When I spoke to Mike Hodges in April this year, Get Carter had just turned 61, and Hodges himself was closing in on 90. He was preparing for a career retrospective at the British Film Institute titled Return of the Outsider – though the jovial figure on the other end of the Zoom call carried himself as anything but a misfit.
Sitting in his Dorset farmhouse in front of a pinboard covered in photographs, sketches and clippings, the director – who has died aged 90 – talked warmly and often hilariously about one of the most heterodox careers in British cinema. It encompassed camp science-fiction in Flash Gordon, experimental documentary in Information Explosion, and in 1989’s Black Rainbow, even an abstruse occult thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on a hip contemporary distributor like Neon or A24’s 2023 release slate.
Oh yes, and one of the finest films ever shot in this country: his legendary Michael Caine-starring 1971 debut, which has since weathered like a great stone sculpture, only growing more thrilling and engrossing, statelier and scarier, with the passing years.
These days, Get Carter points towards an untrodden path for British film – effortlessly stylish, sexy and cool, but also unflinchingly honest about the country in which it was made. The early sequence in which Caine’s northeast-born but London-based gangster slips into a Newcastle pub and orders his pint of bitter “in a thin glass” – as opposed to a northern working-class tankard – is one of the great scene-setting moments in cinema, with an entire world conjured from Caine’s presence and attitude in that smoky, wood-panelled bar and the faces cautiously keeping an eye on him on all sides.
Remember Hodges by revisiting Get Carter, which always remained his masterpiece (and the recent 4K restoration is immaculate). But do also rewatch or discover the (also-recently remastered) Croupier, his mesmerisingly slinky 1998 London casino-set thriller with Clive Owen – the film could almost be Get Carter’s estranged half-sibling, or illegitimate child.
And also seek out 1972’s Pulp, his second collaboration with Caine, and a bleary beachside noir in which a sleazy author becomes embroiled in a bizarre murder plot. During our conversation, Hodges spoke about all of these films with great affection: I only wish he’d had a chance to make more, and to him this was also a clear source of regret. But a man responsible for all of the pleasures above – not to mention Brian Blessed in a bondage harness, enunciating “Gordon’s alive?” as if performing to an audience at the far end of an oil tanker – left us with more than enough. Robbie Collin
NB. The following was first published in April 2022
To be clear, a producer did not pull a loaded gun on Mike Hodges on the set of the Omen sequel. It actually happened in an office, during an argument over the film’s budget. And, as Hodges recalls today, 45 years on, “he didn’t actually aim it at me. He just withdrew it from his bag and pointedly laid it on the desk.”
“I asked him what he meant by it, and he said he’d love to shoot me, but couldn’t, because there would be consequences,” he explains over Zoom from his home in rural Dorset. “So I really was having a nasty old time of it.”
Back then, Hodges was hot property: the gifted, ambitious director and screenwriter of Get Carter, who had gone to make his mark in America. Arguably, it would have been in Hollywood’s own best interests to help him, since his revolutionary British gangland thriller, released in 1971, had marked him out as one of his generation’s most promising talents. Instead, even when he wasn’t being menaced with a firearm, his enigmatic, often unclassifiable work was regularly received by the business with suspicion and bafflement.
Of course, his uproarious 1980 take on Flash Gordon thrived, and will continue to do so for as long as shining space palaces, epic laser battles and Brian Blessed in leather underpants all count as great entertainment. Yet many of his best films were all but buried on release.
That is what makes Hodges’s forthcoming BFI retrospective doubly vital. Titled Return of the Outsider, and running throughout May, it brings all nine of his features back to the cinema, including a new 4K restoration of Get Carter, as well as his Bafta-winning 1994 mini-series Dandelion Dead and a number of other television projects.
Film was his first love. He was born in Bristol in 1932, the son of “a nice conservative middle-class West Country couple” who had tried to nudge him towards a career in accountancy. Growing up in Salisbury in the 1940s, however, he lost himself in the films of Billy Wilder and Elia Kazan at the city’s three cinemas. But TV gave him his break. His first job was as a teleprompter operator on live productions such as The Billy Cotton Band Show, while on his days off, he wrote scripts.
He moved into producing and documentary-making and found a niche in Sunday afternoon arts programming – “just before the God slot, so nobody really gave a stuff what you did”. Well, up to a point. A jaggedly experimental 1967 episode of the culture show New Tempo titled Information Explosion had the ITV switchboard jammed with complaints from viewers who had expected something more conducive to an after-lunch snooze.
