Croupier (1998) Retro Review
Described as “more of an art movie“ by one notable film critic, but also hailed with transforming the perception of the British film industry to the wider world, it’s been two decades since Mike Hodges’ genre-defining Croupier finally got the acclaim it deserved in its homeland, making this the perfect time for a retro review.
First, the backstory
Meticulously researched, so much so that key scenes can tell you more about how casinos work than your average documentary, Croupier is just as compelling as Hodges’ 70s masterpiece Get Carter or Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, but sadly never seems to top today’s all-time greatest lists. A full twenty-two years since its creation, this gripping and intelligent thriller still holds up today despite its low budget and was undeniably a star-making vehicle that launched a fresh-faced Clive Owen straight into Hollywood.
In true noir style, the film’s release was plagued with mystery and intrigue. Dropped by its financiers and without a distributor, it was first given a very limited and seemingly directionless release into the European market in 1998. It first became an arthouse smash in the United States before its original sponsor, FilmFour, finally gave it a full UK release at the turn of the Millennium.
On both sides of the pond, the reviews for Croupier were glowing. Critics were featuring it in their Top 10 lists, and it proved that Mike Hodges was still a relevant and interesting filmmaker. It should have been considered for the 2001 Academy Awards, particularly since 2000 was one of the weakest years in terms of Oscar-worthy movies, but due to some baffling distribution decisions made in 1998, it wasn’t eligible.
For two weeks in July 1998, Croupier played to audiences in Singapore (unbeknownst to the filmmakers themselves), then it randomly aired on a Dutch TV station in November that year. This “abandoned” film was denied a waiver by the Academy for consideration, and never got the second chance it rightfully deserved in the home of cinema.
Immediately opening with that classic hallmark of noir – the first person narrative – we’re taken inside the mind of London croupier Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), an aspiring writer who first takes a job at his local casino to find ideas and inspiration for his debut novel. Manfred seems to have natural-born talent when it comes to cards and chips, but he remains aloof and detached in the casino, mechanically doing his job as his internal monologue alternates between the real-life Jack and the fictional Jake.
Despite the intimacy that’s created by a combination of cinematography, Manfred’s driving narrative, and Hodges’ expert direction, we never really get to see the inner life of our protagonist. Instead, we’re fed breadcrumbs: Manfred lives in a basement flat and dreams of purchasing a luxury car, his partner Marion (Gina McKee in an ever-reliable form) is far more supportive of him than he deserves, and there’s a shadowy patriarch (Nicholas Ball) who lurks in the backdrop until the last act (when all is revealed).
At just the right moment, Alex Kingston’s smouldering femme fatale shows up, and after an interesting game of cat and mouse she makes Manfred a proposal that will draw him into the corrupt underworld, forcing him to make “a choice: be a gambler or a croupier”.
Maturely directed by Hodges, and with a deft narrative by The Man Who Fell to Earth’s Paul Mayersberg – Croupier was billed as “a film by Mike Hodges and Paul Mayersberg” – looking back, it’s a true shame that this underrated gem wasn’t picked up by a decent distributor and given the release it deserved in 1998.
A shame too, that the British film industry needed to be told about its distinctive, original appeal by the American industry. With lashings of style, a truly first-rate performance from Clive Owen, and a fantastic supporting cast, Croupier is a film for grown-ups that remains genuinely atmospheric and will pique the curiosity of both casino enthusiasts and those who have never placed a wager or picked up a pack of cards equally.