A Lost Soul Hovering Over the Card Table

Mike Hodges’ Croupier , from a screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, turns out to be one of the niftiest noir character studies to come along in a long time. Clive Owen’s Jack Manfred reluctantly takes a job in a London casino after he finds himself hopelessly blocked midway into his first novel, much to the distress of his girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee), a department store detective who fancies her boyfriend being a writer, not a croupier. In one of his many perceptive interior monologues, Jack describes Marion pityingly as a “romantic.” Jack has gotten his job on the recommendation of his gambler-loser father, Jack Sr. (Nicholas Ball), foreshadowing his drift into the world of the desperate people he has been conditioned from childhood to despise.

Along the way, Jack becomes entangled with two other strong-minded women, Kate Hardie’s Bella, a wise colleague, and Alex Kingston’s Jani de Villiers, a dangerous woman of mystery. As if these were not complications enough for a man resisting risk-taking at all costs, Jack creates a novelistic alter ego named Jake for what will ironically become an anonymously attributed best seller entitled – what else- Croupier . It will be Jack’s first and last novel, and will serve as a testament to a writer who knows how to quit while he’s ahead. Jack’s final acceptance of his destiny does not come free of a measure of pain and sorrow and loss.

Mr. Mayersberg’s double-edged inner and outer dialogue makes Jack Manfred an ironic commentator on his own calculated maneuvers. He has stated that he was influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), with its attention to minor characters, when he changed his hero from a gambler who breaks the bank at a casino he has planned to rob to a croupier who luckily survives a botched raid in which he might have been criminally implicated. I suspect that Mr. Mayersberg might also have been influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur ( Bob the Gambler , 1956), in which the hero hits a lucky streak at the roulette table and is thus distracted from a precisely timed group caper, with disastrous consequences for his partners in crime.

Director Mike Hodges has become one of the most underappreciated and virtually unknown masters of the medium over the last 30 years. From Get Carter in 1971 with Michael Caine through Pulp (1972), The Terminal Man (1974), Flash Gordon (1980), Black Rainbow (1991) and now Croupier , made in 1997, Mr. Hodges has been hailed by everyone from Martin Scorsese to Pauline Kael as a stylist of the first order. But he has somehow never hit it with the mass audience even though he is not nearly as eccentric as cult favorites like Nick Roeg and Peter Greenaway. What Mr. Hodges represents is the exquisite craftsmanship of a director who can match his characters with a ravishingly expressive mise en scène , and still drive the action forward at a proper pace without neglecting the ancient dramatic tasks of illuminating the inner lives of his protagonists amid their confrontations with the crises of their existence. Mr. Hodges and Mr. Mayersberg and their gifted collaborators have fashioned a convincing spectacle full of colorful detail and entertaining expertise.

At one point, Jack muses that the miserable souls at the gambling tables did not wish to destroy themselves, as psychiatrists suggest, as much as they want to destroy all the people who are foolish enough to depend upon them. By focusing on the croupier, who can never lose, Mr. Hodges and Mr. Mayersberg confirm Damon Runyon’s old refrain that all horse players die broke. But the point is made with good humor and a light-footed seriousness.

Regarding Clive Owen-a striking talent-I have never forgotten his passionate performance along with Saskia Reeves and Alan Rickman in Stephen Poliakoff’s Close My Eyes (1991), a beautifully acted and torridly graphic tale of brother-and-sister incest. What would we do without England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Canada on the Anglophone periphery? Sometimes I hate to think.

Man Against Woman

Mary Harron’s American Psycho , from a screenplay by Guinevere Turner, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, has come to town virtually accompanied by Gerald Fox’s British documentary, This Is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis. Ms. Harron and Ms. Turner have between them toned down much of the gruesome violence of the novel and have even suggested that it was purely hallucinatory. Christian Bale does the best he can with the part of what T.S. Eliot long ago designated as the “hollow men.” The best scenes in the film involve the kind of status-seeking jokes that would make a very funny short subject. But over a feature-length film, there is only so much hollowness this viewer can endure before starting to yawn and look at his watch. Curiously, the material has even lost its power to shock and outrage. After Hannibal Lecter, Mr. Ellis’ Patrick Bateman comes over as a slightly deranged altar boy, despite Christian Bale’s very ambitiously detailed and risk-taking performance.

The feminists have been after Mr. Ellis for a long time as a perceived misogynist, but he bravely argues in his defense that his treatment of men is even harsher than his treatment of women, and, hence, feminists should rally to his defense. But his riposte to a British critic who complained that his women are shallow that his men were shallow, too, rings hollow when one recalls that Silence of the Lambs presented women of depth and feeling amid all the horror. As it is, I would never have imagined that a movie with Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Cara Seymour and Ms. Turner would manage so weak a representation of the eternal feminine.

Black Against White

James Toback’s Black and White talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk, as a supposedly cutting-edge exploration of the Great Divide between blacks and whites in post-millennial Manhattan, its boroughs and burbs, at least on the fringes of anything we can identify as sociological reality. This is to say that Black and White is mostly talk, with very little action beyond a steady stream of tentative flirting, foreplay and dissing with attitude, mostly from black gangsta-rap types semi-intelligibly lecturing their upscale white groupies of all ages, genders and sexual orientations. It is not therefore surprising that Black and White is not shaping up as a crossover attraction on even the Spike Lee level. Only black viewers know when to laugh at the right places. We’re not talking Richard Pryor, Godfrey Cambridge, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Eddie Murphy or even Chris Rock. They’ve never kidded us as to who was really on top. In Black and White , Mr. Toback himself plays a beleaguered music company executive throwing up his hands in helpless oy vay fashion as he is yelled at by a relay team of gangsta rappers. Robert Downey Jr. plays a homosexual movie producer who comes on to Mike Tyson, no less, and is nearly strangled for his impudence. There is something inescapably thrilling and Pirandellian in the celebrity casting of two tabloid jailbirds as fictional antagonists.

There is one brief spasm of storytelling involving an undercover cop, played by Ben Stiller, and a college basketball player, acted respectably by New York Knicks shooting star Allan Houston. We are asked to believe that the cop would offer the player $50,000 to shave the points or even dump the game. The last basketball scandals I can remember involved the champion City College and Kentucky teams, and at the time everyone marveled at how little money tainted players received for their cheating, though there was a lot of sex-for-free life-style inducements added to the package. What the cop really wants is to get the player to rat on his rapper friend in order to avoid a jail sentence. What happens next is even less believable than what has gone before.

Still, I was told by a French movie journalist that Black and White was a fascinating revelation of race relations in America, and many of my esteemed colleagues have found much to praise in the movie. I’m not sorry I saw it. Mr. Toback’s oeuvre has never been less than provocative. On balance, however, I feel that Black and White is overloaded with ultimately condescending white liberal guilt and masochism. Also, having Brooke Shields parading everywhere with a camcorder and a documentary film sound crew makes the performers seem even more self-conscious than they are encouraged to be. It strikes me that Black and White would have been more entertainingly instructive if it had been made as a full-fledged musical. As it is, the prose passages are prosaic and the rap doggerel is merely tedious.

We have come a long way since the late 50′s and early 60′s when Joan Fontaine received reams of hate mail for merely holding hands with Harry Belafonte in Island in the Sun (1957). By contrast, no one seemed to mind Dorothy Dandridge’s having hot sex with British actor John Justin in the same movie. On television a musical number in which Petula Clark held hands with poor Mr. Belafonte again was banned in the South. Yes, we have come a long way, but not as far as Black and White media anchor teams seem to suggest.