The Gambler: James Caan’s Camel Jacket and Mustang

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


Screen icon James Caan died one year ago today on July 6, 2022. Among a varied filmography from The Godfather (1972) and Thief (1981) to Misery (1990) and Elf (2003), the Bronx-born Caan specialized in roles that called for a “tough insouciance” as summarized in Ronald Bergan’s obituary for The Guardian.

The Gambler (1974) remains one of Caan’s most celebrated films, written by James Toback as a semi-autobiographical meditation on self-destruction, inspired by the gambling addiction that plagued him while he lectured at City College of New York. Fresh from his success as Sonny Corleone, Caan was drawn to the challenge of what would become one of his favorite of his own movies as “it’s not easy to make people care about a guy who steals from his mother to pay gambling debts.”

After learning that her son owes $44,000 in gambling debts, Naomi Freed (Jacqueline Brookes) takes Axel to several banks to withdraw the needed cash to repay the mobster Hips (Paul Sorvino). He promises her that this is “the end of it”, but—as we’re only about 1/4 into the movie—we know there must be plenty more drama to follow… and not just the “painful thinking” Naomi asks Axel to do.

James Woods, James Caan, and Jacqueline Brookes in The Gambler (1974)

In one of his first screen roles, a young James Woods portrays the bank officer who helps Naomi withdraw the rest of her savings for Axel.

Axel attempts to arrange payment, but Hips is out when he calls, so he spends the afternoon with his girlfriend Billie (Lauren Hutton) instead, inviting her to observe him teaching a course and then to swim at his grandfather’s home. As they drive back to the city, Axel impulsively stops at a phone booth, blowing the whole stack on a basketball bet—despite his mother having just emptied her bank accounts that day to fund his debts. After all, he believes that, “if my money’s gonna blow, I wanna be the one that does the blowing.” Understandably fed up with his terrible decision-making, Billie storms out of the Mustang.

“You know, I once tried to commit suicide over a girl named Billie, you know that? I was nine. She was 36. I had to have her, she wouldn’t have me,” he shares with her. After Axel finishes his “first-rate bullshit story,” Billie reluctantly gets back into the Mustang as he speeds east toward Mecca for American gamblers: Las Vegas.

What’d He Wear?

Axel’s rotation of smart jackets includes a camel sports coat that indeed appears to be made of true camelhair. Menswear is often described as camel when the color resembles the “rich golden-fawn” (Hardy Amies, ABC of Men’s Fashion) or “light yellowish tan” (Alan Flusser, Dressing the Man) of a camel’s coat, but true camelhair garments are made from the real thing: the soft, elegant wool sourced from the undercoat of a Bactrian camel, which can make it expensive but worth the investment for their comfort and hardiness.

Axel’s single-breasted camel jacket features some dated elements like the notch lapels of then-fashionable breadth, but the jacket is otherwise relatively timeless. The pick-stitched lapels taper down to the two-button stance positioned at James Caan’s natural waistline, both buttons made from a mixed light brown that matches the four buttons on each cuff. The softly padded shoulders build up Caan’s famously square-shouldered physique. The jacket also has long double vents, a welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and a flapped ticket pocket positioned above the right hip pocket.

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler (1974)

“If failure is the absolute evil, what must be eliminated at any cost? The element of… risk.” If only Axel heeded his own teachings!

Axel contrasts the warmth of his camelhair jacket by layering it over a dark indigo-blue shirt, likely made from jersey-knit polyester as indicated by the stretch, texture, and polyester’s ubiquity during the ’70s. This shirt has the decade’s requisite long point collar, a front placket, and gently mitred barrel cuffs that each close through a single button.

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler (1974)

Axel smokes a cheroot during a poolside conversation with his wealthy grandfather.

Axel wears fashion-forward jeans from Lee and Levi’s through The Gambler. The mid-blue denim jeans he wears with his camelhair jacket appear to be from Levi’s, specifically among the lineup they branded with an orange tab (rather than the familiar red tab) to indicate trendier cuts like bell-bottoms or Axel’s boot-cut jeans with their somewhat more restrained flare. He holds up the jeans with a wide dark brown leather belt that closes through a dulled brass squared single-prong buckle.

Unless he’s at the beach or playing tennis, Axel generally rotates between two sets of casual footwear: his sand-colored suede chukka boots and brown leather loafers, wearing the latter here. These walnut-shaded slip-ons are feature a gold bar detail attached to the strap across each vamp. He wears them with dark brown cotton lisle socks.

