On 17 December, British director Mike Hodges died on his Dorset farm at the age of 90. In 2000, American critic Andrew Sarris had proclaimed him “one of the most under-appreciated and virtually unknown masters of the medium in the last 30 years”. But he got to savour the appreciation he had been denied for much of his career during a retrospective at BFI Southbank in May of this year.
With only nine theatrical features across four decades, Hodges was hardly prolific. But that was the price he paid for being an outsider auteur, with a penchant for deconstructing genres through evocative locales, conflicted characters and acerbic social critique. From his earliest television dramas, he explored the recurring themes of honour, revenge, the corrupting nature of wealth and power, and the loneliness of existence.
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Duality was a key component of his work, as he underpinned weighty storylines with edgy wit and punctuated scenes of analytical detachment with ebullitions of sudden violence. Academic Tony Williams called this a “cinema of restrained tension”, as Hodges challenged audiences to equate the percolating atmosphere of his settings with the motivations and actions of his frequently imperfect characters.
Born in Bristol on 29 July 1932, Hodges lost his faith to the Christian Brothers who taught him at Prior Park in Bath and his class delusions while doing national service aboard a Royal Navy minesweeper. Bored with being an accountant in Salisbury, he became a teleprompter operative and started writing scripts between live broadcasts.
Hodges soon graduated to producing such landmark ITV shows as World in Action and Tempo, which introduced him to Direct Cinema and European modernism through his encounters with David and Albert Maysles, Jacques Tati, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard. Having moved into fiction with the children’s serial The Tyrant King (1968), Hodges introduced arthouse techniques to mainstream television with the ITV Playhouse episodes Suspect (1969) and Rumour (1970). Shot on 16mm, the films centred on protagonists with no control over their destiny, as they respectively investigated a murder and uncovered a political conspiracy. Producer Michael Klinger was sufficiently impressed to hire Hodges to turn Ted Lewis’s hard-boiled thriller, Jack’s Return Home, into Get Carter (1971).
Hodges wrote the screenplay with Ian Hendry in mind, as he was trying to break away from the caperishness of The Italian Job (1969). However, Michael Caine readily bought into the notion of thriller as social autopsy and brought a sombrely pitiless pathos to what he later claimed “was like Charles Dickens meets Emily Brontë, written by Edgar Wallace”.
Shot in 45 days for £750,000, this Antonioni-esque neo-noir treatise on social and moral decay in post-industrial Britain drew mixed reviews. George Melly informed Observer readers that it was “like a bottle of neat gin swallowed before breakfast. It’s intoxicating all right, but it’ll do you no good”. But Pauline Kael acclaimed the “sadism-for-the-connoisseur formula” that was “so calculatedly cool and soulless and nastily erotic that it seems to belong to a new genre of virtuoso viciousness”.
Despite Caine’s presence as a thriller writer commissioned to ghost write the memoirs of Mickey Rooney’s mob-connected movie star, neither the critics nor the Warner Bros press office knew what to make of Pulp (1972). Consequently, this absurdist comedy – with a sobering subtext about the resurgence of fascism in Italy – slipped out of circulation. Hollywood had begun to conclude that Hodges was a rule-breaker whose face didn’t fit after he delivered a consciously cerebral and clinical adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (1974). However, the story of a computer scientist’s (George Segal) descent into psychosis after receiving a brain implant impressed both Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. The latter wrote to Hodges saying, “Your images make me understand what an image is.”
Mismatched with Omen II: Damien (1978), Hodges quit after a producer wanted more supernatural terror and less preaching about the abuses of corporate power. He moved on to replace Nicolas Roeg on Flash Gordon (1980), a Queen-scored slice of kitschy comic-strip sci-fi that he viewed as a realpolitik parable about a naive American lunk (Sam Jones) blundering into a situation he didn’t understand. The shoot was somewhat chaotic, but Hodges later compared it to a soufflé that somehow contained the right ingredients and “sort of rose in some mysterious way”.
In 1983, Hodges supervised the English-language dubbing of Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On. Otherwise he had to subsist on such small-screen assignments as Missing Pieces (1983), Squaring the Circle (1984) and Florida Straits (1986), as critics failed to recognise the merits of features like Morons from Outer Space (1985), a cautionary tale about illegal aliens that doubled as an anti-Spielbergian satire on the infantilisation of culture, and A Prayer for the Dying (1987), an Ulster thriller about the renunciation of violence that was so bowdlerised during editing that Hodges sought to have his name removed.
Although it sank through poor distribution, Hodges was on surer ground with Black Rainbow (1989), an exposé of religious hypocrisy and corporate exploitation that starred Rosanna Arquette as a fake Bible Belt clairvoyant who acquires frighteningly genuine powers. But five years passed before he directed teleplay The Healer and mini-series Dandelion Dead, although he did write the script for Piers Haggard’s The Lifeforce Experiment (all 1994).
Indeed, Hodges was contemplating retirement when he was rediscovered following the belated success of Croupier (1998), a Melvillian casino thriller scripted by Paul Mayersberg that made dazzling use of mirrored surfaces and fluid camerawork to denounce dehumanising materialism and greed. Hodges reunited with Clive Owen on I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003), a searing exploration of masculinity in crisis that subverted the BritCrime ethos by demonstrating that violence solves nothing.
Writing occupied much of the next 20 years, including the 2000 stage play Shooting Stars and Other Heavenly Pursuits, the novel Watching the Wheels Come Off (2009) and a trio of noir novellas. He and Paul Carlin also co-directed Murder by Numbers (2004), a documentary about serial killer films. But, having failed to raise funds for an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Mario and the Magician, Hodges used lockdown to complete the archival autobiography film All at Sea, which will hopefully be released soon.
He will be best remembered, however, for his gritty portraits of villains. As he revealed in a 2009 interview: “Crime is the litmus that shows what’s really going on below the surface. That’s why I’m attracted to it. Besides, as one myself, sinners interest me more than saints.”
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