LIKE SCORSESE'S TAXI DRIVER and Bresson's Pickpocket before it, Mike Hodges' unreleased 1998 masterpiece Croupier makes a convincing case that a sleazy, specialized profession--in this case, the guy who rolls the ball and collects the chips at a roulette table--is a perfect metaphor for existential malaise.

In the role of God's Lonely Man stands Jack (the very beautiful Clive Owen), a wannabe London novelist with nothing to write, and no money coming in. He dresses the part of a struggling artist, right down to the fedora he only wears at the computer. He even lives in a basement. But despite the unwavering support of his credulous, live-in girlfriend, he knows what his stiff narration has already told the audience: he's a fraud playing a role, all tell, no show. Under the corruptive influence of his unreliable father, he reluctantly takes a job as a croupier/dealer at a casino. It's work he's done before, in South Africa. Though he's haunted by his casino past, the skills come back to him instantly. For the first time, he's completely in his element: Stacking chips, counting cards, and, most importantly, presiding over all the pathetic wretches who belly up to the tables. Though he swears he's only going to work there a short time, he almost instantly becomes addicted--not to gambling, but to watching people lose. As Jack becomes more and more dependent on the detached omniscience his job affords him--the exact thing he couldn't achieve as a writer--his life unspools.

It sounds trite, like the stuff of your basic pulpy neo-noir. And pulpy noir is what it is. The intricate plot involves a convoluted heist scheme, as well as two other hallmarks of the genre: nervous carnality and moral decrepitude. The movie works fine on a surface level, raising stakes as needed, keeping the twists lively, and giving us lots of attractive Brits to look at along the way. The ending is both surprising and predictable. But like nearly all great films, Croupier is great specifically because of its genre trappings. Hodges, who also directed Get Carter, the existential gangster assassin movie to end all existential gangster assassin movies, renders the elements of formula so simply and perfectly that an aura of eerie seemliness emerges and lights the stage for the movie that's really going on.

That movie--the story of Jack's descent into the pit of darkest alienation--requires the constraints of familiar structure, so Hodges can foreground the subtext. Try as he might, Jack can't separate his real life from the constructed life of the casino--even the light in his apartment is artificial. Everywhere he looks he finds either mirrors or jail bars. The dominant sound of the film is that of the ball spinning in the roulette wheel, relentlessly waiting to drop. Something in this placid configuration is begging to be violated--and Hodges violates it like a master.

We know what's going to happen to Jack--well, we don't know exactly, but we can pretty much predict the arc of his dissolution and dark redemption--because we've seen him before. It's precisely that inevitability factor, along with a startling capacity for artful inversion, that gives the movie the power to be more than what it seems--as opposed to what most latter-day noir achieves, which is only seeming to be more than it is.