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler (1974)

In his camel jacket, tight jeans, and loafers, Axel allows Billie a “hot for teacher” moment while lecturing his class.

The Car

Next week will be my semi-annual Car Week feature, but it feels wrong to write about The Gambler—specifically these scenes—without addressing Axel Freed’s baby-blue 1968 Ford Mustang convertible.

James Caan and Lauren Hutton with a 1968 Ford Mustang in The Gambler (1974)

Axel lounges in his Mustang while mulling over the “first-rate bullshit story” he’ll tell to get Billie back into the car.

One of the most recognizable cars in the world, the venerable Ford Mustang debuted in April 1964, firmly establishing the “pony car” class of sporty two-door cars that offered an affordable and compact alternative to the increasingly powerful “muscle car” street machines. Ford evolved its flagship pony car with cosmetic changes and performance improvements through the ’60s, including the Mustang’s first significant redesign in 1967 that would continue through the 1968 model year, the same year of the famous highland-green fastback driven by Steve McQueen in Bullitt and James Caan’s base-model convertible in The Gambler.

The 1968 model year was the first year that the chrome “FORD” lettering was removed from the hood and the final year for vent windows. The side scoops were streamlined into a sleeker, more vertical design than on the ’67 Mustang.

In addition to a 200 cubic-inch Thriftpower inline-six, the array of available V8 engines included the 195-horsepower 289 Challenger, which would be phased out that year by the new 230-horsepower 302 Windsor as the standard small-block V8, and the 325-horsepower 390 Thunderbird Special; the beastly 427 and 428 Cobra Jet engines were available only for the GT.

James Caan and Lauren Hutton with a 1968 Ford Mustang in The Gambler (1974)

Note the 1968-specific details of Axel’s Mustang: the lack of “FORD” lettering on the hood, window vents, more vertical side scoops, and red reflecting side markers on the rear fenders.

Axel’s Mustang lacks any GT badging, though it also lacks the scripted “Mustang” emblems on each front fender that were standard on base-model Mustangs. The exterior is painted “Diamond Blue”, a light aqua-teal shade that essentially replaced the more silver “Arcadian Blue”. Given that it would be the standard small-block V8 for the 1968 model year, I’m inclined to suspect Axel’s Mustang has the then-new 302 cubic-inch Windsor V8 under the hood, mated to Ford’s long-running three-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic.

James Caan and Lauren Hutton with a 1968 Ford Mustang in The Gambler (1974)

1968 Ford Mustang

Body Style: 2-door convertible

Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)

Engine: 302 ci (4.9 L) Ford Windsor V8 with Motorcraft 4-barrel carburetor

Power: 230 bhp (172 kW; 233 PS) @ 4800 rpm

Torque: 310 lb·ft (420 N·m) @ 2800 rpm

Transmission: 3-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic

Wheelbase: 108 inches (2743 mm)

Length: 183.6 inches (4663 mm)

Width: 70.9 inches (1801 mm)

Height: 51.6 inches (1311 mm)

Caan’s cinematic connections to first-generation Mustangs date back to the start of his career, when he drove a white and blue-striped 1965 Shelby GT 350 fastback in the Howard Hawks-directed racing flick Red Line 7000 (1965).

The actor’s connection to the car would continue in Misery, when Paul Sheldon’s ill-fated ’66 hardtop crashes in a blizzard… delivering the author into the sadistic hands—and sledgehammer—of superfan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates).

How to Get the Look

James Caan as Axel Freed in The Gambler (1974)

One of my favorite looks from The Gambler among James Caan’s cardigans and sport shirts is this tasteful camelhair jacket, dressing up an otherwise laidback ensemble of an indigo jersey-knit shirt, blue jeans, and loafers.

  • Camelhair single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with wide notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets with flapped ticket pocket, 4-button cuffs, and double vents
  • Dark indigo jersey-knit polyester long-sleeved shirt with long point collar, front placket, and mitred button cuffs
  • Blue denim Levi’s “orange tab” jeans with belt loops, five-pocket layout, and flared boot-cut bottoms
  • Dark brown wide leather belt with large brass squared single-prong buckle
  • Brown leather loafers with gold strap-detail
  • Dark brown cotton lisle socks

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

I’m scorching, I’m hot as a pistol.

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