The luck of the game
By Nicky Charlish.
It isn’t often that a British film which has flopped on its home territory is resuscitated by American enthusiasm. That’s what happened with Croupier (1998, dir. Mike Hodges). But more of that in a moment, let’s go over the plot before we get to the jackpot. Or rather, Jack’s plot. The film’s protagonist is Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), a would-be novelist whose father, Jack Sr. (Nicholas Ball) a gambling South African-based con-man, arranges for Jack to work as a croupier in a London casino. (Jack has already worked as one in South Africa). Suffering from writer’s block, he takes the job. Then, after some experiences at work encourage him to follow the old dictum of ‘write about what you know’, he starts writing a novel whose subject is – a croupier (called Jake). Meanwhile, he is inveigled by Jani (Alex Kingston) – a gambler at the casino – to take part in a robbery there which some gangsters are setting-up (she owes them money – big-time). Unwilling at first, he eventually goes along with her – he could make good use of the money. He receives advance payment, but his girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee) – a former policewoman turned store detective – finds this money and also intercepts a ‘phone message to him from Jani. The heist – during which Jack is attacked by one of the gangsters – fails, but Marion (who has put two and two together) tells him to leave the casino or she will turn him in. Jack returns to his novel but, shortly afterwards, Marion is killed by a hit-and-run driver. He publishes his novel, I, Croupier, anonymously, but gets a phone call from Jani, now in South Africa. She is due to get married – to his father. Jack has been played all along.
At first this seems a straightforward caper film, but it can be seen to operate on a number of different levels, for closer examination shows that it deals us a hand from several different packs. First, it has an element of noir. Jack has been emotionally emptied by family break-up – Jack’s life is a high-grade illustration of Philip Larkin’s statement about what parents do to you. Yet, although we’re led to believe that it was his father’s gambling which caused this family split, Jack somehow regards the casino as a family, a home-from-home which cannot be betrayed. At his interview for the London casino job he says to himself ‘Welcome back Jack… to the house of addiction’, but you feel it’s not just the punters who he regards as addicts – he needs the place too, and he eventually starts travelling to work in his croupier’s uniform of black tie.
Second, it gives us a picture of Blair’s Britain which is, refreshingly, less than flattering. Britannia is unremittingly icy, not cool. Crime-based films have long shown London at various stages of its history and Croupier is no exception. The Long Good Friday captured London on the eve of the East End’s transformation from dead docklands to financial hub whilst Mona Lisa portrayed Soho on the verge of change, post-Groucho Club new sophistication, pre-rainbow-flagged gay village gentrification, and with old-style gangsters still around. Here, Croupier shows a London of shouting drunks, workers who are seemingly either dissatisfied with their jobs or on some sort of fiddle as in the case of, respectively, Bella (Kate Hardie) and Matt (Paul Reynolds), two of Jack’s fellow croupiers, and dingy hotels (when Jack visits the one where Jani is staying to finalise his involvement with the heist, we can just overhear a family row occurring in another room). This is a London for which modern politicians and their image-makers have no interest and don’t want to know about.
Third, it can be taken as an investigation of numerology used as a sort of unconsciously-adopted belief-system, now that mainstream Western ones – both sacred and secular – seem to have run out of steam (inertia rather than zeal seems to be the hallmark of modern Western Christianity, whilst politics offers nothing except different solutions to getting rich quick). Linked with this is the idea of coincidence: does chance have an element of probability?. For instance, is it coincidental that Marion’s death at the hands of a motorist occurs after her threat to grass-up Jack? And he uses a system of odds to determine whether his scam payment money is counterfeit or not. Given the fragmented nature of his early life and his experience of the unreliability of people as bases for trust, it’s understandable that Jack seeks security and solace in probability – for him there really is safety in numbers.
Fourth, it is an examination of writing – the motives of writers, and the practicalities of how to create stuff for the page. The film’s voiceovers, although all delivered by Jack’s voice, reflect the activities of two people – Jack the writer and Jake the croupier (although that croupier is Jack). To what extent do writers identify with their characters, and how do they relate? At one point, Jack wonders whether writing is work – he reaches no conclusion, although some might be tempted to agree with Truman Capote’s view – stated in the preface to his collection of short stories, Music for Chameleons – that writing is a God-given gift but that that gift is also a whip ‘intended solely for self-flagellation’. (In that preface, Capote goes on to draw a parallel between writers and professional card-players.) In the case of I, Croupier, for the writer to identify with its protagonist is a dangerous game indeed, given the robbery that’s being planned. How much of himself – in this case, the dangerous part that is risking prison or worse – can the writer employ? (One thinks of crime novelist Derek Raymond whose early novels must have been written not only with brio but, given his own underworld involvement at the time of their composition, with caution too, and the toll such a balancing act might, must, require of a writer.)
One might think that, given this wealth of material, Croupier would have been a film destined for immediate success in its native land. In addition, it also has excellent casting – including the bit-parts – evokes the menace and magic of night-time London, and maintains a high level of tension. But this was not to be, at first. Originally released in 1999, for some reason it was not given a major UK release by Film Four (under whose aegis it was conceived), and it was, at the behest of the British Film Institute, given a series of joint screenings with a re-release of director Mike Hodges’ earlier film, Get Carter – but even being linked with that sure-fire cinematic attraction didn’t help much. However, on receiving screenings in the United States its reputation gathered momentum until its budget
was more than recouped. This is surprising, especially given that the film is offbeat, doesn’t have an optimistic view of life – since the eighties, America hasn’t seemed the sort of place
where similar dark offerings, such as Chinatown or The French Connection, would be made, let alone British noir given any critical house room. Perhaps it was its very non-conformist quirkiness that did the trick. Following this encouraging scenario, Croupier was then re-issued in this country, with a heavy-duty media campaign, and was a hit. The fifteenth anniversary of its creation gives us an opportunity to reflect on the strange ways of artistic success – and the role within it of luck.
At the film’s conclusion Jack, having had his novel published at last, realises that he is a one-book writer, and has quit while he’s ahead – like a successful gambler. Also, he has made some money with the robbery, and we suspect that the police consider the matter closed. He has ended-up living with Bella (earlier in the film she’d been sacked from the casino for failing a drugs test) and continues to work as a croupier. But is Jack a winner? On the face of things, yes. He’s got the satisfaction of literary fame without its accompanying public hassle (we glimpse him in a tube train watching someone reading his novel), a steady job, money, and a relationship. Yet his victory is pyrrhic. Emotionally cold, he can have no deep relationship with Bella (who, we learn earlier in the film, was a prostitute specialising in S&M before becoming a croupier and has, presumably, been emotionally damaged by this experience, assuming she wasn’t before). The only pleasure left to him is being at the still centre of the spinning wheel of misfortune where he no longer hears the sound of the ball – he is master of the game whose object is making you lose. (Clive Owen, when the over-dubbing was completed, was asked his view of Jack’s state of mind at the end of the film. His reply was simple: “He’s mad.”) Perhaps Jack’s mental state will provide a form of lifelong insulation against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Then again, it may be that, unless his damaged personality is repaired, it’s only a matter oftime before the roulette wheel of his mind loses its moorings in enjoying other people’s bad luck and Jack spins off into full-blown breakdown – or suicide. It all turns on luck – maybe.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicky Charlish is a freelance writer and proofreader who has contributed to, among other publications, Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Midweek, Penpusher and the Culture Wars reviews of the Institute of Ideas.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 14th, 2013.