Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

California Split (1974)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

California Split (1974)

In maverick director Robert Altman's semi-improvised, unromanticized character-driven comedy film and quintessential gambling and buddy movie set in the 1970s, it was set amongst poker games in many different, run-down, private smoky back-rooms and parlors, casinos, racetracks, boxing matches, and other venues in Los Angeles and in Nevada; the cynical film's title was Western slang for high-low poker; its tagline was: "CALIFORNIA SPLIT...being the story of two bet-on-anything who happily discover something called a 'winning streak'":

  • in the film's opening, before getting seated at a poker game in Los Angeles at the California Club, an unidentified gambler and card shark, later identified as Charlie Waters, was viewing and listening to the voice-over of an instructional or promotional video on poker-playing: "It has been said that nearly everyone in America understands poker - or wants to. It is one of America's most popular games. And since you have shown an obvious interest by coming here, we have prepared a short film to teach you the fundamentals of the game as we play it here..."
  • the two compulsive poker players/casino gamblers who were seated together in the film were characterized as: extroverted, wise-cracking and free-spirited joker and career drifter-gambler Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould), and divorced, introverted California Inquire magazine writer and casual gambler William "Bill" Denny (George Segal)

Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould)

William "Bill" Denny (George Segal)
  • the two gamblers (who were wrongfully accused of colluding with each other at a poker table) were thought to be cheating by irate fellow player Lew (Edward Walsh); Charlie told off the angry player after winning the game with a debatable card - a Joker that was dealt off the table's edge: "The man doesn't know how to play poker. The man is bad. He's a complete asshole. We all know that, right? The man goes broke, he can't handle it. The man is on tilt. You wanna hear any more?"
  • and shortly later after the cheating incident, Charlie and Bill were seated at a bar where Bill challenged Charlie to a wager: "20 dollars says you can't name the Seven Dwarfs." When Charlie could only name three correctly: Doc, Dopey, and Grumpy, Bill claimed that he could name "all seven like a gatling gun," but then named only four: -- Sleepy, Grumpy, Doc, Dopey. Charlie confusingly suggested: "Dumbo...Dumbo wasn't in that cast?" Bill confirmed: "No Dumbo. Dumbo flew." Charlie called the name game a tie: "We both lose, huh?" And then Charlie mumbled on about race relations and the animated film Dumbo (1941): "A lot of black folks thought that was bad news, you know, seein' a black crow sing about a big flyin' elephant, what's that? It's taboo. No black crows"
  • after a night of heavy drinking at the bar as they become bonded as a team, the two left together and in the parking lot were attacked and robbed by sore loser Lew and some thugs - and Charlie was kicked in the groin
  • after the mugging assault, Charlie and Bill were jailed but picked up and taken to Charlie's home for the night, where he lived with two roommates who were professional escorts/hookers: confident Barbara Miller (Ann Prentiss) and naive Susan Peters (Gwen Welles); Charlie suggested rubbing shaving cream into their bruised torsos and skin; their main breakfast food items in the house were beer and cereal (Froot Loops and Lucky Charms)
  • while at work at the magazine the next day, Bill was tempted to leave and join up with Charlie at the race track, where they both took home winnings after betting on 'Egyptian Femme'; Bill's semi-stable life was quickly spinning out of control
  • later that night outside after attending a boxing match and winning about $1,500 dollars, Charlie was again robbed!; he brazenly and successfully negotiated with a black robber wielding a gun and threatening to shoot, to take only half of his recent winnings: ("Wait a second, you're not blowin' nothin', now. I don't believe it, two nights in a row, right, we're gonna get robbed...Here's $780, man. That's it. You got half, and we're takin' half. Now take the money and run. Go ahead. $780 man, don't think about it. Take the money and go. Get out of here, you f--kin' bum, get out of here, man")
  • after more gambling losses in an all-night poker game, the self-pitying Bill owed $2,200 dollars to his loan-shark bookie Sparkie (Joseph Walsh), who met him in a coffee shop and demanded payment ("Man, I've heard it before. You don't have dollar one, do you? You gotta think I'm some stupid schmuck here"); Bill found himself down-and-out and desperate, and in addition, his pal Charlie had disappeared
  • eventually, Charlie showed up after winning bets on a one-on-one game of basketball in a public park with teenagers; the two started to make plans to join together on a gambling trip to Reno, NV; Charlie took his earnings to the LA racetrack, where he saw disgruntled player Lew entering a public restroom; to seek 'eye-for-an-eye' revenge against Lew, Charlie confronted him but was the first to be punched and his bloodied nose was broken: ("That's the greatest punch I've ever been hit with"); he was able to retaliate and beat up Lew, kick him in the ribs, and rob him, and then told other men as they entered: ("You better call an ambulance. The man lost the last race, and he tried to kill himself")
  • after pooling their money (Bill had sold all of his possessions, including his car and typewriter), Charlie and Bill arrived in Reno, Nevada on a bus for a concluding series of high-stakes gambling competitions; their marathon gambling session began with a poker game sequence (with a $2,000 buy-in), where Charlie sized up the competition by closely observing the personalities of the players - a bald guy, a guy with a Cowboy hat, a curly-haired Kid, an older Doctor with specs, a man wearing a Red Coat nicknamed Mr. Cha-Cha, an Invisible Man's "empty chair" (revealed later to be the chair of "Amarillo Slim"), a Mississippi man with a deep drawl ("the best in the game"), and a Chinaman, etc.; the Reno barmaid (Barbara Ruick) who had overheard the analysis complimented Charlie: "You did very well"
  • in the film's aftermath, the loud-mouthed Charlie was humiliated when relegated to the background, as Bill won the series of games with a continuous lucky streak - including poker against ex-champion "Amarillo Slim," blackjack, roulette ("26!!"), and craps
  • after his tremendous wins, the unfulfilled Bill ended up sitting alone - exhausted, drained, apathetic and looking lost; at first, Charlie suggested going to Vegas to celebrate: "I'll tell you what we're gonna do. We're gonna get a suite, here. We'll get a couple of outfits, some new clothes. Maybe we'll hit the old Mustang Ranch, right? You and me get a couple of little ladies. Have a ball, right? Then maybe we'll come down, go to Vegas, hire a limousine, get a driver, hit every track in the world. Right?"
  • still exuberant, Charlie cashed in at the Cashier window, and the two evenly split Bill's winnings of $82,000; Charlie sarcastically asked his forlorn pal: "Do you always take a big win this hard?"; Bill reiterated that the big win had no effect on him: "Charlie, there was no special feeling in it"
  • in the downbeat ending, Charlie delivered a film-ending joke: "If it takes a watermelon five minutes to water, how long will it take a sweetpea to pee? As long as it takes a pair of dice to crap"; he then assessed their big win: "Don’t mean a f--kin' thing, does it?"; Bill hinted with a serious look that they should quit and go their separate ways: "Charlie, I have to go home." Charlie queried: "Oh yeah? Where do you live?" Bill left: "I'll see ya"; after Bill's departure, Charlie also took his winnings and left

Charlie's Two Escorts-Hooker Roommates-Friends:
Barbara (Ann Prentiss) and Susan (Gwen Welles)

The Main Breakfast Cereal in Charlie's House

In Parking Lot, Charlie's Assault by Robber and Negotiations To Take Half of His Winnings ($780 dollars)

Bloodied Nose in Fight Against Lew in an LA Race-Track Restroom

High-Stakes Gambling in Reno

Bill Sitting Alone, Drained, and Apathetic After Winning Big

Ending Joke Before Splitting Ways


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