Mike Hodges’ debut feature film, Get Carter (1971), was one of the key shifts in British cinema of the period. With its total lack of hope, an earnest presence of violence and a hugely detailed topography, the film is one of the definitive shifts to the more gritty, unremitting cinema produced in the early Heath years alongside the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and Michael Tuchner’s Villain (1971). The film marks many differing shifts, whether for its main star Michael Caine, the portrayal of modern-day Britain, or how British cinema effectively conveys the character of power and violence. I spoke to Mike about Get Carter, its journey from page to screen and its subsequent revival as one of the UK’s key cinematic examples of the post-war era.
Celluloid Wicker Man: Get Carter was your first feature film outside of television work. What was it that made you make the jump? Was it a natural progression and did the jump have anything to do specifically with wanting to make Get Carter?
Mike Hodges: It was a natural progression, Adam. In those days there were only three television channels so the audiences were huge. Consequently your profile could (if all went well) be pretty high. Feature producers watched out for any emerging talents. Presumably because they were cheaper than established directors but also because there was a certain kudos to finding new contenders. Michael Klinger, who spotted me, had earlier spotted Roman Polanski who made his first English films with him. Cul-de-sac & Repulsion. My two television films (Suspect and Rumour) that attracted his attention were both from original scripts and I’d always dreamt of continuing on that trajectory. It was not to be. When Klinger sent me Jack’s Return Home, a novel by Ted Lewis, and asked if I wanted to adapt and direct it as a feature film, I couldn’t resist.
CWM: What was it that you saw in it to make it potentially into a film? And what aspects did you deliberately change from the novel?
MH: It was a cracking novel. Sparse in every way. Not a sinew of sentimentality. Very much the way I like both my literature and films. Initially I didn’t want to change anything. It’s a long time ago but I think the first draft was much the same as Lewis’s original text. Probably because I’d never before adapted a novel and somehow felt obliged to the original author. At some point I knew I had to free myself from that straightjacket and begin to think only in cinematic terms. I abandoned the novel’s structure of flashbacks and settled on a straight narrative form; one that I felt happier with for my first feature film.
CWM: Another aspect that chimes with that is the film’s presentation of just about every topographical possibility in regards to its setting, from a variety of different houses, buildings, roads, forests and its famous, final beach. What was the process like for finding these many locations? Did finding such places effect the script and narrative in any dramatic ways?
MH: The other major change to the novel was the setting. Intuitively I decided to move the whole story into territory I knew. My National Service (1954/6) was spent on a minesweeper, part of the Fishery Protection Squadron. As a rating, an Ordinary Seamen, I was free to explore every corner of every impoverished fishing port around these Islands. Clad in my bellbottoms, blue collar and white cap, I witnessed scenes of such Hogarthian depravation that I experienced a sort of epiphany. From being a young Tory (and recently-qualified Chartered Accountant) I became a passionate Socialist. While not sharing the psychopathology of Jack Carter, I certainly shared his anger.
In the process of revisiting the ports I’d sailed into some fifteen years earlier, I happened upon Newcastle. As soon as I saw those huge rust-coloured bridges stretching across the Tyne I knew this was Jack’s manor. Tough, ruthless and uncompromising. I moved into the city for a week or more and walked its streets looking for locations to use. They came in an abundance. Gentrification was a word unknown in 1969. That said, I had happened upon a city in violent transition. It was a place that somehow captured the cataclysmic rupture slowly happening to British society but not yet visible to most of its inhabitants.
CWM: Moving on from that, the film is famous for its consistently astounding cast. Firstly, however, there are many stories of the studio, MGM, wanting much bigger names in various roles such as Telly Savalas and Joan Collins. Was there this pressure from the studio? And how did you manage to resist these casting choices?
MH: Yes, MGM wanted big names in the film. Producers always do. For me, the innocent, this was an anathema. When casting my television films no executive had ever asked me about the cast. That was simply part of my job. Like a painter choosing a particular palette. Now there was a star on board (Michael Caine) I realised I needed to surround him with unknown faces. In that way, as with planting him in Newcastle, I could root Jack Carter in his own milieu. So I fought off each of those ridiculous casting suggestions by simply threatening to resign. It worked. That’s because I meant it.
