In a career-spanning interview, the British director discusses everything from making classics like "Get Carter" to fiascos like "Omen II."
A fascinating figure in British cinema, Mike Hodges made his astonishing debut with Get Carter in 1971, a vicious tale of gangland revenge featuring an immortal lead performance from Michael Caine. A seminal British gangster movie, Get Carter immediately announced the arrival of a filmmaker with a keen eye for genre deconstruction, the film’s pithy nihilism and modernist sensibilities strikingly attuned to its vision of wanton amorality and national dilapidation. Other studio gigs followed, but film after film, it quickly became apparent that executives and marketing departments had no idea what to do with the work of this perennial outsider.
The Terminal Man (1974) never saw a UK release, and A Prayer for the Dying (1987) was re-cut behind his back. Horror sequel Omen II: Damien (1978) was a disaster from the off, with Hodges unceremoniously replaced as director, and Black Rainbow (1989) effectively vanished for some 30 years. While the remarkable noir-inflected thriller Croupier (1998) became a sleeper hit on its US release, and inaugurated a movie star in Clive Owen, the film made little impact on its home turf, despite a re-release following its Stateside critical acclaim.
With a comprehensive retrospective of Hodges’ career now underway at London’s BFI Southbank, we sat down for a long chat over Zoom, in which the 89-year-old filmmaker talked us through the wild ups and downs of a combative, six-decade career.
NOTEBOOK: The BFI retrospective was originally scheduled for 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. I understand you spent most of lockdown working on an autobiographical documentary. How’s that coming along?
MIKE HODGES: It’s finished, actually. It’s an all-library film with pre-recorded music and my commentary, which I wrote and performed. But we haven’t got the money to pay for the library footage. So it’s completed, but whether it’ll ever be seen is another matter. But I’m used to that.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds as though you’ve come full circle, as documentary was where you started out. Did you enjoy working with the archives on this one?
HODGES: I did. It’s interesting, I was approached years ago by the BFI to see if I was interested in doing it, but I couldn’t get it together because I don’t really like talking about myself. I tried to find various ways of hiding, as though it were about somebody else and not me. Eventually I faced up to just doing it, writing and recording this autobiographical script. But we’ll see…
NOTEBOOK: The centerpiece of the BFI season is the new 4K restoration of Get Carter. The last time I think I’d seen it was during its previous BFI re-release in 1999, at the height of the Cool Britannia wave of the Blair years. Back then it was fully appropriated by lad-culture magazines as this cultural emblem du jour, and the pinnacle of ‘60s cool. It was fascinating to rediscover it now, and realize how terse and modernist it is, and how a film can change based on the cultural context of when you view it.
HODGES: I think you’re right. Most of that lad-culture movement had no idea what it was like back then. It’s so alien to anything that generation was brought up in. When I was in the Navy in the 1950s I could go everywhere, and that’s what led to me choosing the film’s locations. I saw such depravity, sights that Hogarth wouldn’t have dreamt of. I was in the Fishing Protection Squad, so we went into the likes of Hull, Grimsby, and eventually North Shields. They were terrible places, absolute hellholes. When I was offered Get Carter, Ted Lewis’s story really fit with what I’d witnessed. So I changed his nameless location to one of these fishing ports.
I went back up the east coast some ten years after leaving the Navy, and these areas hadn’t been gentrified, but they’d been built up and weren’t really as I remembered them. So we went back to North Shields, where there was an area behind the fishing jetty known as the Jungle. It was a really sad place, with such awful poverty. Trying to get to North Shields by car, I came across Newcastle, and knew immediately that this amazing city was where I wanted to set the film. Visually, it automatically explained Jack Carter’s behavior. You could see these locations and understand this tough, brutal creature a lot more than you would’ve done anywhere else.
It’s all gone now. I caught Newcastle on the cusp, really. It was changing from a place of abject poverty to a slick, gentrified city. If you go there now the full gentrification has happened. I’m glad for Newcastle, because it was a pretty desperate place when I filmed it.
NOTEBOOK: Get Carter has been read so many different ways: as a crime thriller, a social realist drama, a portrait of social and national decay. I’m curious how you view the film, and if that’s changed at all over the years.
HODGES: I think it’s still the same in many ways. I’d worked on World in Action, the famous investigative documentary series on British television, and I knew that the version of Britain that viewers were being shown on TV wasn’t the one that I saw. I witnessed a lot of corruption. People thought the police were wonderful and fraud was only something committed by foreigners. Well, I knew this was totally wrong. It was interesting that when I went to Newcastle, T. Dan Smith was the mayor, a socialist who two years after we made the film ended up in the slammer for massive fraud. So the smell of corruption was there when I was shooting.
NOTEBOOK: The film’s visual style—that long-lensed, journalistic approach—is there in your excellent ITV films Suspect (1969) and Rumour (1970). How did yours and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky’s background in documentary filmmaking influence the look of Get Carter?
HODGES: I guess it was inevitable. When I made Rumour, which was the first feature-length film I made for television, the operator and lighting technician was a man named Dusty Miller, who I took as an operator onto Carter. When it came to making a film for cinema, the pedigree of the cinematographer was important, so I had to search around for someone I thought would be good. I was lucky that I remembered seeing an Anthony Newley film called The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), but I had no idea who the cinematographer was. I looked at it again, and not only was it this amazing portrait of a lost Soho, but I discovered that it was shot by Wolfgang. Then it was simple. The two of us came together and it was a delight. I’ve just seen the new master of Carter and it’s just wonderful, it’s like seeing a different film.
NOTEBOOK: MGM wasn’t in the best shape when you made Carter. Tell me a little bit about that first studio experience. Was there any pressure on you and producer Michael Klinger to fill it with American stars?
HODGES: Yes, there was. Michael Caine came on board after he read the script. It was an EMI film, as far as I recall, and then MGM came in on the deal and it all changed. They wanted all sorts of actors to play minor roles. I was resigning every day, because I didn’t think you could make the film with their ridiculous casting choices. Not that they were bad actors, they were just totally inappropriate. With my television films, no one ever asked me who was going to be in them, I just cast them with the actors I thought were right for the parts. I fought and fought, but it was all happening so quickly that I just about got away with it. They did insist on one other star, so luckily Britt Ekland agreed to play her very small role, and that solved my problem.
It’s funny, because I know the film was shown in South Africa where it was severely edited. The marquees were advertising a film starring Michael Caine and Britt Ekland, but aside from her quick appearance pre-titles, no one would’ve seen her in the film given her main scene would’ve been cut.
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