Born to Win (1971)

“They say I’m a charmer… that I charm the people I hustle.”

Synopsis:
A heroin addict (George Segal) begins a romance with a woman (Karen Black) whose car he attempts to steal; meanwhile, he tries to secure his next fix while outsmarting his dealer (Hector Elizondo).

Genres:

Review:
Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer’s American film debut was this uneven portrayal of the vagaries of heroin addiction in New York. Shaggy-haired George Segal tries his best but is ultimately unable to generate much interest in his character, given that “J” is all the typical things you’d expect from a heroin addict — self-absorbed, pathetic — and thus not really all that sympathetic. He whines that nothing ever goes right for him in life, but why should it? Meanwhile, everything about his new relationship with Karen Black’s “Parm” feels contrived, starting from the moment she stupidly picks him up in her own car as he’s attempting to hijack it (hello? how DUMB can you get?). She insists almost immediately that she’s really “into him”, yet there’s absolutely no reason why she should be; while there’s potential here for portraying an interesting relationship between an addict and a non-addict who’s desperately curious about the life of drug use (Panic in Needle Park, anyone?), that’s merely hinted at rather than exploited fully.

There are a few cleverly bizarre scenes throughout that elevate one’s interest temporarily, and show evidence of Passer’s absurdist sensibility: Segal attempting (unsuccessfully) to hide from a cop in a laundromat; Segal attempting (successfully) to escape from the clutches of some drug dealers through creative flashing. But ultimately, by the end of this inevitably bleak story, the main point one has taken away is that the world of drug addiction and dealing is brutally dog-eat-dog — not exactly an earth-shattering revelation.

Note: Robert De Niro has all of maybe 10 minutes of screentime in a tiny role as one of two cops shadowing Segal; when the film went into public domain and random copies were produced for sale on DVD, De Niro’s face was marketed to fill the entire cover, leading would-be viewers (presumably De Niro fans) down the garden-path. Paula Prentiss has just as little screentime; she’s believable if underused as Segal’s sorry sack of an ex-wife.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several original, darkly humorous scenes

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless you’re curious. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Born to Win (1971)”

  1. Within its first minute, you can practically smell how worthless this film is going to be. By turns throughout, it pinballs from unbelievable to idiotic to a simple, meandering mess.

    Playing a drug addict who can’t ever get a break (boo-hoo; and what would a ‘break’ be for him in that life anyway?), Segal – apparently one of the film’s producers – is miscast and unconvincing.

    Story-wise, nothing works.

    Black’s character makes little sense. Poor Paula Prentiss – a very talented actress too often under-utilized in her career; she’s certainly welcome relief here, has obvious presence, but we only see her early on for a few minutes and at the end for seconds.

    Photographed reasonably well, this is nevertheless an exercise in pointlessness. As a film experience, it leans toward detestable for ultimately being a real waste of time.

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