What better place for drama to accumulate than the formerly smokey dens of iniquity that were casinos? Of course, they’re now mostly free of smoke, if not iniquity. We look at two casino adjacent flicks, Croupier and Hard Eight, and see if they roll snake eyes, hit the jackpot, or indeed any other gambling-centric clichés you have to hand.
Remember when Clive Owen was a thing? So much of a thing, in fact, that he was at one point an odds-on favourite for Bond? Hasn’t quite panned out that way, but there was a period around the late nineties and early naughties where he had a bit of heat, so it was perhaps a surprise when the critically well-received Croupier barely made radar contact for audiences in 1998. In fact, had it not been shown first on TV there was very serious talk of Owen being an awards contender for his portrayal of Jack, a struggling writer who takes a job at a London casino and finds his experiences providing the perfect inspiration.
Reluctantly shoed in to the job by his estranged father back in South Africa where he grew up and first gained experience as a croupier, Jack’s return to the gaming floor seems to come as almost as much of a surprise to him as it does his girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee). It’s not long though before Jack becomes intoxicated by the atmosphere of the place, taking measure of (and inspiration from) the colleagues and punters who now once again inhabit his life; a life he presumed to have left behind long ago. Transcending his surroundings Jack becomes the all-seeing eye of the casino, a kind of omnipresent CCTV system all his own, second-guessing the actions, impulses and motivations of the clientele, one of whom is the enigmatic Jani (Alex Kingston).
Hailing from South Africa Jani ingratiates herself with Jack, who seems at first reticent and then altogether welcoming of the opportunity to breach the gaming profession’s rules around mingling with punters. As he finds his life becoming intertwined and increasingly inseparable from the narrative he has woven for himself Jack is willingly propelled headlong into a plot to rob the casino, posing a threat to his colleagues, his relationship and himself along the way.
Croupier is an interesting movie for many reasons, but it remains little-known outside of cinephile circles and the only reason it has any profile at all is mostly because of the sleeper status it attained on the US arthouse circuit. Marketed there as being from the director of Get Carter, it died on its arse in its native UK not least of all due to a press campaign that instead referenced Mike Hodges as director of A Prayer for the Dying, a film nobody cared for, least of Mike Hodges who tried to disown it. It’s a shame it didn’t find a wider audience, because although its slow burn, noir overtones and lack of action mean it was never likely to set the world on fire it remains an engrossing potboiler that hinges on a decent screenplay, great performances, and Hodges’ low key directorial style. You wont hear me say this very often, but I’ve always even liked the narration from Owen.
In all the times I’ve watched Croupier over the years I’ve never been able to decide whether Jack’s writing is the driving force behind his moral ambiguity or simply an excuse for it. As someone who is drawn to characters of precisely this kind of moral apathy my inability to resolve Owen’s portrayal is, I think, the primary reason I keep coming back to the film every so often. Owen walks a fine line between charismatic and unknowable that will undoubtedly be not to everyone’s taste, but I very much appreciate his work here, and I can see why that convincing moral flexibility and dapper croupier attire would have given Broccoli and Wilson an easier time picturing him gripping a Walther PPK and a Martini glass.
If I have any gripes with the movie my first observation would be that the relationship between Jack and Marion isn’t really developed sufficiently to make one sympathetic to the latter as the plot unfolds. At least I hope that’s the reason I feel as blasé about her final appearance as Jack seems to; as intriguing as I find him I don’t particularly want him rubbing off on me. This isn’t Gina McKee’s most substantial role, and it’s fair to say she’s somewhat wasted, left to rattle around in a role that is necessary to the plot, but which Hodges seems unable or unwilling to marshal correctly. Kate Hardie fares just about as poorly as Bella, a casino employee who becomes involved with Jack when he forces himself upon her in perhaps’s the movie’s only really problematic scene.
Fortunately the same cannot be said of Alex Kingston, whose role is substantial and influence upon the plot pivotal. If this is noir then Kingston is the femme fatale, though her input and performance are more nuanced than that and when the credits roll she’s probably the movie’s only real winner. That’s assuming, of course, that rather than attaining a traditional “win state” we agree Jack ultimately ends up where he wants and deserves to be.
I don’t know what else to say about Croupier except that I really liked it back in the day, and I wasn’t as disappointed to revisit it as I have been some other old favourites of late.
Philip Baker Hall’s Sydney finds everyone’s favourite lovable sadsack, John C. Reilly’s John Finnegan slumped outside a Nevadan diner, broke and forlorn after failing to win enough money gambling to pay for his mother’s funeral. For reasons that will perhaps only become apparent as the film progresses, Sydney takes John under his wing in order to teach him the secrets of the gambling game, although that’s seemingly mainly in the sense of tricking casinos into thinking they are high rollers and comping them rooms rather than actually winning money.
At any rate, it’s worked well enough for them to stay together for two years, forming something of a father and son bond between the calm and collected Sydney and the, to use Wikipedia’s somewhat euphemistical description, “unsophisticated and not overly intelligent” John. Complications arise when John falls in love with a waitress and part-time hooker, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Clementine. That second part of Clementine’s CV leads to one particularly unpleasant situation that a panicked John calls both Sydney and his new friend, Samuel L. Jackson’s Jimmy, a casino security worker who’s more or less wandered in off a Tarantino set. This brings up some history and further complications between Sydney and Jimmy.
I suppose the watchword here is economical, with a small set of characters and locations, and for the most part is all the stronger for it. Certainly I’m not going to knock any of the performances here, particularly surprising in the case of Paltrow, seen here as a decent actress, rather than the latter day bullshit woo-woo new age hack fraud snake oil saleswoman persona that she’s devolved into.
The characters are interesting and likable enough to pull us through what is just about the minimally viable plot, although there’s certainly some niggles. Perhaps a holdover from its expansion from Anderson’s previous short film Cigarettes & Coffee, there’s points where this does feel a bit more like a series of ideas for neat character scenes rather than a cohesive story, and while that’s certainly more apparent when, say, typing up notes for a review than on casual viewing, it’s still quite noticeable. For example, great as it is to see your boy and ours, Philip Seymour Hoffman again, that bunch of scenes have no particular plot, or arguably character utility, and even the more dramatically impactful final reel scenes between Philip Baker Hall and Samuel L. Jackson barely feel connected to the earlier situations. So, it’s not the most tightly plotted movie in existence, more of a mood piece and character exploration, but I rather suppose that’s something P.T. Anderson would admit to embracing fully in his latter works.
I suppose with the benefit of hindsight it’s not too surprising that Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature is good, due to, well, him being Paul Thomas Anderson and all, but I imagine this would have been a pleasant surprise had I seen this back in 1996, To be sure, it’s not up to the level of his following films, Boogie Nights et al, but it would surely make any shortlist of auspicious debuts. So, yes, perhaps not worth breaking the doors down to see, but certainly worth asking politely for the key. To the door. That this film is behind. In this analogy. For some reason. It’s unclear why. Look, I’m saying I liked this. What more do you want from me? Leave me alone.
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