With his widely influential debut feature, 1971's Get Carter, director Mike Hodges infused the British crime genre with cool ironic detachment and sharp brutality, anticipating such distinguished works as The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa, not to mention a slew of American independents. In the years since, he's mostly alternated between high-profile projects (Flash Gordon, The Terminal Man) and movies for British television, but he's never quite revived his reputation. By all rights, that should change with the belated release of 1998's Croupier, an exemplary low-budget noir that benefits from Hodges' steely malevolence and bone-dry sense of humor. In an unusual opening screen credit, Hodges shares authorship with veteran writer Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell To Earth), whose script exposes the seedy world of mid-level British casinos while nursing a plot with many twisty convolutions. Sad-sack gamblers have always been a crime-genre staple, but Mayersberg's simple change of perspective to the tuxedoed dealers across the table gives it a refreshing spin. The pallid, dead-eyed Clive Owen stars as a blocked writer who accepts a job as a casino croupier, manning the roulette wheel and blackjack table to earn his keep and gather material for a novel. An expert card sharp, he prides himself on his hard efficiency (40 spins an hour) and confesses to feeling "waves of elation" at watching suckers lose their money. As addicted in his own way as the degenerates he services, Owen gets lured into a robbery scheme by a seductive South African émigré (ER's Alex Kingston) and her nefarious associates. Similar in manyways to David Mamet's House Of Games, Croupier obsesses over the sleight-of-hand involved in the trade and how even a master "conjurer" can't expect to stay on the right side of the odds forever. To add another layer of ingenuity, Owen's omniscient narration is taken from his completed novel, providing a witty and bemused running commentary on his own misfortune. It may take several viewings to sort through all the tangled intricacies of the story, but Hodges and Mayersberg assure that every one is a sordid pleasure.