Review: Croupier (1998)

Croupier (1998)A bundle of contesting contradictions, Mike Hodges’ Croupier (1998) is a good film that should’ve been great, says Joseph Attard.

It would be fair to say that Mike Hodges’ Croupier (1998) didn’t get the easiest start in life. Shunned by the Academy for airing in on television in Holland, this glib thriller about a struggling writer-turned casino dealer (Clive Owen) bemused both critics and audiences on first impression. However, the film had an early champion in the late, great Roger Ebert, who in a three-star review astutely recognised the film’s greatest strength: “This isn’t an unconvincing movie casino,” Ebert reflected, “but a convincing portrayal of one of those smaller London operations where the plush and the gilt on the gorillas at the door don’t quite cover the tarnish.”

Croupier isn’t a glamorous film by any stretch of the imagination; it’s an ugly, grimy picture – the sort of film that gets stuck under your nails. At the same time, it’s also a taught, peppy thriller with buckets of swagger and an endearingly scruffy self-assurance. Croupier is admirable for delving into an aspect of casino culture that we rarely see on screen: the ‘mid-level’ gambling den, replete with cheap tuxedos, fading blue felt and the general funk of malaise.

Jack Manfred is a dour, unpublished author living with his starry-eyed shop detective girlfriend (Gina McKee). To pay the bills, he begins moonlighting as a croupier at a medium-sized casino, driving a wedge between himself and his partner who loves him, despite the fact that he only ‘half-loves’ her. Disillusioned by his marriage, Jack is slowly seduced by casino life, where he is empowered by his status as an all-powerful observer of the desperate sleazebags under his charge.

Jack hits it off with South African beauty Jani (Alex Kingston), who’s in deep with the sharks. To help out his new confidant, he agrees to take part in a casino robbery – to the tune of £10,000 – throwing his smug self-identification as a non-gambler out of kilter.

However, despite Hodges’ best intentions, Croupier suffers from the same problems that afflict the neo-noir genre at large. Its noir trappings, and in particular the film’s grating use of voiceover narration, are little more than shallow window-dressing. While voiceover is characteristic of the genre, often providing much-needed insight into the brooding taciturnity that characterises its male leads, the voiceover in Croupier reads as phony, faux-noir affectation. Unlike Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) – whose narration exposes his character’s inner turmoil after bumping off his beau’s husband for insurance windfall – Jack’s voiceover approaches self-parody. Take, for instance, a scene where Jack is introduced by his casino manager to a rich Chinese punter. “Does he win?” Jack asks. “He’s a very good customer,” the manager replies. “That means he loses a lot,” says the voice over.

Yet, like its protagonist, there is much to love about Croupier. In isolation, the central metaphor of the film – life as a game of chance, with everyone either a gambler or a croupier – is trite and uninspired. However, Jack’s cognitive dissonance as he struggles with these competing aspects of his own psyche (inventing ‘Jake’ as his croupier persona) is brilliantly judged. As Jack the gambler and Jake the croupier intermingle, the film doesn’t settle for a straightforward Jekyll and Hyde dynamic: neither man is perfect – nor even especially likeable. Rather, they represent two powerful competing urges; the desire to risk it all, and the desire to judge others who dare to risk it all.

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