CWM: Though the marvellous Ian Hendry was eventually to play Eric Paice in the film, he was initially your first choice for Carter before Caine came into the picture thanks to Michael Klinger. What was it that initially brought Hendry to mind for the role and what was the result dramatically of having some genuine rivalry between Hendry and Caine because of this?
MH: The innocent again. I’d assumed no major star would ever contemplate playing such a shit as Carter. It was an image problem every parasitic agent would advise against. Ian Hendry, thought I, might just be interested in the role. Whilst having had his moments among the gods in the Movie Galaxy he was more of a shooting star. In the novel Carter is a much seedier character. It was only the glamour (if that’s right word!) brought by Caine to the role that moved it towards the iconic. The fact that Caine’s career was in the ascendance while his was in reverse undoubtedly bugged Ian. Sad, because he was a wonderful actor.
CWM: Much is made of John Osborne’s stunning performance as the gangster, Cyril Kinnear. How did this casting come about? Is it true that his performance was so quiet and subtle during the card game sequence that the sound crew were having difficulty picking up his lines?
MH: For me casting is a totally instinctive process. I never ask actors to read; only to spend time talking about anything under the sun. Time enough for me to study them and hopefully fit them into my canvas. I’ve often met actors for one role and decided to place them in another. Filmmakers are lucky because they have a vast repertory company to chose from. Casting villains can be tricky because their characters often amount to a bunch of clichés. (Witness any Bond film!). With Cyril Kinnear, whilst desperate to come at him from a different angle, I wasn’t having much luck. My agent at the time was also Osborne’s and, out of the blue, he suggested him. We met and liked each other. John’s talent for invective intimated that there was another side to him than the affable playwright. You’re right. Chris Wangler, my brilliant sound recordist, asked for John to project more. I resisted his pleas and simply moved the camera closer. John’s decision to speak quietly was clever. So mundane; so sinister.
CWM: In regards to this card playing sequence, much is made of the difficulty of the scene with a variety of important conversations happening simultaneously. It certainly sounds incredibly difficult to consider all of the different elements. How did you plan this sequence out and how did you manage to practically tackle it on the shoot?
MH: It was the toughest scene I had to shoot. Boxing myself in by setting it in a bay window made it even harder for all concerned. I covered it to the best of my abilities, and being forced to move closer and closer on Kinnear, helped me in the end. That it worked so well was largely due to John Trumper, the best editor I ever worked with. Interestingly, some twenty years later I had to shoot another poker scene. In Croupier (1998). This time with six players. Not wanting to be caught out a second time, I devised a way of shooting it in one shot. Bliss!
CWM: Back to the film’s many buildings, one account suggests the famous brutalist car-park in Trinity Square where several scenes take place (including Cliff Brumby’s untimely demise) was due for demolition before the film. How did you manage to sway them to not go through with it (with the car-park only being only demolished fully in 2010!)?
MH: Getting the facts about Trinity Square has always been a problem. It was rumoured as unsafe and that’s why the penthouse had never been opened as a restaurant. That said I don’t remember there being any problem getting permission to shoot there. At the time I had no idea its architect was, in fact, a friend, one of a poker party I used to play with. Poker again! Because the credited architect was the firm not the individual, I had no idea Rodney Gordon was truly responsible for this terrific building. Not until he died in 2008, when I read his obituaries, did I realise this. Since then (alas too late) he’s been applauded (especially by Jonathan Meades) as the leading light in British Brutalism.
CWM: It’s a building that I definitely think defines the film particularly well in its uncompromising but confident nature. Finally then, with the film now considered as one of the defining pieces of cinema made in Britain, what is it that you think accounts for its resurgence and success?
MH: Soon after its release in 1972, the film was banished to the dark shadows of cult status. It was, after all, not considered a very nice film here in the UK. But then most of my films have been more appreciated beyond these shores, particularly in the US and France. That changed when, in 2009, the BFI decided to release it again; albeit in a limited way. This time around I think British audiences found the endemic corruption intimated in its every frame more acceptable. By then their rose-tinted glasses were off. We no longer saw our country as a beacon of propriety, and law and order. Our parliamentarians, police, press, the whole damned edifice, had been found to be wanting. They all had their noses in the money trough. The cancer of greed had reached every organ of British society. Maybe, just maybe, Get Carter had been an accidental augury?
Thanks to Robert Macfarlane.