Mike Hodges: a masterpiece creator as comfortable with gritty crime as with zany sci-fi

With films as varied as Get Carter, Flash Gordon and Croupier to his name, Hodges, who has died aged 90, was a great social commentator as well as a wonderful storyteller

Earlier this year, the film-maker Mike Hodges wrote a wonderful letter to this newspaper, in answer to the question I had posed in an article about his British mobster movie from 1971: “Even after 50 years, do we properly get Carter?” Hodges laid it bare: we will get Carter if we get that it’s a Hogarthian polemic about the British class system with all its shame and self-hate.

In the late 50s, Hodges did his national service in the Royal Navy, in the course of which he witnessed the poverty and wretchedness in fishing ports such as North Shields, where much of Get Carter is set. This injustice radicalised Hodges, turning him – in his own words – from a complacent young Tory into the ferocious film-maker that created this masterpiece about the dead-eyed gangland enforcer, Carter, unforgettably played by Michael Caine, working for porn barons and sex traffickers in London, who returns to Newcastle home town to investigate the strange death of his brother. No one wants that can of worms opened, least of all Carter’s employers in “the smoke”. The consequences are chillingly violent.

Michael Cain and Ian Hendry as Jack and Eric in Mike Hodges’ Get Carter.
Michael Caine and Ian Hendry as Jack and Eric in Mike Hodges’ Get Carter. Photograph: Metro/Allstar

The inspiration of Get Carter lay in its combination of kitchen-sink pulp with the tough social realism of Ken Loach. People are deeply suspicious of Carter when he shows up from the capital. He’s got above himself. He wears nice suits. He takes care of himself. The snippiness and nastiness of class-ridden Britain is everywhere in the film, and Hodges’ genius was to show us that crime and social realism overlap because crime was one of the few ways that working-class people could get rich. Hodges’ other achievement was to rediscover the neglected British crime writer Ted Lewis, on whose novel Jack’s Return Home the film was based. But Hodges’ screenplay was a superb riff on the source material and he invented classic lines which weren’t in the book, such as Carter’s haughty demand to a geordie barman for a pint “in a thin glass”. There’s also that legendary deadpan speech, delivered by Caine in his faintly chilling sing-song: “You’re a big man but you’re in bad shape; with me, it’s a full-time job. Now behave yourself.”

Hodges and Caine were reunited for the underrated black comic thriller Pulp (almost a bleakly funny B-side to Get Carter) with Caine as the sleazy crime novelist hired by Mickey Rooney’s retired Bogartian movie star to write his memoirs; it means travelling to a remote island (Malta) where he is mixed up in a very sleazy mess. The Terminal Man in 1974 – admired by Kubrick – further showcased Hodges’ style with drama and thrillers, and his flair for satire, and it is of a piece with the sci-fi paranoid style of the time. George Segal plays a computer scientist who suffers from blackouts, gets hooked on the electrode stimulation intended as treatment and with the idea that he is existentially merging with a malign computer system. With this film, Hodges showed us an elegant premonition of the 21st century’s digital addiction.

But it was at the end of the decade that Hodges gave us his second great film, a film with which he could let rip with his talent for comedy and showboating visual extravagance: Flash Gordon. The sci-fi adventure was adapted from the 30s comic-strip serial, with Sam J Jones playing the Earthling sports star and all-round hunk Flash Gordon, caught up in an intergalactic war with the evil Ming the Merciless, played by Max von Sydow and Brian Blessed uproariously over the top as Prince Vultan. Hodges’ vision wasn’t the same as Star Wars or Star Trek: it was zanier and more expressionist than that, with its great operatic theme from Queen and its bizarre 2D studio sets and freaky Day-Glo colour scheme.

Sam J Jones and Max von Sydow in Flash Gordon.
Sam J Jones and Max von Sydow in Flash Gordon. Photograph: MCA Universal/Sportsphoto/Allstar

In the 80s, Hodges didn’t quite find the same projects or scripts, and his wacky comedy Morons from Outer Space died at the box office, but it was a game attempt to translate the TV comedy genius of Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones to the big screen while boisterously debunking Hollywood macho sci-fi adventure. His thriller Black Rainbow, with Rosanna Arquette and Jason Robards as a touring clairvoyant and her ageing dad who can predict the deaths of people in the audience had a spiky flair, and there was forthright passion in his IRA drama-thriller A Prayer for the Dying, with Mickey Rourke as the haunted ex-Provo tempted out of retirement for one last job at the request of mobster Alan Bates.

Alex Kingston as Jani and Clive Owen as Jack in Croupier.
Alex Kingston as Jani and Clive Owen as Jack in Croupier. Photograph: PR handout

As well as smart and fluent TV work, Hodges returned to his classic themes in two of his much-admired films from the 00s: his cult gem Croupier from 2000 was almost ignored by the British cinema industry until it became an indie smash in the US; it is an intriguing and cerebral thriller about a struggling writer – terrifically played by Clive Owen – who gets a job as a croupier in a casino to get ideas for a book and gets sucked into his corruption. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead – a thriller with obvious debts to Get Carter and Ted Lewis – was a Clive Owen movie that didn’t work quite as well, but had some real atmosphere, and the same intuition for male loneliness.

Hodges was a brilliant social commentator, a great satirist, a great storyteller and a great film-maker.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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