Croupier is a sophisticated, psychological drama set in contemporary London. It is not, however, framed by maudlin Victorian sentimentality or muddled, sloppy Hollywood ‘decisionism’ (‘situation’ ethics) disguised as civic morality or progressive hopefulness. Croupier takes place in the social context of fast money, smart-set villains, gilded gambling houses, and late-night powder snorting.
Clive Owen plays Jack Manfred, an aspiring writer who lives in a Chelsea basement flat with Marion (Gina McKee), his fetching roommate, who works as a department-store security agent.
Jack’s father (Nicholas Ball) calls one day to tip his son to a possible job at a flashy gambling casino, the Golden Lion. Although Jack has learned to be a croupier (dealer) in his South Africa homeland, he is reluctant to return to the pit, since he does not want to compromise his writing career. Jack takes the job, becoming once again familiar with the callous, parasitic conduct of a good croupier: be unfailingly polite but never engage customers in meaningful conversation; watch for cheating; wear black and white, no colors; offer no mercy. It is the ethics of humiliation, and provides director Mike Hodges the opportunity to explore the psychology of gambling, and the cold-blooded cultivation of greed and stupidity, as well as the exploitation of human weakness, desperation and credulity.
Ironically, the gambling lords expect heroic morality from croupiers. No cheating, no dates with customers or fellow employees, report violations or you go down with the violators. Jack scrupulously obeys only to learn while bumming a ride home with a fellow dealer, whom Jack observes skimming money to customers by returning winnings in more expensive chips than were originally bet, that sex, drugs, card-games, and all-night carousing is common within the industry.
Much worse, Jack is attracted to a beautiful customer, Jani de Villiers (Alex Kingston), whose table techniques suggest near expert knowledge of wagering, but oddly plays only occasionally. Eventually, she lures Jack into a scheme to rob the casino, the resolution of which provides viewers with a nice surprise ending without resorting to car chases, karate fighting, lurid sexual encounters, or sophomoric moralizing.
Mike Hodges, whose previous directing credits include Get Carter (1971), The Terminal Man (1974), Flash Gordon (1980), Prayer For The Dying (1987), and Black Rainbow (1990), raises the issue of an artist’s relationship with his subject. Jack Manfred is repelled by the exploitive nature of dealing cards, but at the same time is drawn irresistibly to it as a primary source of plot material for a novel. He turns out an anonymous novel, “I Croupier”, based on his recent job experiences, but can only tolerate continuing to work in the casino by detaching himself emotionally from the miserable ease of taking money from the gullible and desperate. In effect he reverses the artist/subject relationship, withdrawing from those whose sins have made Jack the successful writer he has long aspired to be.
This gives Croupier a decidedly counter-modernist theme. Jack finds no redemption in art. He finds success, but his work does not critique social ills, does not create a transcendent artistic vision, and does not offer a story of personal salvation or affirmation through creativity. In Croupier we must dine on Darwin not Joyce or Thomas Mann.
Even so, this ambivalence about the redemptive value of art does not efface the authorial voice of the film. It explores the psychology of Jack Manfred, whose internal musings structure the film and carry the narrative. His comments, criticisms, observations, excuses and private dialogue with himself are imposed on top of the events of the film. In effect Croupier is a novel in the making. Jack Manfred, as author, sets down the crucial events of his life in order of importance, ignoring what does not seem to point him in the direction he has chosen, while elevating what he thinks is significant to a place of prominence.
Of course, exactly what he has chosen is open to the interpretation of viewers, just as would happen in reading a novel. Does he immerse himself in gambling esoterica, lightly outwitting the fools who flock to the tables to give away their money? Does he remain aloof from the hardscrabble world of cheating one’s fellow man, to create art, to write novels, to comment upon humanity? Does he cultivate Marion’s stubborn, demanding love, wallow on the floor with willing female dealers who dress and undress in front of him in the employees’ locker room, or become a rip-off artist and criminal by joining in the plot to rob the casino? As viewer/reader we are not certain, and can easily get lost in Jack’s art versus life dilemma. Sometimes Jack interprets his experiences in ways that seemingly contradict the obvious. But we must check our urge to impose our opinions on what Jack goes through, because as with all art, what it means depends on how you look at it.
Croupier has a hard edge I associate with Mike Leigh (Naked 1997; Career Girls 1999). It is compact, gritty, realistic, and psychologically taunt. The women are simultaneously users and used, eliciting pity and shame at their misuse, but sober reflection from their participation in dubious emotional attachments, dangerous sexual liaisons, and deceit.
I enjoyed the London setting, reminding me of early 1980s days working on a dissertation in the circular reading room of the British Library. But the London of Croupier is not Great Russell Street. Instead, it is a city of kick-butt reprisals, money-driven, survival-of-the-fittest relationships, and pandering to human greed and hopelessness. No one visits the homeless outside Blackfriars Station or passes out gospel tracts to East End heroin addicts. Croupier London is an arena of tragedy, human failure, and disappointment, where one person lives off the pathetic aspirations and sinful desires of incompetent punters and amoral moneygrubbers.
Croupier is an interesting film. It came out in 1998 but raised no flags on this side of the pond. In Germany, reviewers wrote about it as though another Fassbinder or Herzog had appeared, but it is not that alarming or ominous to deserve such attention. It is worth the time to view. It will baffle Anglophiles and provide psychology majors and cinema buffs much to talk about.