His artful approach to the 1968 children’s series The Tyrant King – which he shot around London on 16 mm film, rather than in a studio on magnetic tape – led to a couple of episodes on ITV’s drama strand Playhouse, which in turn caught the eye of Michael Klinger, a film producer looking for someone to adapt and direct Jack’s Return Home, a bracingly bleak underworld page-turner set in (an unnamed) Scunthorpe.
“I said yes in January and we were shooting Get Carter by July,” Hodges tells me. “How we got it together that quickly I’ll never know.” In adapting the novel, he moved the action to Newcastle – a city that he had come to know during his national service as a Royal Navy minesweeper, gliding in and out of east coast fishing towns.
“Those places opened my eyes to how tough life in Britain could be,” he says. “It knocked all the rough edges off me – or rather the smooth ones.”
When Klinger told him he had secured Michael Caine for the title role of a violent gangster seeking to avenge his brother’s death, Hodges was astonished. “I honestly thought no reputable actor would want to play the bastard,” he hoots, pointing out that films such as Zulu, The Ipcress File, Alfie, Gambit and The Italian Job had collectively buffed Caine’s star image to a silvery gleam. “But Michael had done his research. He knew what he wanted to do.”
He remembers filming Caine’s arrival in a Newcastle pub, “and looking through the camera at his face filling the shot in close-up, and realising that I was making a different film than the one I’d thought. Michael brought such a stature to the role. He made him bearable.”
Overseeing the new restoration, parts of Caine’s performance still took him aback: “That look when the car is shunted into the water with the woman in the boot, where you can tell he knows he’s sick. Or that moment on the ferry where he smiles at the children with their mother and you realise he can never have that life.”
Hodges was not consulted – or paid – during the making of the ill-advised Sylvester Stallone-led remake from 2000 and was crestfallen when he heard Caine cropped up in a cameo role. He still hasn’t seen it, though his son from his first marriage (which ended in 1982; he has since remarried) brought him back a DVD copy from Hong Kong as a joke, but it wouldn’t play, so found its way into the bin. “I’m told it was terrible,” Hodges says.
The original Get Carter was such an artistic and commercial success that Hodges, Caine and Klinger vowed to work together again straight away. They initially considered a project called The Limey, a comic thriller dreamt up by Klinger as a Caine vehicle (and unrelated to the 1999 Steven Soderbergh film of the same title), but Hodges didn’t fancy it. Instead, he cooked up a screenplay of his own: Pulp, a Malta-set sunburned comic noir, in which Caine played a tacky novelist roped in to ghostwrite the memoirs of a faded actor with mob ties.
“It got terrific reviews but the distribution company didn’t know what the hell to do with it,” Hodges explains. “So it just vanished. I’ve had rather bad luck on that front.” His fortunes didn’t improve with 1974’s The Terminal Man, a nervy, unsettling Michael Crichton adaptation, which went unreleased in the UK. His 1987 IRA thriller A Prayer for the Dying was snatched away from him in the edit. And Croupier, his coldly dazzling London-set gambling thriller from 1998, was all but disowned by Film4, who only opened it in the UK after it became a word-of-mouth hit in the States.
You might imagine a science-fiction blockbuster would prove even more nightmarish – particularly one whose original director, Nicolas Roeg, had been dismissed after a year. But in fact, Flash Gordon was, Hodges says, “a joy”.
The winning formula, he believes, lay in the contrast between his own cynicism and the rosy idealism of the film’s strident Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, who sincerely believed he was making the next Star Wars “and had no idea that if it was going to work at all, it had to be tongue-in-cheek”.
On set, De Laurentiis didn’t recognise the film’s camp pantomime humour and titillation by stealth: Hodges had to order his British crew to stop laughing during screenings of the previous day’s footage because De Laurentiis thought something must be wrong with it. The cast were largely on their director’s wavelength, with the possible exception of Timothy Dalton, who played the Errol Flynn-like Prince Barin. “He took it rather seriously,” Hodges says. “But that was good for the part, so I let him.”
Hodges, now 89, doesn’t get to the cinema much these days: “I’m an old man and I live in the middle of nowhere, so I’m terribly out of touch.” Since 2019, he’s been working on a documentary collage film called All At Sea, about his life and career: finishing it off was his big lockdown project, though before it can be released, £250,000 still has to be drummed up to clear the archive footage. He rues the “deep ignorance” of the studios’ current fixation on franchises when the art form is capable of so much more, but recognises their dread of nonconformity from half a century ago.
“Even from the beginning, I wondered whether Get Carter would be successful because I was breaking all the rules,” he says. “Whatever the pattern was at the time, my films never fitted. Sometimes, looking back, I have no idea how I was able to make any of them.”