1970. IT'S NIGHT IN NEWCASTLE, A NORTHERN English city of slums and postindustrial decay. Just in from London, gangster Jack Carter, played by a thuggish Michael Caine, walks into a big, ugly pub. Later, to avenge the death of his brother Frank, he will pit two rival gangster factions against each other, and wade thigh-deep through their corpses, but right now he fancies a pint. The barman reaches for a mug that's too cumbersome for a Cockney sharpie like Carter. He snaps his fingers, deafeningly, uncurls a manicured forefinger and points it at the now terrified barman. He looks like a psychopathic reptile.
“In a thin glass,” he growls. The barman fumblingly complies.
I tried this in a pub in London once. Big mistake. Without breaking eye contact, the barman filled the right glass, took my money, fingered the exact change — and dropped it in my beer.
“Who d'you think you are, arsehole? Michael fucking Caine?”
“NOBODY EVER FORGETS THAT MOMENT,” SAYS 66-YEAR-old Mike Hodges, writer-director of Get Carter, on the phone from his home deep in Thomas Hardy's Wessex. “And you know why? In the script, Carter says 'please.' Michael Caine left it out, and that little choice just makes Carter even more terrifying. He's such a shit that I couldn't imagine any star would risk his reputation playing him.”
Many English people can remember the first time they saw Get Carter, one of several diamond-hard masterpieces in the American Cinematheque's retrospective of Hodges' work. It was shown uncut on BBC-1 in August 1976 (“which really makes me worry about the Beeb!” laughs Hodges), and back then it was probably the most vicious, amoral film ever seen on TV. My eyeballs nearly melted down my face as an almost gleefully black-hearted chronicle of beatings, shootings and stabbings, naked prostitutes and verminous gangster potentates unfolded within an almost totally corrupted working-class milieu. It seemed sleazy, reprehensible and shockingly violent to my 13-year-old sensibilities. I never wanted it to end. Part whitesploitation art movie, part kitchen-sink revenger's tragedy, it's not simply the best gangster movie ever to come out of England, it's one of the best British movies of the '70s, period.
British gangsters and gangster movies were at their high tide when Get Carter was made. Celebrity crime stylists the Kray twins and their South London rivals the Richardson brothers had all been imprisoned by 1970. Caine himself was the same age and from the same neighborhood as many of the Great Train Robbers, the Robin Hoodstyle crooks whose pursuit and capture transfixed the British public throughout the preceding decade. Although they attained renown in markedly different vocations, Caine and his gangland contemporaries were seen as equally potent symbols of the affluent, aspirant, style-conscious new working class of the '60s.
Get Carter was the apogee of the splendidly disreputable gangster genre that had developed since 1960 with films such as Joseph Losey's The Criminal (a.k.a. The Concrete Jungle), Peter Yates' Robbery and Peter Collinson's The Italian Job. Each, unapologetically, featured a gangster as its hero, rather than villain, with no cops in sight, and Get Carter took that tendency to extremes. Its antiheroic iconography — Caine in a black trenchcoat, brandishing a shotgun one-handed, ruthlessly destroying every life he touches and chain-smoking Gitanes like Albert Camus on a murder spree — distilled everything that had come before and influenced every subsequent British crime picture from The Long Good Friday to Mona Lisa, in which Caine reprises Carter in all but name.
Because Get Carter is such a pinnacle of its genre, Hodges is erroneously perceived mainly as a director of crime movies. Like many British contemporaries, he works on each side of the Atlantic, both as a studio director for hire and as an independent writer-director for TV and the cinema. This obscures a clear sense of continuity in his work, but examining his films closely shows that his gift for formal film architecture is as sensuous and refined as that of, say, Terence Davies. But unlike Davies, Hodges has seamlessly integrated his style into a variety of accessible, mainstream frameworks. His oeuvre ranges almost promiscuously from Dino De Laurentiis' super-campy Flash Gordon and Tom Stoppard's Squaring the Circle, to the bleak supernatural tragedy Black Rainbow and his latest, the hypnotic casino thriller Croupier, but all share a visual inventiveness and a mordant, politically wised-up world-view that's unique to Hodges.
THE TEENAGE HODGES FIRST SAW NEWCASTLE FROM the deck of a minesweeper during his national service from 1949 to 1951. His middle-class assumptions were drastically upended by the navy's class system and the vibrant, squalid northern ports where his ship docked. “I went to sea as a clean-cut Young Conservative and came back a socialist. When I returned to Newcastle 20 years later to make Get Carter, they were tearing down the old slums and replacing them with an even worse environment.” Ever the flexible improviser, he nimbly stitched the city's corrupt construction boom — which landed several Labour politicians in jail and defaced the city — into the narrative.
Working in television from the mid-'50s on, Hodges landed on Granada Television's World in Action in 1963. He covered the 1964 Goldwater campaign, profiled Walter Reuther's UAW, and visited Vietnam in 1965. “I knew the war was lost when I found out it stopped on Sundays,” he remembers. “That and the fact that the 'advisers' never learned to use chopsticks.” In 1965 he joined Tempo, a groundbreaking arts show produced by critic Kenneth Tynan. “That was a terrific period. I filmed profiles of guys like Godard and Alain Robbe-Grillet. And we followed that with New Tempo, which was eight rather McLuhanesque films with titles like Disposability, Information and Noise.” Rumour and Suspect, two films for Thames TV, landed him the Carter gig, and everything Hodges had learned about political corruption and visual strategy was marshaled to deepen and enrich its brutal story.
Viewed superficially, The Terminal Man (1973), Hodges' first Hollywood movie, couldn't be more unlike Get Carter, but it continues his preoccupation with the crushing of the innocent by powerful, corrupt forces. It features George Segal as a scientist whose brain is fitted with a computer chip designed to curb his violent psychopathic blackouts. When the process backfires, he goes on a rampage scheduled by the computer. “I wanted to make it in black and white,” chuckles Hodges, “but Warners weren't having any of that, so I made a color movie using only the colors black and white.” Paranoia escalates through Hodges' use of large areas of blankness in the frame and ambient silence on the soundtrack, huge empty zones into which the audience pours its anxieties.
“British cinema,” François Truffaut once famously asked Alfred Hitchcock, “isn't that a contradiction in terms?” Well, perhaps (much like French rock & roll), but only if you confine your view of it to overrated logistics managers like David Lean or the upmarket bodice-rippers of the Merchant-Ivory school of literary adaptation. Behind them, however, there is a whole invisible school, a missing generation almost, of politically and formally radical filmmakers, that is now finally, slowly getting its artistic due. Some, like Bill Douglas and Alan Clarke, are already dead; others, like Peter Watkins, live in embittered exile, furious at the financial, political and imaginative constraints that stunted their careers. Others, like Terence Davies and Chris Petit — and like Mike Hodges, whose themes and aesthetics place him squarely in this company — can wait years between films. Typically, and disgracefully, Croupier currently has no distributor.
Is Hodges at all bitter that he's only been able to make eight films in 35 years? “I do wish that I'd had a long-term relationship with a single producer,” he says, “because I'm not much of a hustler, but given the way things could have turned out, I'm always astonished that my messages in bottles, as I think of my films, ever got off the ground at all. Astonished, but very happy, too.”
SHOOT TO KILL: The Cool Crimes of Mike Hodges The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater | 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood March 2631 | (323) 466-3456, Ext. 2