Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Mike Hodges (born 1932) made as big a splash with his debut movie, Get Carter, in 1971 as any other British filmmaker since Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life. Get Carter was a bold and stylish addition to a genre - British gangsterdom - that was fairly played out at the time. Hodges added a great deal that had never been seen before - sex, drugs, and graphic brutality. He also made his anti-hero, commandingly played by Michael Caine, into an iconic figure by having him do the honorable thing, as nastily as possible.
Based on the novel Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis, Get Carter is about Jack Carter, a London-based mob muscle, who goes home to a town "up north" (1) to find out what really happened to his recently deceased brother. Jack is warned by his boss that the local mob won't take kindly to his presence in their territory, but he goes anyway. After considerable effort - threats and intimidation - Jack learns the truth: that his brother was murdered when he saw his daughter in a porn film made by a powerful boss and attempted to defend her honor. Jack informs on the boss, kills four people who contributed to his brother's murder, but is himself killed by a paid assassin.
The ending seemed somehow appropriate in doom-ridden 1971 (Vietnam, Nixon). Hodges knew that censors wouldn't take kindly to Jack getting away with all the mayhem he wreaks in Newcastle. But, realistically, what could Jack have had to look forward to in London, after taking down a mob kingpin up north? The film was so successful that it's producer, Michael Klinger, formed a production company called The Three Mikes, with Mike Hodges and Michael Caine, and went off to Malta to film Pulp, a clever send-up of crime fiction writers that failed to arouse critical or box office interest. It has since taken on cult status.
Get Carter was remade in 2000 for Sylvester Stallone. Views of a rain-sodden Seattle were the film's only attraction, unless you wanted to see the original Jack Carter, Michael Caine, playing a supporting role. Perhaps it was the critical reception to the remake, which was chilly, that inspired Mike Hodges to make I'll Sleep When I'm Dead in 2003. Its plot is virtually identical to that of Get Carter: Will Graham returns to London to find out why his brother Davey committed suicide. Subtle clues indicate to us that Will was once involved with the London mob. He doesn't trust the post-mortem paid for by his brother's boss, and orders another. The second post-mortem reveals that Graham committed suicide after forced anal sex (the doctor calls it "non-consentual buggery" with a straight face). Will tells Davey's cronies that he was "buggered" and they all set out to avenge him. They (eventually) learn that a local boss, played with measured nastiness by Malcolm McDowell, didn't like Graham's success with the ladies and ordered him to be dealt with in kind. Before he enacts the last stage of his retribution, Will transforms himself from a bearded, unkempt forester (he worked as a logger and lived out of a trailer) into a dapper, James Bond-like assassin. He even unearths a classic Jaguar to transport him to his fate.
Just as in Get Carter, Will's retribution provokes a response in the form of an IRA-trained gun-for-hire. Rather than show us Will's death, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead ends with a quiet scene of Will looking at the ocean (the Thames estuary?) before driving away in his Jag as the shooter waits patiently for him at his home. But the similarities between the two Hodges films ends with their plots. One would think that the exquisitely dynamic gangster movies of Guy Ritchie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, would've inspired Hodges to respond in kind. Ritchie had already expressed his admiration for Get Carter, but having another go at the subject inspired from Hodges a more deliberate approach. So deliberate, in fact, that everyone in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead seems to be sleepwalking. Was Hodges a fan of the doyen of deadpan, Robert Bresson?
Clive Owen, as Will, is so taciturn that it's difficult to guess what must be going through his mind. Will's ex-wife is played by Charlotte Rampling, who never alters the expressionless look on her face. I honestly couldn't tell, in the last shot of her, sitting with the assassin on the stairs awaiting Will's return, whether she was already dead or not. Get Carter is rife with the flavor and character of a provincial city, but I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is completely lacking in local color. Newcastle in 1971 seemed so much more real, more lived-in than this London, which looks like a well-apportioned movie set. Everything Hodges may have learned in thirty years was obviously no help to him.
(1) Though the town up north is unidentified, the film was shot in Newcastle upon Tyne.