Where to begin with Mike Hodges

His most famous film has been named the greatest British film of all time. His most neglected won raves from Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. What else should you see from the work of British director Mike Hodges?

Flash Gordon (1980)

Why this might not seem so easy

With just nine theatrical features made across four decades, the career of British genre filmmaker Mike Hodges feels like it should be an easy one to get a handle on. Yet while there are certainly auteurist connections to be drawn between the gangster pictures with which he began and ended his career, the half dozen films that appeared between Get Carter (1971) and Croupier (1998) are a little more challenging to reconcile. Cult oddities like Flash Gordon (1980) and Morons from Outer Space (1985), alongside a substantial body of work for television, suggest a skilled director-for-hire whose few collisions with the studio machine didn’t translate into a Hollywood career. 

The marketing folk at Warner Brothers didn’t know what to do with his ice-cool sci-fi adaptation The Terminal Man (1974), while a brief stint on horror sequel Omen II: Damien (1978) saw him replaced by the anonymous hand of Don Taylor. If it’s interesting, for a second, to wonder what his CV might have looked like if the studio gigs had kept coming, it’s clear from his most personal projects that Hodges can’t really be described as a journeyman either. With an attraction to genre that depended on curdling and complicating its most straightforward pleasures, it’s little wonder that the sensibilities of this fascinating figure in British film have been best suited to the margins of the mainstream, where he made some of his finest work.

The best place to start – Get Carter

Get Carter (1971)Warner Bros Pictures

Following a handful of television documentaries, it was the pair of dramas made for ITV Playhouse that caught the attention of producer Michael Klinger, leading to Hodges’ feature debut. Klinger tasked him with adapting Ted Lewis’s recently published novel Jack’s Return Home, about a gangster out for revenge, which Hodges brilliantly transposed from its unspecified setting to the late-industrial landscapes of Tyneside.

A respectable hit in 1971, it was really on the film’s 1999 re-release – amid a lad culture-ordained resurgence in the British gangster movie – that Get Carter’s reputation peaked, with the likes of Total Film magazine naming it the best British film of all time. Watching it now, it’s fascinating to think that a work of such pointed nihilism and wanton amorality would be canonised in the wake of Cool Britannia. If that nostalgic PR exercise sought to rejuvenate the spirit of the swinging 60s in late-90s Britain, a film that emphatically sounded the era’s death knell seemed an ironic choice for a cultural emblem du jour.

Get Carter still plays like gangbusters, its location filming super-charged by Hodges’ and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky’s respective backgrounds in documentary. With a tightly wound lead in Michael Caine, ruthless in his pursuit of those responsible for his brother’s death, it pairs well with John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) as an example of what critic Pauline Kael described as “a new genre of virtuoso viciousness”. 

Its narrative template may be as archetypal as they come, but in Hodges’ sparse, steely handling of the material, a sturdy revenge yarn is transformed into a richly textured portrait of social, moral and national decay.

What to watch next

Croupier (1998)Film4

Get Carter’s resurgence came hot on the heels of Hodges’ first theatrical feature in almost a decade. Written by Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976), Croupier is a delicious neo-noir about a blocked writer (Clive Owen) who fancies himself as the lead character in the Jean-Pierre Melville movie seemingly playing in his head. Propelled by this would-be Samouraï’s internal monologue, Croupier initially suggests a man in absolute control of himself and his environment. So when an opportunity presents itself after his old man puts in a good word for him at a local casino, the chips look likely to fall in his favour. But narrators can be unreliable, and it’s our hero’s self-assuredness that makes him the ultimate mark, a patsy to his own confidence tricks. Wickedly cynical and deftly staged by Hodges, it’s one of the best British films of the 1990s.

Owen and Hodges teamed up again for what the director suggests is likely to be his final film. Superficially, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003) hews close to Get Carter’s set-up, following Owen’s retired gangster as he (literally) comes out of the woods to avenge his brother’s death. With a brutal male rape as its inciting incident, it’s an atmospheric subversion of the British gangster movie and a bleak interrogation of masculinity. If Hodges’ cinema increasingly centred on questions of redemption, it climaxes with its darkest night of the soul.

Pulp (1972)

For more subversive genre kicks, Hodges’ second feature – and his second with Michaels Klinger and Caine – tackles the question of genre head-on. A playful satire on the roots of noir, Pulp (1972) sees Caine’s hack novelist Mickey King tasked with ghost-writing the autobiography of an irascibly reclusive film star (Mickey Rooney). Genially languorous, and tonally scrappy, its sun-kissed meta-larks play like The Long Goodbye’s (1973) European Vacation.

Hodges isn’t all guns n’ gangsters though. His sideline in science fiction is a broad church of ideas and tones. Made for Italian super-producer Dino de Laurentiis, Flash Gordon (1980) is a maximalist space adventure indebted to Saturday morning serials. A vibrant, pop extravaganza with music by Queen, it’s a fun time at the movies, with Hodges transposing his ever-present gift for staging into a series of nifty set-pieces. 

The Terminal Man (1974)

If you prefer your sci-fi in a more serious vein, The Terminal Man stands among Hodges’ best. Clinically designed and methodically directed, it features a tremendous central performance from George Segal as a man susceptible to incredible rages who has a preventative chip implanted in his brain. A Frankenstein story in which Segal’s volatile centre appears to lash out against the prison of Hodges’ sterile, detached frames, it was never released in UK cinemas, despite winning effusive admiration from both Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick.

Black Rainbow (1989) may look like a curio in Hodges’ filmography, but it’s one of his most personal projects. Little seen until its restoration by Arrow Video in 2020, this tale of Bible belt clairvoyants, religious hypocrisy and corporate malfeasance literalises many of the themes latent in Hodges’ better known works. Starring Rosanna Arquette and Jason Robards, it’s a slyly ambiguous supernatural thriller with the requisite soft-pedalled sleaze making it a fascinating addition to the southern gothic canon.

Where not to start

Maybe it’s a little unfair to judge Hodges’ 1987 IRA thriller A Prayer for the Dying on the cut we have, given it was re-edited and re-scored behind its director’s back. With a cast that includes Mickey Rourke, Bob Hoskins, Liam Neeson and Alan Bates, it’s a ripely symbolic tale of a hitman’s crisis of conscience.

Designed to kick-start the big-screen careers of British TV stalwarts Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, Morons from Outer Space was a production rife with problems. Essentially, it’s a satire of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), in which the quartet of aliens who crash-land on Earth prove as dim-witted as those who race to meet them. It’s not very funny, albeit not without its charms.

You’d be better off picking up Hodges’ first novel. Published in 2010, Watching the Wheels Come Off is a brisk dose of pulp of which Michael Caine’s Mickey King would be proud: a muscular noir about a beleaguered escapologist. Here’s hoping there’s more to come.

Return of the Outsider: The Films of Mike Hodges runs at BFI Southbank in May 2022.

Get Carter is back in cinemas in a 4K restoration from 27 May.

More on Mike Hodges films

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