in Reno and leaving each other's lives.
  • The Gambling Addict: Both main characters could adequately be described thusly, albeit with different perspectives: Bill realizes he has a problem and that he can't sustain his lifestyle; Charlie also recognizes his habits are ultimately unfulfilling, but has made peace with them.
  • Happy Birthday to You!: Charlie and Bill sing the actual song to Barbara (though it's not her birthday), which was one of the major reasons Sony refused to pay for all the necessary song licensing on the 2004 DVD release (forcing Altman to change some songs and cut a few minutes from the film).
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Not just one, but two: Barbara and Susan. Charlie was a client of theirs, and they're letting him crash with them because he can't afford his rent. But in some ways they're a Deconstruction, since they're shown to be just as pathetic as Charlie and Bill.
  • Loan Shark: The film's writer, Joseph Walsh, has a terrifying turn as a bookie who only seems nice.
  • Lounge Lizard/The Piano Player: Phyllis Shotwell, an actual Reno casino pianist/singer, whose songs are interspersed with the action and serve as the film's score.
  • Los Angeles: And what a strange town it is.
  • One-Hour Work Week: Charlie has no job outside of gambling. Bill works at a magazine, but constantly leaves the office for his gaming misadventures.
  • Random Events Plot: Not much actual story, but since Charlie and Bill (especially Charlie) lead aimless lives, it's justified.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Charlie is Red, Bill is Blue. Also Barbara (Red) and Susan (Blue).
  • Shout-Out:
    • A whistled version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" plays during the scene where Charlie hustles the other players at a pickup basketball game, as a tribute to The Harlem Globetrotters.
    • The animated music video for Cheech and Chong's "Basketball Jones" is briefly glimpsed on a TV screen. Oddly, it wasn't the last time it would make an appearance in a film: it's also featured in Being There.
    • In sizing up the other poker players in Reno for Bill, Charlie suggests that one of them has "seen The Cincinnati Kid one too many times."
  • Spiritual Successor: Much different in plot and tone, but the presence of Elliott Gould and the depiction of the seedier side of SoCal in The '70s make it one for The Long Goodbye.


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