Jack Manfred doesn't gamble. As he reminds us continually, he thinks people who do are fools, lazy sots who naively believe they can beat the odds.
But Jack, who works as a gaming table operator at a London casino, is as much a gambler as anyone -- maybe more, since he refuses to admit it -- and the unexpected results are at the center of "Croupier," a marvelously subversive, slyly manipulative effort from British director Mike Hodges ("Get Carter," "Black Rainbow").
Shot in black and white and in a little less light, "Croupier" would have made a fine film noir, filled with supposed straight arrows determinedly unaware of their fatal flaws, seductive women whose charms hide far more than they reveal, and lives unhinged by simple twists of fate.
What Hodges and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg ("The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence") have given us is a character study of a man who's a lot more complex than he lets on.
Perhaps the most tantalizing things about Jack Manfred are the things we never find out about him. We know he once worked as a croupier in a South African casino, that he's been without a job for some time, that he's got an uneasy relationship with his knockabout father, that he fancies himself a writer (without any real proof), and that he's the proud possessor of a distinctly holier-than-thou attitude. But that's pretty much all the history we get, leaving plenty of gaps for our imaginations to enjoy filling in.
"Croupier" begins with Jack's father using his connections to get his son a job at a London casino. Though skeptical at first, the casino owner is won over by Jack's skills as a blackjack dealer, and his seeming incorruptibility.
So Jack gets the job, and suddenly starts making more than his live-in girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee), a former police detective reduced to working as a security guard at a department store.
Marion's glad to have the money coming in, but she never warms to having Jack back working as a croupier. She knows what happened in South Africa, and whatever it was, it seems to have tempered her opinion of him. Jack's on some sort of wagon now, and Marion's convinced he'll jump at the chance to fall off.
That chance seems to arrive in the form of Jani de Villiers (Alex Kingston, the doc with the British accent on "ER"), another South African expatriate with a talent for getting Jack to do what he's pledged not to do. Jack talks with Jani outside the casino, a clear violation of the rules. He catches her trying to cheat, but doesn't report her. And when his own good sense tells him to ignore her get-rich-quick schemes, he ignores that, too.
And then the chips start falling.
As Jack, British actor Clive Owen keeps his emotions so tightly in check, you keep waiting for him to explode. Jack's entire life is an exercise in holding things inside -- and Owen's performance repeatedly hints at how fascinating all those "things" would be.
Adding to the film's wondrous sense of mystery is its structure, which uses a roman-a-clef Jack is writing about his casino experiences as narration. This device adds a sense of the surreal -- are we seeing what really happened, or what Jack is putting in his book?
It also serves as a reference to the 1940s film noirs that are the direct ancestors of "Croupier." It's the sort of script Raymond Chandler might have written after spending a few weeks in Vegas.
Starring Clive Owen, Gina McKee and Alex Kingston
Directed by Mike Hodges
Released by The Shooting Gallery Unrated (Language, nudity, adult situations)
Running time 91 minutes
Sun score * * * 1/2