Blu-Ray: Croupier | The Arts Desk

The recently-departed director Mike Hodges was one of our most underrated filmmakers. Along with Get Carter (1971), a dark story of revenge starring Michael Caine, Croupier (1998) is one of the most fascinating and beautifully-crafted films of the late 20sth century British cinema. It’s so good, at many different levels, that it bears watching over and over again.

Written by the British-born Hollywood script-writer Paul Mayersberg, it tells the story of an aspiring novelist who uses his background in casino work, and his engagement as a dealer in a London gambling house as a source of inspiration. The narrative shifts deftly from the croupier Jack’s third person voice-over, commenting on his fictional double Jake’s action to a more conventional narrative laced at times with the author’s reflections on the events and dialogue that unfold before us. Such voice-over was a trope in French New Wave cinema, creating in that context a knowing distance between subjective and objective dimensions of story-telling. In the case of Croupier, the fluid and often blurred play between these different layers is so intricate as well as exquisitely constructed that what we’re offered is a lightly-worn but remarkable essay on the art of cinema, as well as a playful exploration of the nature of fiction itself. The croupier is a voyeur in the theater of obsession and desperation that is gambling, but he is also as addicted to his overseer’s job as the punters are to the risk essential to their games. In addition, he admits to being a performer. This multiplicity of roles works perfectly within an endlessly shifting frame that highlights Jack’s creation of a fact-based fiction whose hero is his double Jake, a labyrinthine game of mirrors, inherent to the story and present in the film’s decor.

In other hands – including those of the more intellectually-oriented French authors, this kind of narrative approach might have become an exercise in cinephile didacticism. With Mayersberg and Hodges – and the credit for the film’s brilliance is shared by both of them – the effect is both playful and profound. This is an immensely entertaining film, a meditation on screen-life and story, that goes, without a hint of pretension, very deep indeed.

The croupier, a marvelous incarnation from a young Clive Owen, beneath a super-cool exterior and a hard-boiled sensibility, occasionally breaks into savage violence. He is a mess of contrasts, sentimental as well as self-obsessed – all too human in every way, in the mold of the anti-heroes of classic film noir. His ties with Marion (an early role for sultry Gina McKie), an ex-cop who works as a store detective, a job which neatly mirrors his own, are tenuous and as confrontational as intimate. All the secondary roles, are very well cast: from Kate Hardie as Bella, the cynical yet passionate colleague of Jack’s, his cold-as-steel boss Reynolds (Alexander Morton), Alex Kingston as the desperate South African woman Jani, who inveigles Jack into enabling a heist at the casino and Nicholas Ball, Jack’s trickster father, as economical with the truth as a small-time crook can be: the role model for a son whose weak grasp on the boundary between fictions and inventions is central to the film’s extraordinary quality.

Although Croupier owes a great deal to the 1940’s film noirs drawn from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, this is an immensely original film – with great cinematography from Mike Garfath and beautifully-timed editing by Les Healey, both regular collaborators of Hodges’. Last but not least, the score by Simon Fisher Turner, who made his name doing music for the films of Derek Jarman, is spot on: a dreamy kind of jazz whose eerie leitmotivs underscore the almost fantastical unfolding of the drama’s many layers and the latent tension of the casino floor with craft, sensitivity and intelligence.

Croupier is unique in the way that it manages to weave so imaginatively in and out of a novel-in-the-making and the unfolding action Jack conjures, but which is also the source of his inspiration. The creative mystery at the heart of this poetic device, holds the film together, as well as repeatedly questioning the veracity of what we witness in the film. The novelist’s voice over plays with the delicate confusion the film has fostered: “”He was Jack and he was Jake and he had discovered that there was a price to play for this double life of his”. Such cinematic and story-telling brilliance is very rare indeed, and Croupier should be much better known than it is.

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