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Croupier is distributed in the U.S. by The Shooting Gallery, a Loew’s film series of independent and foreign films released initially in multi-screen outlets.
The New York Times called Croupier "whip-smart," the Los Angeles Times said it was "an elegant jewel," and the critic from National Public Radio deemed it the best film of the year. Americans turned out in respectable numbers to see it, finally giving it the audience it had been denied in Britain. It also became a talking point in the American film industry: for two months every phone call with friends or contacts in Hollywood was punctuated by a comment along the lines of: "That Croupier, huh? Wow! Some movie!"
Such praise filtered back to Film Four in London, which has now (generously but bashfully) taken the unprecedented step of re-releasing Croupier in the UK this Friday. It will be shown on 11 screens - still hardly broad distribution, but some atonement for its original dismissive treatment.
Most British critics liked Croupier, a darkly comic tale about gambling and writing, and many of us bemoaned the fact that it would not be widely seen. Reviewing it for The Daily Telegraph in 1999, I wrote: "It speaks volumes for the value system in Britain's film industry that a work as fine as Mike Hodges's Croupier is only now getting a release - and a limited one at that."
"There was no way to capitalise on the British reviews," Hodges says now. There was only enough money to have two prints made - "So we couldn't get the film out there."
A shame, for Croupier is terrific, even on a second viewing. Clive Owen plays Jack Manfred, a would-be novelist in search of a compelling subject. His estranged father lands him a job as a croupier in a London casino; he accepts, thinking it might provide him with material. Jack casts off his casual clothes and reinvents himself as a sleek croupier in a tuxedo, sleeping by day, working by night in the windowless gambling den. He - and we, the audience - never see sky or daylight.
Owen, rivetingly cool, treats the avaricious punters with deadpan detachment. But is Jack primarily a writer, or does he have a croupier's amoral soul? His involvement in a scam to rob the casino provides a clue.
The script, by Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) is multilayered, playing as it does with notions of identity and reality, and its father-son motif. It also recalls David Mamet's films about con-artists, The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games.
"I liked the whole principle of it," Hodges says. "It felt appropriate, relevant to the time. It represented turbo-capitalism, and the Western world's absorption in gambling. In 1997, there was lots of Lottery fever about."
So what went wrong with the film's British distribution? David Aukin, then head of Film Four, had commissioned Croupier, allotting £1 million towards its budget. A slightly larger sum was raised in Germany, with the proviso that scenes of the casino and Jack's basement flat would be shot there. Hodges and Mayersberg polished the script over six months, then shooting began.
But Aukin did not care for the film: "He said the only thing he liked were the end credits," Hodges reports. "So that was that. At least Film Four let me keep Croupier intact. I've gone through re-editing films before. It makes for a rough time."
The British Film Institute finally saved Croupier from going straight to video. "But it didn't really have a proper poster, and the trailer said: 'From the director of A Prayer for the Dying [a flawed, heavily re-edited 1987 Hodges film about the IRA].' You'd have thought they could have said: 'From the director of Get Carter.' " He recounts this with intermittent laughter and no trace of bitterness.
Hodges is 68, with thinning sandy hair and a beard, and has had a sufficiently chequered career not to be surprised by anything about the film industry. "Mad business, isn't it? Quite insane," he says jovially.
Some of his experiences have gone into a play he has written, Shooting Stars and Other Heavenly Pursuits, about the film industry. His first work for the stage, he is directing it at the Old Red Lion theatre in north London. "Hopefully, it's funny, strange and surreal. Like the business itself," he says.
He has a point. If not for Croupier, he might be remembered solely for Get Carter, his enduring 30-year-old classic, starring Michael Caine as a small-time London hood who travels to Tyneside to avenge his brother's death. In the late Nineties, Get Carter was championed by various laddish magazines and helped spark a spate of British gangster films - almost all of them awful.
Y et when Carter first opened, many critics recoiled from its cynicism and violence. "I think it's more popular now because the country is more ruthless," Hodges says. "That's a bad sign, really. It's a serious film, and it has its roots in reality.
"When I made it, I'd come from World in Action [the ITV current affairs series] and investigated real stories up in Newcastle. It's rooted in something real. Get Carter is like Jacobean tragedy in comparison with these new gangster films. They're farces - they make no statement about anything else in life."
He is equally jaundiced about the British film industry as a whole. "It's skewed in the main towards one specific audience, the 16-25s, and I don't know that I know that audience."
In America, the range of audience for Croupier was vast. They all seemed thirsty for films like it. Despite its unhappy gestation, the film has provided happy endings. Clive Owen's career has ascended dizzily: having starred in a Hollywood adaptation of Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, he is now shooting a film in Britain for the eminent American director Robert Altman. And Hodges? Besides the new play, he's back in the directing game.
"Croupier has revived me," he says, contentedly. He is hoping to film I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, a script by British television writer Trevor Preston. A hot star is lined up - Clive Owen, who wants to work with Hodges again.
"We're trying to set it up at the moment," Hodges says. "It's not an expensive film, but the content is very strong, so it should be OK. But, one thing this business has taught me: you never know."