Friday, May 3, 2013

Off the Shelf: Croupier (1998)

When novels or movies delve into the intensely turbulent world of gambling, it's often from the point of view of the gambler. Which makes perfect sense, dramatically speaking, since it is the gambler who daringly tries to reinvent himself by risking everything. Quite simply these nervy, often unstable individuals, who have fascinated novelists from Dostoyevsky to Dick Francis, make great protagonists because they can feel like Charles Wells one minute and one of the walking dead in the next. There have been many good movies on the subject, too – Robert Altman's California Split (1974), Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels (1963), Albert Brooks's Lost in America (1985). All of them gleefully revel in showing just how giddy and precarious the lives of gamblers can be.

Rarely, though, do we see the perspective from the other side of the blackjack table. But director Mike Hodges's Croupier, a taut, tough-minded crime drama, with a razor sharp script by Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth), shifts its focus from the guy betting the chips to the one dealing the cards. And the view, although radically different, is every bit as riveting. Where a gambler constantly flirts with the idea of losing control, the croupier always struggles with his ability to maintain it. Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) is just such a control freak. He's a budding writer in Britain whose first novel has just been rejected. While trying to come up with another idea for his publisher friend Giles (Nick Reding), Jack's estranged father calls from South Africa. He has a lead for a job as a croupier in a British casino. Jack, who was trained in the profession by his father years before, wants to escape his family past. but he also needs a job and a salary.

Jack reluctantly takes the position, and it quickly transforms him. He's now the man in charge, spinning the roulette wheel, dealing the cards, and becoming a witness to the misfortune of others. He also becomes, as Jack says, "hooked on watching people lose." This new amoral attitude alienates him from his affectionate working-class girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee), an ex-policewoman who's now a store detective. When she asks Jack what she means to him, he replies: "You're my conscience." Marion volleys right back: "Haven't you got a conscience of your own?" While developing his new idea for a novel about the life of a croupier, Jack meets an attractive South African gambler, Jani de Villiers (Alex Kingston), who one day proposes an idea for a heist of his casino that could change his fortunes.

Alex Kingston in Croupier

Clive Owen here suggests some of the magnetic charm of Paul Newman with the glamour bled out. Jack is callow, yet totally absorbing and charismatic. Even when he's brutally beating up a man he's caught cheating, or having rough sex with a co-worker (Kate Hardie) who comes to his aid, Jack Manfred is completely watchable. McKee is also quite impressive as a woman whose desire for a simple life belies the fact that she also holds some interesting cards up her sleeve. Her love for Jack is based entirely on the idealized life she wants for herself. Marion loves an idea of who Jack is, rather than the reality of who he is. This is unlike Jani, who understands Jack's true nature all too well. Kingston has a cool air of mystery that gives her role a delicate touch of ambiguity. Mike Hodges is a director who carries very little pretension. In the 1971 crime drama Get Carter, he stripped everything down to Carter's brutal desire for revenge. In the elegant 1980 fantasy Flash Gordon, Hodges created a simple, unadorned comic-strip world that was still a colourful and romantic adventure fable. In Croupier, Hodges has fashioned an unapologetically absorbing existential drama about a man who may hold all the bets, but he can't gamble his life.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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