The “Best Betting Scenes in Television and Movies” series returns with a look at the (almost) lost poker classic, The Music of Chance.
Fresh out of college at the University of Washington, I lived in an apartment about 10 minutes west of campus in a neighborhood called Fremont. This was the mid-‘90s, when DVDs were still the dominant way in which people could watch a film without visiting a theater.
There were not one, but two Rain City Video outposts within a mile of my apartment. One evening, I walked to the larger of the pair and picked out an intriguing-looking film called The Music of Chance, starring James Spader as a professional card player and Mandy Patinkin as a former fireman seeking to rediscover himself in middle age through an open-ended road trip in a red BMW, its stereo forever tuned to Mozart or Bach.
I loved this irrepressibly eccentric movie (I’m not alone, as it’s 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and vowed to return to it one day. But by the time I sought it out again, it was as though it had vanished. It was not on any streaming service and was not available through the public library on DVD. When I broadened my search, I came to learn that the only available copy of The Music of Chance (based on a novel by Paul Auster, who is credited as a co-writer and has a cameo in the cinematic adaptation) in the Seattle area was at a University of Washington library — and it was on videocassette.
I still owned a DVD player, but had no VCR. So I relaxed my quest, looking online every so often to see if it would surface. Then one day, there it was, on an obscure free streaming service called Pluto TV.
A perfectly named protagonist
Jim Nashe (Patinkin) is a Boston firefighter whose wife has ended their marriage. Left to care for the couple’s young daughter alone, Nashe takes her to live with his sister in Minnesota.
A short while later, Nashe’s father dies and leaves him with a healthy inheritance. Nashe quits his job, buys a BMW sedan, and takes off on a cross-country road trip, eventually encountering Spader’s mustachioed Jack Pozzi (quite the gambling name, eh?), bloodied on the side of a back country road some distance from New York City, where he lives.
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Nashe offers to drive Pozzi back home to get cleaned up, and in the course of their interaction, Nashe agrees to stake Pozzi in a poker game against a pair of old millionaires, Bill Flower (Charles Durning) and Willy Stone (Joel Grey), at their sprawling Eastern Pennsylvania estate. Flower and Stone, the nature of whose relationship is open to interpretation, cheerily welcome their playing partners by showing them a mysterious municipal rendering of something Stone has dubbed “the City of the World.”
Two bets too far
Pozzi starts off strongly, building a substantial pile of chips before Nashe excuses himself to use the restroom. Instead, Nashe returns to the City of the World and steals a pair of tiny figurines painted in the likeness of Flower and Stone.
By the time Nashe returns to the table, Pozzi is down big. Betraying a superstitious streak, Pozzi blames this turn of luck on Nashe’s abandonment, the span of which lasted far longer than a trip to the bathroom normally would.
Eventually, Nashe runs out of cash, stopping Flower mid-hand to propose the extension of a line of credit, using the BMW as collateral. After some haggling over price ($5,000), Flower grudgingly agrees — and Stone proceeds to clean Pozzi out by virtue of a fortuitous full house.
Faced with the prospect of having to walk back to New York, Nashe ups the stakes, betting $10,000 he doesn’t have against the right to reclaim his car. This bet will be settled by a simple cutting of the cards. Flower draws a 7, while an overconfident Pozzi picks a puny 4.
A debt settlement for the (stone) ages
Flower doesn’t do IOUs, so Nashe and Pozzi will perform hard labor on the grounds instead. Specifically, they are to live in a trailer for 50 days and erect a “wailing wall” of 10,000 stones in a meadow, supervised by Flower and Stone’s groundskeeper, Calvin Murks (portrayed by the great M. Emmet Walsh, a Coen Brothers movie in human form.)
While it will not surprise anyone to learn that the movie takes some harrowing turns from here, this is where the spoilers will stop. The most frustrating part of The Music of Chance is also its greatest strength: It refuses to telegraph any easy conclusions, except to maybe not use your car as collateral.