“The Gamble” (1988)

While generally dull and pathetic, “The Gamble” is just campy enough to qualify as drunken so-bad-it’s-good entertainment. Shot on location in Venice, Verona and lush stretches of French and Italian countryside, “The Gamble” is a dead-earnest 19th century period piece, brimming with carriages, horseback chases, fencing matches along moats and castle rooftops, and aristocrats sporting petticoats, frilly pantaloons and broad, felt-tip hats. As with most botched costume dramas, the characters speak in quaintly Victorian, high-society style (example: “If I may speak bluntly, sir, we are short of funds.”)

Archaic dialogue, even when it’s this stilted, can work if, say, the actors are speaking in their native Italian and bad British actors are doing the dubbing; it’s hard to hold the filmmakers accountable for such silliness. But director Carlo Vanzina thoroughly damned “The Gamble” (AKA “La partita”) by casting American actors in the principal roles, and allowing them to toss off the lines in a sort of faux-British elocution. And not just any American actors; for reasons that will never be known, Matthew Modine, perhaps the least Italian actor on the planet, plays the lead role of Franceso Sacredo, a supposedly dashing, pampered Italian aristocrat. Modine, a very earnest actor with a clenched, determined jaw and puppy dog eyes, can be charming as, say, an overzealous high school wrestler (“Vision Quest”) or a rookie FBI agent in way over his head (“Married to the Mob”). But here he’s supposed to be a calculating, enterprising womanizer, a true-blue Italian cad, and he registers more like a rigid Exeter student forced to play Napoleon in the school play. With his floppy mop of hair, lanky, scrawny frame and New York private school accent, he always looks and sounds ridiculous, especially while swashbuckling or threatening to murder his foes. Watching him, you start thinking that any actor, even a far less talented one, would fit this part better. Even…Scott Baio.

To be fair, it would be hard for even a perfectly cast, roguish actor to make a tin-eared line like “Sooner or later, we’ll reach the sea or the Alps, and proceed accordingly” convincing. But Modine’s flat, toneless rendering makes him sound like a hopelessly dazed, privileged exchange student, not a brash Italian ladies’ man. Though Jennifer Beals–playing a maiden betrothed to a lout, who flees with Modine–at least possesses the dark-haired, olive-skinned beauty her role calls for, when she squeals “I will travel only by carriage!” she sounds less like an Italian princess than a spoiled Dartmouth sorority girl.

Faye Dunaway rounds out the American cast as the German countess Matilde Von Wallenstein. Though she doesn’t even try to act German, Dunaway fares best of all, perhaps because she tones down the hysterical overacting of her “Mommie Dearest” days. She knows this script is hopeless, so she gives a playfully witchy performance, all smirks and cold, whispery threats.

Dunaway, via a strange top-spinning game, cleans Modine’s weak-willed father out of his fortune, and in turn Modine’s inheritance. Angered, Modine plays the same game with her; if he wins, his money and property are returned; if he loses, than he “belongs” to Dunaway as a boy-toy. But Dunaway “never loses,” and after his fate is sealed, Modine flees the palace, doomed to a nomadic existence. “I will pursue you everywhere, even in your dreams,” Dunaway coos at him. True to her word, she hires a pair of foppish, bearded, lumbering assassins (the Pedesta Brothers, one of whom talks in an oddly Australian accent) to stay on Modine’s trail.

In the stupidest of many stupid plot devices, the brothers prove to be invincible, even though Modine repeatedly outfences, outboxes and outruns them every time they get in his way. (They turn out to be the film’s equivalent of Javier Bardem’s crazed pneumatic gun killer in “No Country for Old Men.”) Though Pino Donaggio’s score is mostly a Vivaldi-esque, melancholy string quartet piece, whenever these oafish brothers appear the music turns all video game synthetic, with rumbling synth bass and pounding drums. This only serves to further eviscerate whatever period flavor Vanzina and crew can muster.

Anyway, Modine doesn’t seem all that scared while on the run from the evil Countess. With one toss of his floppy hair, he’s able to bed a variety of comely women, most of them unhappily married to geriatric royalty (in one hilariously crude scene, he shacks up with two maidens at once, who cajole him with “We are just warming your bed. We can stay if you please.” Modine’s reaction: “Hmm, let me think about it…”) The movie is thoroughly awful to women, even its main female character; Beals is called on to remain smitten with Modine even while he continues to sleep with one neglected noblewoman after another. A whore gets publicly auctioned off (“Nice tits, ay? Even a blind man could see that!” bellows her aristocratic pimp). And Modine’s only moment of cleverness entails his convincing a mistress to cry rape and blame the Pedesta Bros, so that her cuckolded husband will pursue them in vengeance instead of him.

“The Gamble” has plenty of other ridiculous moments, all of them strenuous efforts to drum up a 19th century feel. There’s a horse chase through a hedge maze, a love scene in a tub the size of a cereal bowl, an ailing old man covered with leeches, that same man wedding a girl that looks to be about 12. The most irrelevant sequence involves Beals hiring some laymen and women to stage a play about Modine’s fate.

The film overall is rather amateurish; the revolvers the characters fire look like toy guns you buy in the Treasure Island section of Disneyworld, the puffy outfits don’t fit the actors, and in the many forest-set action sequences, river rapids drown out the dialogue. It’s not a film that looks fun to have made.

Indeed, in a 1988 Toronto Star article (the only one I could find about the film, which went straight to video in 1988), Modine admitted that the movie was a struggle. “Not only is it really hot, but I have to wear all these frilly costumes and swords and guns, and I’m riding a horse. And in between scenes, people are always running over and straightening things and pushing things at you to take the sweat off your face. All you can do is fight your best fight and watch that the guy doesn’t get you with a left hook and knock you on your butt.” I’m sure he’d be embarrassed to watch “The Gamble” today, but at least he got to spend some time in Europe.

In a 2008 interview with novelist Alberto Ongaro (badly translated via Google), whose 1986 book of the same name was adapted by Vanzina, his brother Enrico and one other screenwriter, Ongaro said that he “lost jurisdiction over that book…I gave the option to another director who profitably sold to third and third to fourth and so on until you come into the hands of Vanzina. What are good artisans in general cheerful but not beyond.” From what I can gather, I think he’s calling the Vanzinas “cheerful” hacks.

In 2004, a DVD of “The Gamble” was released, with sleeker albeit misleading cover art (no dice are actually rolled in the film):

One thought on ““The Gamble” (1988)

  1. very much enjoyed the post. Younger friends never understand why I consider the 80s such a bleak period in film, but your hilarious piece on this unknown-to-me Dunaway film (how the Oscar-winning mighty had fallen) puts it in bold relief. It was an era in which real stars like Dunaway had to play support to cinema non-entities like Jennifer Beals and (God help us) Matthew Modine.
    Can’t imagine how you sat through the film, but I’m glad someone did, if just to ward me off. Great description of the action and plot and I love the REALLY debauched pic of Scott Baio. WHAT kind of life has that man had?

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