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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
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California Split,California Split

Ben's Top Pick for October

CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974) - October 6

There is much too write about in October on TCM. Our Octoberfest is not like the others. We don't poison your bodies with beer and sausages (I mean poison in a good way). We try merely to stop your heart with horror. Because TCM is your friend. This month, we're featuring the movies of five A-list Horror Stars each Wednesday night leading up to Halloween. We open with the master of silent horror, Lon Chaney, on the 3rd, then slither seamlessly to Christopher Lee on the 10th, Boris Karloff on the 17th and his rival Bela Lugosi on the 24th, before wrapping it up with the last great horror star to come out of the studio system, Vincent Price, on the 31st.

But I'm not going to write about that.

On October 17th, Margarita Carmen Cansino, known around the world as Rita Hayworth, would've turned 100. So the first four Tuesday nights are devoted to Rita, our Star of the Month, with more than 20 of her pictures, from Only Angels Have Wings, Blood and Sand and The Strawberry Blonde to Gilda, The Lady from Shanghai and Separate Tables.

But I'm not going to write about that either.

Because on October 12th, I'll be sitting down with...wait for it...No, wait longer...Robert Redford. He has a new movie out this month, The Old Man and the Gun, co-starring Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck. It's a wonderful, lyrically paced movie--based on a true story--about an older bank robber who loves his work. The bank employees he robs all recall his kindness - each was affected by his smile. No wonder director David Lowery got Redford to play the part.

Significantly, Redford has said this will be his final screen role. If it is, it's a fitting cap to one of the screen's legitimately defining careers. Lowery, joined me and Bob for the interview (you have to call him "Bob" - it took me a bit, but nobody calls him "Robert," and "Mr. Redford" sounded weird. Believe me, I practiced in front of a mirror). Though he's only 37, Lowery already has an impressive resume, including Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Pete's Dragon (also with Redford) and A Ghost Story (with Casey Affleck).

But somehow, I'm not writing about that either. You can blame Twitter. Despite those heavy hitters in October, I'm writing about California Split from 1974, with Elliott Gould and George Segal.

Late in September, I noticed a tweet from Mike North, a movie buff I follow (@North2North). Mike is also a handicapper, so he and I share another passion--admittedly one I don't talk about as much--sports gambling. Mike's tweet solicited opinions on the five best gambling movies released before 1980. That cut off mandates leaving off some great films, notably Mississippi Grind from 2015, with Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn; John Dahl's Rounders, with Matt Damon, Ed Norton and Gretchen Mol; and Owning Mahowny, featuring a typically virtuoso performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, along with Minnie Driver and John Hurt.

Without doing much deep thinking, I quickly compiled my list--and it's a solid one--starting with California Suite. Then I added Norman Jewison's The Cincinnati Kid, with Steve McQueen heading an all-star cast, including Edward G. Robinson, Tuesday Weld, Karl Malden, Joan Blondell and Ann-Margret, who's equal parts sexy and vexing in the film.

Her performance warrants a new word: vexy. Then I added The Sting and The Hustler, before wrapping up my top five with Casablanca - really for one scene ("Have you tried 22 tonight?").

Immediately, Twitter entered the conversation - and in this case it was a pleasure, though many users ignored the 1980 cut off date. One suggestion jumped out - Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur from 1956, where a gambler who has lost big plots to rob a casino. I also missed on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, John Cassavetes' 1976 picture with Ben Gazzara, where a gambling debt leads to a murder. But mostly I was reminded of how many quality gambling movies have been produced. More than a few people mentioned one that nearly cracked my list, The Gambler from 1974, with James Caan, Lauren Hutton and Paul Sorvino. Post-1980, there were calls for Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight, his standout debut as a feature writer-director, plus Clive Owen's breakout performance in Croupier.

California Split, from Robert Altman, is the story of two compulsive gamblers who bond over a love of their addiction, though neither is prepared to call it that. Like all the best gambling movies, the highs are obliterated by the lows - and as Altman and screenwriter Joseph Walsh demonstrate in California Split, even the highs can be crushing.

In the end, there's a lot to love about October on TCM. Odds are you won't be disappointed.

by Ben Mankiewicz