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DVD Review HTF REVIEW: California Split (1 Viewer)


Stunt Coordinator
Jul 8, 2001

California Split

Studio: Columbia Tri-Star
Year: 1974
Rated: R
Film Length: 105 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio: DD 3.0
Color/B&W: color
Languages: English
Subtitles: English, Japanese
MSRP: $24.96
Release date: November 2

The Feature
:star: :star: :star: (all star ratings out of five)

Robert Altman’s buddy picture about the gambling lifestyle has a lot going for it. So why has almost nobody seen it?

Making its DVD – and, as far as I know, home video – debut, California Split is a likable but flawed film about two fast friends who meet at the poker table and invade one another’s lives for better or worse.

Elliot Gould and George Segal have fantastic screen chemistry as the two leads – so much so that I caught myself wondering more than once if we weren’t meant to wonder about the nature of their relationship (if you know what I mean).

Gould is the happy-go-lucky card shark who’s never suffered a really bad beat, and is indignant when it looks like he might. He bets on a fight and then bets on the fight that breaks out in the crowd after the fight (“2 to 1 on the lumberjack!”). When he gets held up at gunpoint in the parking lot, he becomes indignant, admonishing the crook to take half and get lost. He does.

Segal, on the other hand, has a more addictive personality. He’s in deep with his bookie, and is having trouble showing up for work on time. He meets Gould at a card room, and seems genuinely happy to have someone around who can make him laugh, even if Gould’s boundless energy and supreme confidence make him weary.

Gould introduces Segal to a couple of prostitutes, with whom he shares an odd, asexual relationship. They spend a lot of time getting beat up, most of the time deservedly.

This is not Altman’s finest work – it doesn’t have the complex worldview that films like Gosford Park or McCabe and Mrs. Miller have, nor the humor and style of MASH or Nashville. It is, however, valuable for its performances, and for its somewhat different view of gambling, which is typically portrayed as either a scourge or a sport. Altman seems to understand that it is both, alternately and sometimes at once.

:star: 1/2
This is a fairly dreadful transfer, and the poor quality of the master is probably at least part of the reason the film has gone so long without being released. But surely something could’ve been done with this mess, plagued as it is by excessive, overbearing graininess and truly unpleasant colors. No scene, night or day, is noticeably darker or lighter than any other, and the image has a flatness to it that is quite dreary.

:star: :star: 1/2

I have little to say about the audio track here, as it reproduces dialogue in a way that is almost always decipherable. There are very few sound effects, and though voices are intelligible, they tend to the shrill.

Special Features

A Director and Cast Commentary track is included and Altman, as always, is frank and enjoyable to listen to. Some of the production details are interesting and instructive, as the film was made nearly thirty years ago.


:star: :star: 1/2

Though the presentation leaves much to be desired, the initial release of any film by an important director, after all these years, is something for which to be grateful. The interaction between the two leads, and Altman’s sure hand at the helm, make this worth a viewing for any fans of the principals or the subject matter. But maybe watch it on the TV in the bedroom – you know, the old direct-view set with the weird color balance and the horizontal bands moving up and down.

Gordon McMurphy

Senior HTF Member
Aug 3, 2002
I find the transfer to be very good. Your critique seems to be of the cinemtography and not the actual quality of the film-to-tape transfer. The grain is there because the grain is on the O-neg, probably. My understanding is that a hi-def transfer was made from a new interpostive made from the O-neg. The reasom the film is never been released on home video is due to clearing the rights to songs on the soundtrack.

Altman's 70s films often had experimetnal cinematography (natural light; flashing, etc) and I love the look of this and most of his films.

I have no idea why a person would say this.


Supporting Actor
Jul 27, 2004
Yes, Altman has, in many of his commentaries, has said that he gets shocked looks from his cameramen when he tells them to not make the movie look good. California Split was always excessively grainy and muddy looking - it's exactly what Altman wanted. So, to blame the transfer is, as Gordon points out, not correct. The transfer, I would imagine (I'll be getting the DVD tomorrow), replicates the cinematography perfectly.


Second Unit
Nov 6, 2001
Having just watched California Split tonight, I must agree with Gordon's and Arthur's comments above. I found the transfer to be very good, accurately capturing the look of the film. (Based on my recollection of seeing it 3 or 4 times in the theater.)

I also think the audio was exceptionally clear -- far better than I've heard it in revival theaters over the years. You can actually make out all the overlapping & background dialogue. This was, I believe, the first film to use Altman's 8-track sound system, and, as such, it is an important precursor to Nashville the following year.

Though Split may be "second-rank" Altman, there is much goodness to be found here. And Gould proves again that he is the quintessential Altman actor, able to match the director's freeform style with riffs of his own.

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