The Gambler: James Caan’s Houndstooth Cardigan

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler (1974)

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler (1974)


James Caan as Axel Freed, gambling-addicted English professor

New York City, Fall 1973

Film: The Gambler
Release Date: October 2, 1974
Director: Karel Reisz
Costume Designer: Albert Wolsky

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!


A meditation on self-destruction, The Gambler was based on James Toback’s semi-autobiographical script that was the first to be produced from the soon-to-be-prolific screenwriter. Toback had incorporated his own gambling addiction that plagued him while he lectured at City College of New York. Robert De Niro was an early contender for the leading role of Axel Freed, but director Karel Reisz opted to cast another Corleone: James Caan, who explained the challenge of the role that would reportedly be one of his favorites from own his filmography: “It’s not easy to make people care about a guy who steals from his mother to pay gambling debts.”

We first meet Dr. Naomi Freed (Jacqueline Brookes) when Axel visits her clinic to invite her to play tennis before he’s picked up by the affable wiseguy Carmine (Burt Young), who gives him a ride in his sleek red Cadillac convertible to meet the loan shark Bernie (Allan Rich), whom Carmine describes as “a very personable human being.” Before they see Bernie, Carmine invites Axel to join him as he makes a collection from a three-time loser, calmly asking Axel to wait as he trashes the apartment and slugs the closet-hiding welcher. Out of curiosity, Axel takes Carmine’s wrist to feel his heartbeat, observing that he “haven’t missed a beat.”

The errand completed, Carmine finally takes Axel to meet the famed Bernie, the deadpan Marlboro-obsessed shark who asks “Alex Freed?” (“Close enough,” responds Axel) before offering his guest a plate of clams… though the two dozen Little Necks aren’t exactly the type of clams Axel came to request. Once the two get to talking turkey, they establish the terms of Axel’s vig—3% per week, every week—which all but establishes that Axel will find himself so far deep in the hole that he’ll need to make an unethical request of one of the star basketball students in his class.

What’d He Wear?

Axel Freed’s wardrobe covers a range of functionality of sports coats, leather jackets, casual shirts, cardigans, and jeans, with the occasional eye-catching print or pattern. Aside from some of his super-’70s sport shirts, this cardigan sweater may be one of the bolder-patterned statement pieces from Axel’s closet.

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler

Axel greets his mother.

The cardigan has a navy-blue base, with the back, sleeves, and ribbed placket all presenting a solid navy. Six recessed navy 4-hole buttons are sewn through onto the placket; Axel usually wears the cardigan open, but on the rare occasion that he closes it, he fastens it to reflect the shirt with only the lower three buttons done.

The most visually distinctive aspect of the cardigan is the three-color houndstooth weave along the front panels, extending from the shoulders to waist hem, between the placket and the side seam running along the front of each sleeve and down the seam under it. Also known as “dogstooth” and “pied-de-poule” (French for “hen’s foot”, suggesting some confusion in what animal anatomy it resembles most), this repeating pattern is a tessellation of four-pointed shapes. Houndstooth is traditionally a two-color pattern, though exceptions can be made, such as Caan’s cardigan with its navy, tan, and brown check.

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler

Axel bids adieu to Carmine.

Axel wears the cardigan over a light blue melange shirt, alternating between keeping the top two and three buttons undone on the placket. The shirt has a large collar, though not as exaggerated as some from the decade—including the off-white shirt seen lower in this post. The long-sleeved shirt has barrel cuffs that close through two buttons.

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler

Brief pulse check after Axel gets a glimpse at how Bernie’s mooks treat guys who welch on their debts.

As he would a decade later in Thief, Caan’s character in The Gambler alternates between Lee and Levi’s jeans, excluding only Wrangler from the “Big Three” of American denim giants. For most of this sequence, he wears what appear to be Lee 101 Rider boot-cut jeans based on the cut, the styling, and the small black label sewn along the top seam of the back-right pocket, suggesting Lee’s signature branding.

The denim’s slightly warmer wash contrasts the jeans against the equally light blue shirt. The jeans have substantial belt loops, though which Axel wears a wide dark brown leather belt that closes through a squared brass single-prong buckle.

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler

While waiting for Carmine on the street, Axel wears his two-eyelet chukka boots with sand-colored suede uppers, though a continuity error shows him wearing his favorite brown leather bit loafers as he strides into the bar to meet Bernie. His jeans when meeting Bernie also appear to be a slightly darker denim, likely his Levi’s from other scenes.

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler

Axel on the street: cardigan half-buttoned, light Lee jeans, and suede chukka boots. Axel in the bar: cardigan open again, darker Levi’s jeans, and brown bit loafers.

The unique sweater makes its final appearance when Axel approaches Spencer (Carl W. Crudup) during basketball practice, making his pitch to buy the earnest and talented young player’s soul. He drapes the open cardigan over a pale ecru long-sleeved shirt with a soft jersey-knit body but a structured long point collar and placket that he wears characteristically unbuttoned to mid-chest.

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler

Axel watches the honest student he’ll soon be asking to compromise his integrity in order to help him out of a jam.

The outfit is slightly dressier with the shirt tucked into gray flannel flat front trousers, held up by a smooth brown leather belt that closes through a polished silver three-sided rectangular buckle.

Axel then swaps out the cardigan for a tan suede jacket and wears this outfit with his regular brown leather bit loafers through the end of the movie.

How to Get the Look

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler (1974)

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler (1974)

A patterned cardigan can be a gamble itself, but James Caan illustrates why it can be worth rolling the dice on a button-front sweater that goes a step beyond the traditional single color. Dress it up with slacks and loafers or dress it down with jeans and boots.

  • Navy cardigan sweater with tan-and-brown houndstooth-woven front panels and ribbed 6-button placket
  • Light blue melange cotton shirt with long front collar, front placket, and two-button barrel cuffs
  • Light blue denim Lee 101 Rider boot-cut jeans
  • Dark brown wide leather belt with large brass squared single-prong buckle
  • Sand suede 2-eyelet chukka boots

The Cardigan:

Houndstooth cardigans are still made in ranging degrees of quality, with a top option being Todd Snyder’s Houndstooth Merino Cardigan in Olive, though the colorway and all-over pattern differs from what we see in The Gambler. For that true Axel-esque look, you may need to scour vintage or secondhand sites like eBay.

If you’re looking for a comfortable cardigan with an eye-catching check, I strongly recommend Abercrombie & Fitch’s Oversized Checkered Cardigan, which offers a bulkier silhouette than Caan’s screen-worn sweater but arguably became one of the coziest garments I own when I received it as a Christmas gift last month. It’s already gotten plenty of wear, mostly as a warm layer for chilly mornings with a good book or late nights spent writing.

The Jeans:

Boot-cut jeans aren’t for everybody, but you can still pay tribute to the original manufacturer with an updated color and cut with the Lee “Luke” Tailored Slim Fit Tapered Jeans or the Lee “Extreme Motion” Bootcut Jeans.

The Boots:

Axel’s boots don’t appear to have the crepe soles that would distinguish them as desert boots, the unique style innovated by Clarks after World War II, though Clarks’ sand-colored desert boots would make a handsome alternative to Caan’s screen-worn kicks.

All prices and availability current as of January 22, 2022.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

Hey, who’s lending and who’s borrowing?

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