Monday, August 26, 2013

The Watcher and the Dealer

"You're my conscience," Jack Manfred says, in 1998's Croupier, when his girlfriend, Marion, asks him what she means to him.

"Don't you have a conscience of your own?" she asks. He doesn't answer her. If Manfred does have a conscience he would prefer to lose it, to rise above the moral conflicts of the world, much like the Lord Byron character for which he was likely named. This excellent film noir is about a man's quest for detachment, his quest to become purely an observer and manipulator of life rather than a participant.

He has two occupations in the film which reflect this motive; he's a novelist and he's a croupier, the person at casinos who deals cards, manages chips, and operates the roulette wheel at a casino. As the film begins, he speaks in third person narration, talking about himself as though he were detached even from his own presence, about his satisfaction in no longer hearing the roulette ball. It's a sign to him that he's orchestrating in an exceptionally cold and efficient manner, he's achieved a perfect connexion to what he's doing, merging man and task, subsuming the man.

We see over the course of the movie three women in Jack's life, the personalities of each saying quite a lot about him. At the casino he meets Bella, a fellow dealer who when Jack first sees her, in the locker room, casually strips in his presence, which leads him to see her as "trouble."

When they do have sex, when she brings him back to her apartment after she's seen him savagely beat in an alley a man who'd tried cheating him at the roulette table, he explains to her, "I hate cheats." He says it to her coolly despite the fact that by being with her he's cheating on Marion, something reflected when she smiles and replies, "All men are cheats."

Jack clearly doesn't have a problem with cheating--in fact, after he's given a list of rules by his employer at the casino, we watch him proceed throughout the film to break every single one--sleeping with a co-worker, acting as accomplice for cheaters, and befriending a "punter", one of the gamblers.

No, what Jack hates are people who cheat him, people who see through him to where he becomes a pawn in their game, which is the reason he thought Bella was trouble. Not being shy with her body means she has no inhibition about using it to get what she wants. And, after they sleep together, he seems to find his fears prove true as for a moment she does see through him.

There's another dangerous woman, a punter from South Africa named Jani played by Alex Kingston--River Song from Doctor Who. She's fantastic in this movie which was a little weird for me. It's like someone you grew bored with over months of doing school projects with them who turns out to transform into a fascinating creature in the evening. She even manages a decent South African accent.

She attempts to manipulate Jack into acting as accomplice in robbing the casino, but Jack is happy to go along with it since he knows she's manipulating him. He calculates the odds of attaining a profit from the venture to be in his favour, but in so doing he breaks not only the casino's rule but his own--that he never gambles. And as when he breaks a rule of the casino, he's comfortable doing it because he wants to. His maxim, which he repeats at different points in the film, is "Hold on tightly, let go lightly."

He wants to be able to rely on his ability to perfectly calculate and manipulate situations to insulate him from potential emotional trauma inherent in the unexpected. His relationship with Marion is perhaps even more telling than his relationships with the other women.

After both Marion and Bella talk to him about how horrible and unreliable men are, Jack spots Marion out with another man. This prompts a reminiscence--he remembers how his mother walked out on the family when he was young and never came back.

It's not hard to see that in being his "conscience" Marion is Jack's subconscious attempt to introduce a mother figure into his life. She's a former cop who now works as a shopping mall security officer and Jack describes her as a romantic. She doesn't want him to be a croupier, she wants him to be a novelist, though she's upset when she discovers he's writing a novel about being a croupier. She's the moral influence he consciously wishes to distance himself from but his subconscious needs compel him to pursue. He speaks warily of addictions but his relationship with Marion may be the most destructive addiction of all. She both comforts and constrains him.

Clive Owen is excellent as Jack, allowing just the right amount of buried feeling to come through the exterior. Mike Hodges directed the film coolly and beautifully, it's one of the best modern noirs I've seen.

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