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From California Split (1974), dir. Robert Altman (image courtesy MUBI)

Veteran actor George Segal died this past week. Over a 60-year career, he became acclaimed for work like his Oscar-nominated role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). But if you have to pick just one film to check out to honor the man, you should make it 1974’s California Split. An early film from the late great director Robert Altman, it features Segal as Bill, who lets off the steam of his workaday life through his love of gambling. When he meets fulltime gambler Charlie (Elliot Gould in an all-timer turn as an irrepressibly clownish fuckup), the pair bond over their love of games of chance, mutually drawing each other into increasingly risky behavior.

California Split is unique in the echelons of stories about gambling. It makes tangible the thrill and fun of the game without endorsing anything or minimizing its dark sides, and it’s honest about the lows of addiction without ever being moralistic or preachy. The film was the first to use an eight-track sound system, which was instrumental in Altman creating the style of frequent overlapping dialogue which would become one of the hallmarks of his work. It’s equally fun and gritty in the way that the best of ’70s US cinema could be.

California Split is available to watch on various platforms.

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is Associate Editor for Documentary at Hyperallergic. He lives and works in New York.

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