James Caan did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Axel Freed in The Gambler.
After watching this film I must say it caused a bit of a perspective change in regards to its 2014 remake and Mark Wahlberg's performance in that film. Now I thought that film was disposable to begin with, and Wahlberg's performance underwhelming, now they're even worse than that in my mind through its fundamental misunderstanding of the source material, a bit like The Beguiled remake in that sense. It is not as though this film is a masterpiece, I'd describe it probably as just a good film, however it properly knows that this protagonist is not a "cool" hero for us to follow, he's a bit of mess. James Caan is known for his tough guys, but here this is both a fulfillment of certain expectation but also a subversion from him. Caan's performance is particularly essential in using this idea, and in general to the film as the film never spells out Axel's motivation. This is almost entirely left to Caan's performance. We are only granted a few hints within the script, usually not directly about Axel, which take place when Caan is least like a usual Caan character which is when he's working as the literary professor. I like what Caan does in these scenes, where technically he's spelling out who the character is through what he is teaching such as William Carlos William's piece on George Washington from In The American Grain, and Dostoyevsky's sentiment on making 2 + 2 equal to five rather than 4.
Caan in his scenes as the professor importantly plays them most closely to the chest, and carefully does not give away his hand. This is important for two main reasons one being on the surface Caan rightfully downplays his usual presence in order to be believable as this literary professor, which he is, but secondly he keeps away from making the nature of Axel too obvious within the film. Axel is in many ways speaking of himself in these moments but Caan carefully avoids making this obvious instead portraying the right low key passion fitting to such a professor. He never oversteps the bounds of his character there effectively realizing a man creating this discussion with his class, though there is of course still more to this type of exact attachments to these sentiments which directly relate to Axel as a man. In the Washington piece there is a reduction of the image of the great American leader, and in this way Caan makes a reduction of his own screen persona with Axel here. In general Axel is really just a guy and we see him when he's with his mother, or with his rich grandfather, as this fairly meek man where Caan subtly reveals this man filled with a real vulnerability. He not only doesn't take charge of the situations we see him in, he's not even in charge as he just speaks to his mother, as Caan even when stealing money from her makes it a plainly pathetic moment in the unease in which he portrays within Axel in that moment.
Caan's Axel is not a man who is assured of his life in any way, and he's certainly not a cool customer. In his scenes with his girlfriend Caan is notably not assured much of the time. He brings moments of this spark of a charm, yet so often Caan defines again this inherent lack of confidence that ends up defining the relationship. Caan has these great instances ofbringing in this attempted, man's man type of confidence, which is common in his performances, yet here he makes it purposefully flimsy, making a problematic part of who Axel is. Caan's especially strong in some the early scenes where he sees the actions of some of his book makers when they become much more violent. Caan never shows Axel brushing this off, although he internalizes it to a certain degree, he reveals a real fear the man. When he himself is almost on the chopping block stuck with few options Caan's terrific in the way he reveals the man almost closing down in being honestly terrified at the danger he is in. These moments are essential to the character yet must be carefully examined against his actions throughout the film, which can seem contradictory to this, but they are not due to Caan so effectively realizing the nature of the character. The potential contradiction though comes when we see Axel as the titular character so to speak, and the most essential facet within the story.
As the Gambler is where the Dostoyevsky's math comes in, which is found right there in Caan's performance. In the gambling scenes is where we see Caan in his purest form in terms of the Caan type in that he brings that more overt confidence in these moments. Now this is not Caan contradicting the sorta sad sack professor we see the rest of the time. Instead what Caan presents is Axel when he is not seeing that 2 + 2 equals to 4, which is when he fears for his well being due to his gambling debt or is the meek son/grandson, but rather here is the man who defies logic to believe that in this instance that 2 + 2 can equal to five. That confidence here adheres to this hubris where Axel is thriving on essentially this delusion, but a delusion that he firmly believes in the moment. Caan is terrific in finding this state of the man as he gambles which is heightened in a way since in every moment while gambling he brings this thrill, but also that assurance that everything will be as he sees it in the moment. He of courses comes into this state and goes out of it throughout the film, and Caan plays this naturally. There's one particularly strong scene in this regard for Caan where he's going from phone to phone making bets, while occasionally snapping back to pay attention to his girlfriend. It's remarkable as Caan makes the delusion feel so honest, even in the moment he suddenly drops it when he sees she's about to leave him, despite having been so influence by it a second ago. Caan finds that pull of the addiction brilliantly. Perhaps my favorite realization of that for Caan is in the final sequence of the film where he bribes one of his students to shave points in a basketball game to wipe his debts clean. In the game itself Caan delivers that burden of the tension as the game goes on, given his life is on the line. Afterwards though Caan plays Axel as frankly bored by the events, and oddly takes a risk by going into a dangerous neighborhood where he solicits a prostitute seemingly just to get into a violent altercation with her pimp. Now with an actor with looser grip on the character this scene would make no sense, thankfully the remake did drop this scene for their own good, Caan though understand the role and makes you understand Axel through performance. In this scene Caan shows us Axel becoming bored with the results, since the risk is now gone, and in the end he brings that engagement and confidence back only when once again Axel is taking this nonsensical risk that defies logic, yet makes sense to Axel in the moment.