Film: From gangland to the casino table

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The Independent Culture
Get Carter has the single-minded narrative focus of a classic B movie. Director Mike Hodges (pictured right), it transpires, was weaned on them at his local cinema. It also has a graphic brutality that was very much of its post-Bonny and Clyde era. The film was produced by MGM and Hodges recalls how his producers pressured him for more star-power for their dollars than Caine alone. Having threatened to walk off the project, Hodges opted for a supporting cast comprising representative faces from that distinctive second rank of early-Seventies screen talent busy perfecting the demeanour of dodgy second-hand car dealers. Ian Hendry plays a weasel of a chauffeur and Glyn Edwards, who was later to materialise pulling pints in Minder, an opportunist lowlife. The playwright John Osborne makes a smoothly sinister crime kingpin and Bryan Mosley - that's Alf Roberts to you and me - plays a blustering local developer.

Before Get Carter, Hodges had made two films for TV - one of them, Rumour (1970), described by the director as "a Godardian film about the freedom of the press" and essaying some of the voyeuristic camera-style that Wolfgang Suschitzky's photography bought to Get Carter. "The best way is to use a long lens," Hodges says, "which gives you a lot of soft focus and the feeling of watching from a distance. I'd already experimented with that, and carried it straight through to Carter."

"The film is not just about the villain," he continues. "It's about observing the social structures and the deprivation of the country from which this character comes. You see the hardness of the environment he was bought up in." Time spent in television documentary during the Sixties lent Hodge's approach to location an investigative edge. "Carter's based on a novel, but I researched something that had happened in Newcastle. There'd been a murder committed there close to a night-club, significantly called La Dolce Vita, and because I'm an old World in Action man, I started digging into the press files. It gave me a lot of details, so I was able to bring the city into the film."

There's a sensitivity to place and architecture in Get Carter that captures a moment in the city's transition from pre-war terraced housing to tower- block developments. In this respect it's interesting to see the film in the context of two other notable forays that the British crime film has made into the city - Sidney Hayer's Payroll (1961) and Mike Figgis's Stormy Monday (1988).

The Tyneside location had impressed the director long before his film career got under way. "I spent my early life in the chocolate-box environs of Salisbury and Bath, cities with soft centres," Hodges says. "My blinkers were ripped away when I belatedly did my National Service at 22. By some freak I ended up in the Royal Navy [which] took me to every fishing port in the UK." He goes into precise, poetic overdrive. "Ashore, safely inside my matelot's uniform, I melted into a world of brutal Hogarthian intensity, and was mesmerised."

Following the success of Get Carter, Hodges went on to make another film with Caine, Pulp (1971), a self-reflexive black comedy in which Caine plays a hack novelist out of his depth among the courtiers surrounding an ailing crime-king, played by Mickey Rooney. It's not as daft as it sounds. Hodges conceived the film as a critique of Get Carter's glamorisation of the gangster-figure, making the point that organised crime had frequently been the handmaiden to Fascism. Since then, his work rate has been steady but the quality erratic. He remains proud of his first Hollywood feature, the allegorical 1974 sci-fi film The Terminal Man, and laughs off what he refers to as "the late and unlamented" Morons from Outer Space (1985).

And he's completely straightforward about why he's putting his weight behind the British Film Institute's re-release of Get Carter, which is to promote his new film, Croupier. Working from a script by Paul Mayersberg, who wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth, Hodges has made a layered, London- based film noir. Here Clive Owens plays a would-be writer who, to gather material for a novel, takes a job in a casino. With a cast that includes Gina McKee and Alex Kingston, Croupier is an economical, deceptively simple film that's as hard-eyed as Get Carter was - but with the former's violence muted and re-routed, better to explore the film's themes of the psychology of narcissism and entrapment.

That it stands up against Carter is an achievement in itself. But when Hodges discusses Get Carter, it's clear that it was one of those moments when everything came together with dream-like speed. "I realised that I'd said `yes', the deal had been done, I'd written the script, cast it, found the locations, shot the film, edited it, put the music and sound effects on... all in 36 weeks!" Hodges leans forward, marking each pause in his synopsis, and you sense the forcefulness with which he might have dealt with unco-operative producers. "You wouldn't even get a phone call returned in 36 weeks these days, let alone make the film. That's how hot it was. And I thought it was going to be like that for the rest of my career. Was I wrong!"

`Get Carter' opens on 11 June. `Croupier' opens on 18 June at the National Film Theatre,London. Mike Hodges and Paul Mayersberg are in interview at the NFT on Friday 18 June at 8.45pm, at NFT 1. Further information: 0171-928 3232