Last year, when I interviewed actor Stuart Margolin for Cinema Retro's Kelly's Heroes issue, we spoke about shooting the film on location in Yugoslavia. Stuart mentioned that he had shot another movie immediately prior to Kelly's there, an obscurity called The Gamblers. It sounded intriguing but it appeared as though the movie was relegated to those curiosities that had become lost over the decades. I don't even remember it having an American release, though IMDB does say it opened in the States in January 1970. The film has been rescued and put out on DVD by VCI Entertainment as part of their burn-to-order line. The movie was written and directed by Ron Winston, who had done some high profile TV series episodes and a few feature films before he died in 1973 at the young age of 40. The movie was shot entirely on location in Dubrovnik, which is now part of Croatia in the post-Yugoslavian era. At the time, dictator Marshall Tito had been luring filmmakers to his country, using subsidies and tax incentives. The Gamblers is a modestly-budgeted enterprise but it makes full use of the gorgeous coastal locations and eschews any use of studio settings to capitalize on them.
The film follows two con-men, Rooney (Don Gordon) and his friend Goldy (Stuart Margolin) as they embark on an Adriatic cruise in search of victims to bilk out of gambling money. Rooney, who masquerades as a sophisticated psychiatrist, is actually a card shark who uses a seemingly foolproof system to ensure he wins big money from gullible people during poker games. The pair meet another pair of con men working aboard the ship: an Englishman named Broadfoot (Kenneth Griffith) and his partner, the Frenchman Cozzier (Pierre Olaf). In a high stakes poker game, the Europeans are impressed with Rooney's system. They know they have been conned but are not offended. Instead, they propose joining forces. They reveal they are en route to tempt a local aristocrat with a weakness for gambling to join them in a major poker game. If Rooney and Goldy will enlist with them and use their secret methods to ensure a win, they will split the ill-gained winnings with them. Along for the ride is Candace (Suzy Kendall), a free-spirited English girl who is intoxicated by these con men and their exotic methods of duping their "marks".
At first glance, The Gamblers is a bit crude. The beginning sequences are more confusing than engrossing and it takes a while to for the characters to develop. However, the viewer should stick with it because there are many unpredictable twists, turns and cons to entertain. What is most enjoyable about the movie is the fact that it offers rare leading roles to actors who are ordinarily known for being reliable second bananas. Gordon is familiar to many retro movie goers, having appeared in several movies with his old friend Steve McQueen. Similarly, Margolin and Griffith did yeoman work over the decades, largely in comedic roles. Here, they all get a chance to shine, along with Olaf, who is equally impressive. The biggest star of the lot at the time, Suzy Kendall, is, ironically, included for window dressing and her primary contribution is to be seen in mini dresses and bikinis. (We're not complaining). The film features an infectious score by John Morris and some nice camerawork- and the ending is a true "sting-in-the-tail" surprise.
VCI's master print for the transfer is dark and grainy, but viewers should understand that, in order to make rare movies like this available, companies have to sometimes settle for whatever prints they can find, often from private collections. In any event, a less-than-pristine print is a small price to pay in return for the delightful experience of watching The Gamblers.