Lots of moviegoers have soft spots for cinematic scuzz. Perhaps it’s the inertia felt by some audience members when confronted by modern Hollywood and its sea of green-screen, but many are willing to overlook myriad flaws in exchange for a touch of grime. In the case of casino flicks, there seems to be a paucity of pulpy filth. Where, in the modern gambling movie, is the sweaty desperation of James Caan in The Gambler (1974) or the tobacco-drenched intensity of The Cincinnati Kid? The spotlessness of the Monte Carlo poker tournament in Casino Royale (2006) seems to have set the benchmark in recent years and there’s the potential that it will be a fair while before grunge manages to find its way back into the casino picture.
Mike Hodges’ Croupier, released in 1998, was arguably the last gasp of what one might refer to as a “dirty gambling movie”. This neo-noir oddity is a gem so rough it’s crusty, and was responsible for bringing Clive Owen to mainstream attention. In fact, in a career notching two decades at this point, he’s yet to top that particular turn for many people. So what’s it all about? Struggling writer, Jack Manfred (Owen) takes on a job as a croupier. ‘Croupier’ is an industry term for, as RightCasino.com explain in this lesson on live casinos, blackjack and roulette dealers. Donning a tux and bow-tie, Jack puts to good use some skills obtained in South African gambling pits. Jack is quickly consumed by his vocation, taking smug satisfaction in divorcing schmucks from their wealth.
He eventually begins to develop cognitive dissonance between his ‘croupier’ and ‘writer’ personae: the former suave and pragmatic, the latter scruffy and idealistic. He’s soon dumped by his disapproving girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee) and finds himself caught in the gravitational field of Jani (Alex Kingston), a femme fatale and regular casino patron who is in deep with some nasty creditors. They hook up, naturally, and Jack soon finds himself accessory to a heist at his own casino. The robbery is bungled and Jack’s old beau is murdered in retribution. He publishes his novel, which is a huge success, but continues to work the tables as a croupier, forcing the two competing aspects of his personality into a grudging harmony.
Croupier is neither a tour-de-force as a crime thriller, nor an impeccable specimen of contemporary noir. The plot is a little contrived and direction feels clumsy at times, which dampens moments of intensity and hampers the narrative flow. Voice-over, particularly when incorporated for the sake of genre revivalism, can be grating. That being said, the atmosphere is simply wonderful. The cloying funk of perspiring punters is deliciously sordid, while Owen and Kingston share real chemistry as a screen couple. Croupier represents everything great about the British realist tradition and yet somehow manages to tell a story straight out of Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood without ever feeling tonally confused. For all its flaws, you can’t help but doff your trilby.