Pulling Your Strings
Director Mike Hodges is most famous for his classic British gangster film Get Carter (featuring what may be Michael Caine’s finest work and may soon look even more classic due to an upcoming remake with Sylvester Stallone). His latest film, Croupier, is a cold little film that slowly draws the viewer into the seedy world of London gambling. It has been released in the U.S. as part of the Shooting Gallery Film Series which puts independent and international films on a screen in multiplex theaters and while it will not compete financially with Erin Brockovich or Rules of Engagement (or even the latest offering from Sly), Croupier offers those who seek it out many pleasures, not the least of which is the intriguing protagonist Jack Manfred.
A struggling writer who affects a certain watchful reserve, Jack (Clive Owen) is looking for material for a novel, since he does not wish to follow his publisher’s plan for a soccer novel with prescribed doses of steroids and sex. And so, he’s open to a suggestion from his father (Nicholas Ball), calling from South Africa, that he apply for work at London’s Golden Lion casino (knowing that Jack worked at one in South Africa in his youth). After impressing owner David Reynolds (Alexander Morton) and the viewer with his prowess as a croupier (dealer), Jack gets the position. Though his store detective girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee) does not like his job or his incipient novel (about a croupier), Jack begins to write with some dedication. He’s enjoying himself at work, even wearing his uniform at home at times, when he meets the mysterious, seductive South African Jani (Alex Kingston Dr. Corday on television’s ER), who wants to rob the casino. At this point, Jack’s novel and the movie have lots of potential.
Jack’s voiceover throughout the film offers an ironic and amusing commentary on the people and events described above and the whole of the narrative. His hard-boiled outlook is a constant reminder of Jack’s status as the shaping hand in the audience’s impressions and as author of the novel he’s writing, with his regular announcements of chapter numbers. He also speaks of himself in the third person throughout the film. When he slyly drones, “Jack half-loved Marion,” or “Marion was a romantic, and she thought he was too,” we know she is too optimistic for their love (or half-love) to last. She’s a familiar character, the nice girl who imagines more humanity behind Jack’s cold eyes than we see there. By contrast, he’s drawn immediately to his co-worker Bella, thinking, “You look like trouble,” as she changes into her croupier’s uniform in front of him. “Welcome to the cesspool,” she sighs, a sentiment similar to his own about the casino. The other woman in the film, Jani, appeals to Jack with her talk of exotic South Africa and her claim she will be seriously injured if she doesn’t pay some men a lot of money.
But Jack is no “white knight” righting wrongs in the city. He is driven by nothing other than his own detached curiosity. With his fedora on his head, particularly when writing, Jack resembles the detectives of so many U.S. films noirs, as well as protagonists from Godard’s and Melville’s crime films. Like these characters, Jack keeps a level head and his eyes open as women either melt in front of him or try to manipulate him, and has a few principles which he rigidly observes. The only emotion he ever allows to surface is rage, directed at anyone who cheats at gambling (he refuses to gamble, knowing the odds). After he catches one cheater at the Golden Lion, the fellow ambushes Jack on the street one night after work, and Jack hits and kicks him after he is prostate. If the punters don’t like the odds, he reasons, they shouldn’t gamble.
And yet, Jack needs the punters. He is addicted to observing them, particularly seeing them lose. As he enters the Golden Lion for the first time, Jack welcomes himself back “to the house of addiction.” The punters seem to be addicted to gambling, but Jack concludes they are really driven to destroy everyone close to them. He feels superior to and different from them. But he doesn’t manipulate them; rather, he stands on the side with the better odds (the house) and watches them lose. His ability to see the “strings” (greed, the odds, the casino owner) which move those around him (him too) gives him a feeling of power, if not genuine power, along with material for his ever-important novel.
The act of writing makes Jack more like the punters than he imagines. The press kit quotes screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (known to most as the screenwriter of two Nicholas Roeg films, 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and 1982’s Eureka) comparing writers to gamblers: “Writers all believe that, against the odds, they are going to be published and successful.” The film’s treatment of the publishing industry emphasizes what a long shot it is for Jack and other would-be novelists to be successful. In a bookstore, Jack bumps into his publisher proudly pushing a book by a terrorist, and he allows a grin to cross his face, knowing that his book will not be the soccer book the publisher asks about, confident his book is excellent but knowing it may never be published. When he is finished with the wittily titled I, Croupier, he appropriately picks a publisher to contact as he would a number to bet on: at random.
Jack does not recognize the gamble in being a writer. Early on, he describes himself as a “detached voyeur” and director of photography Mick Garfath’s overhead shot of Jack and Reynolds sitting in Reynold’s office emphasizes his point. As Jack begins to act literally and figuratively in the drama he is relating, he often refers to himself as “Jake,” his alter ego in the book he is writing (though he informs us the character is based on his thieving co-worker Matt, played by Paul Reynolds). Jake is willing to take obvious risks. Once he acts in his own story Jani’s robbery scheme he opens himself up for feeling. Like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, his interaction with women (Marion whom he cares for and Jani whom he assists) endangers his treasured aloofness. His involvement also reveals that, like Gittes, Jack is less in control of his environment than he thought he was. This vulnerability makes Jack a more sympathetic character.
The movie’s tone follows Jack’s. Initially drained of emotion, it slowly becomes more amusing and approachable. And like Jack, Hodges’ and Mayersberg’s film is willfully hard-boiled, reveling in the gamblers’ desperation and the casino atmosphere’s shadiness (on both sides of the table). Croupier also offers an intriguing look at the writing process and the allure of writing, which in part is the ability to pull strings. (The film itself testifies to the value of the writer with an on-screen title reading “A Mike Hodges and Paul Mayersberg Film,” on which, the press kit informs us, Hodges’ “insisted.”) Still, when Marion reads Jack’s manuscript, she says there is “no hope” in it, and indeed, there is little hope in this film. But the cynicism is contagious. The film transfers Jack’s worldview to the viewer, succeeding in his goal to influence others which he states as he sees riders reading their books on the Underground: “One day I will get into their heads.”