Beating the Odds
May 25, 2000
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the May 25-May 31, 2000 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................
British director Mike Hodges might not be prolific (he's made eight theatrical films since Get Carter, his 1971 debut), but his movies often have been oddly prophetic. Get Carter opened to a tepid box office and some occasionally scathing reviews for its forceful depiction of gangster violence. Last year, however, the British Film Institute rated it 16th on its list of the 100 best British films. In addition, a remake of Get Carter starring Sylvester Stallone opens this fall. With a hint of jest in his voice, Hodges warns, "Part of the problem about making prescient films is that they aren't usually popular at the time."
Hodges has had similar luck with his 1998 effort, Croupier. The thriller about a roulette dealer (Clive Owen) received scant notice in Europe. Nonetheless, Hodges observes, "It's obviously pushed a button in America. I didn't think when I made it we'd really do that. It got great reviews here (in England) and terrible distribution and great reviews in Germany. I think the (German) critics were so serious about it that they scared the living daylights out of anybody wanting to see it, like it was Nietzsche or something. But in America, I've never had such extraordinary reviews. I'm puzzled."
Part of the appeal may be the film's bleak but unusual depiction of the gambling world. Hodges gives the roulette table and all of its components an exotic quality. "The thing that always fascinated me about (casinos) was the chips," he remembers. "Each of those chips represents part of somebody's life. You don't just get the chip out of anywhere; you have to pay money to get the chip. What did you have to do to get the money to buy the chip? Were you a prostitute, or were you prostituting yourself to get this chip, which then goes down this black hole? You don't really think of it as money. To throw it away with such abandon was really bizarre."
From listening to Hodges talk, it's obvious he understands how money or social class affects people's lives. Some of this awareness has its roots in his education. He holds an accounting degree, although he says with a laugh "I'll have to confess that I was a reluctant accountant. My parents insisted that I have a profession, and I was good at mathematics, so I became an accountant. I got my certificate, and then I had to do national service. I'm 67 now, and it was compulsory in those days. All young men had to do two years. I could have had a commission automatically because I was an accountant, but that would have meant working in an office or an aircraft carrier, and I didn't want to do that. I chose, much to my parents' chagrin, to become a seaman. I ended up on this minesweeper. All of the men on board, with the exception of myself, were professional servicemen.
"It was a revelation to me. Lower-deck sailors were from lower-class families, and I was conscious of the big class divide. In the British Navy, you could have alcohol in those days. The officers were well looked after; they could have (exclusive) parties. (The ship was) where I was politically and culturally honed, and it's apparent in my films."
After his tour of duty, Hodges worked as a writer, director, and editor in television, where he caught the eye of Get Carter star Michael Caine. Their collaboration, which was set in the then-economically depressed British city of Newcastle, can be interpreted as an expression of working-class outrage. Croupier also has these themes, but Hodges expresses them in much less graphic ways. "There's a separation of 30 years," Hodges states. "From around the time of Carter onward, the spread of wealth here has been extraordinary, where it had been happening in the '30s and '40s in America. The (old British) system kept people in their place. I'm an older man now, and Get Carter was a younger man's film and was about a different kind of violence and revenge. In some ways, it's inverted because the whole of Croupier is a father's revenge. Get Carter is a Jacobean tragedy. It's a heavy body count, and at its very heart is corruption. In Croupier, (the body count) is nil, really. Although there's a lot more action in Carter, it's an odd film. It's the sense of violence. There's not a lot of blood in Carter, and the violence is swift. You don't wallow in it. It's atmosphere. Atmosphere is everything in a film. You take the audience by the hand and say, 'I'm going to take you to places you've never been before.'"
Some of Hodges' peers, such as director Alan Parker (Angela's Ashes), have lamented the difficulties of launching British productions, but Hodges, who had disappointments with such movies as A Prayer for the Dying, states, "I think there's a lot of bleating going on about filmmaking. I've had a terribly bumpy career. If you're uncompromising like I am, it's inevitably going to be a tough ride, but I'm not going to bleat about it."
With his most recent film in theaters and with Get Carter finally coming out on DVD (with his own commentary on a separate soundtrack) in a few months, Hodges has little to bleat about now. He's also found another passion. After leaving the phone for a second, he returns and asks, "How many film directors do you know bake their own bread? It's very easy to make. I just can't stand the bread that you buy in the shops. It's diabolical."
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