I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

The Return of the Outsider

Gavin Lambert reviews Mike Hodges' career, and finds that after years in the kind of exile his characters experience, the director has come in from the cold with Croupier and now I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

Friday April 30, 2004

Framed in the distant rectangle of a lighted window, a lone figure stares out at a night of total darkness, which fills the larger rectangle of the cinema screen. This striking image opens Mike Hodges' first feature film, Get Carter (1971). Thirty-two years later, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead opens with another image of another lone figure, staring out at the ocean on an otherwise deserted beach. Both are emotionally isolated outsiders, like the protagonist of every intervening movie that Hodges considered "close to his heart".

Georges Simenon, whom Hodges greatly admires, once wrote that he saw all the protagonists of his novels as "people driven to their limits". A crime, he believed, was the individual expression of universal discontent, a view very close to Hodges' approach to melodrama as an "autopsy of society". And in Trevor Preston's intricately structured screenplay for I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, a series of crosscut flashbacks and forwards gradually reveal the connection between Will Graham (played by Clive Owen) and three other emotionally isolated outsiders, finally driven (like Will) to their limits.

A drop-out from the underworld game, Will returns to London to find out why his brother Davy (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has committed suicide. As the trail leads through Will's former lover (Charlotte Rampling) and several underworld figures to a drug overlord (Malcolm McDowell), the movie becomes a modern Jacobean revenge tragedy, with revenge taking the form of what a medical expert describes as "non-consensual buggery".

At the end, the movie reverts to its opening scene of Will on the empty beach. "The dead are dead - gone," his offscreen voice comments. "What else is there to say? Not much." But in 98 minutes I'll Sleep When I'm Dead has said a great deal, often disturbingly unexpected: Will's former lover, still nursing her anger at his desertion and refusing to help him; the drug lord's motive for raping Davy; the disgust that drives Will to kill him; the flash of self-revelation that drives Davy to kill himself.

Equally unexpected is the way Hodges breaks a primary rule of movie melodrama: no frantic, rapid cutting, no acts of violence inflated into bloody set-pieces, but a cool, deliberate pace that increases tension by exposing its underlying psychological conflicts. In a richly, darkly atmospheric world, violence is as taken for granted as pouring a drink, suburban London by night becomes a disconcerting contrast of glittering streets and furtive dark alleyways, of creeping rust around the gilded faucets of Davy's otherwise elegant bathtub. Hodges extends the same care and detail to his characters, not only the astutely cast and finely played leads, but the nervy, impatient gangsters in their black limos, and Davy's landlady (Sylvia Syme), sweetly and sadly ravaged by life.

At the other end of Hodges' filmography stands Get Carter, a movie that bears many paralells with I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. Although Hodges began his career in British TV, producing documentaries, then writing and directing two 80-minute thrillers, Get Carter is exceptionally well crafted for a first feature. Adapted and considerably transformed by Hodges from a novel by Ted Lewis, it's also unmistakably personal in the emphasis on urban loneliness. Carter himself is another outsider; and Newcastle, the society under dissection, is gripped by depression and decay. Dealing in drugs and under-age pornography, like casual sex, has become a way of life. Every character is shrewdly cast and played, from Michael Caine, master of the insolent, disillusioned shrug, to John Osborne's icy mobster, to a middle-aged landlady sitting calmly in her rocking chair while Carter enjoys phone sex with his girlfriend.

As in Hodges' current movie, Carter discovers he has to avenge a brother's death; and the film culminates in a powerfully staged shootout on a desolate, stony beach, where an overhead conveyor belt from a nearby coalmine dumps waste into the sea - soon to be joined by human waste, the bodies of Carter and his antagonist.

Between 1973 and 2003, Hodges endured years of commercial exile, unrealized projects, and a few director-for-hire assignments to earn money and "salvage my career." But he also managed to write and direct two highly original melodramas, one absurdist, the other metaphysical, both commercial failures; a remarkable miniseries for London Weekend Television; and The Terminal Man and Croupier, masterworks like I'll Sleep.

In the absurdist Pulp (1972), the loner is Mickey King (Michael Caine), a funeral director who turns so successfully to writing pulp thrillers that he leaves London, his job, and (apparently without a qualm) wife and children to settle in an unnamed Mediterranean country. When he agrees to ghostwrite the autobiography of a retired Hollywood star famous for his gangster roles, he encounters a series of quirky characters as exuberantly played as Mickey Rooney's actor: middle-aged English dandy (Dennis Price) obsessed with Lewis Carroll, American hitman (AI Lettieri) who masquerades as a professor of history and occasionally cross-dresses, and Princess Betty Cippola, also American, the wife of a neo-fascist prince - played by fifty-year old Lizabeth Scott, who bore a passing resemblance to Susan Sontag at the same age.

Inevitably, a darker society lies not far beneath the sunlit, gorgeously photographed surface and the movie ends on a characteristically ironic note, with Mickey King the prisoner (for life, as it seems) of an underworld as lurid as any he's imagined in his fiction.

For the first of his masterworks, The Terminal Man, Hodges adapted (with many changes) a novel by Michael Crichton. A computer scientist Harry Benson (George Segal) develops uncontrollably violent seizures of rage after surviving the automobile accident that killed his wife and children; and he agrees to become the first patient to undergo an experimental operation. Shooting interior scenes for the first time in a studio, Hodges decided that science fiction demanded a stylized visual approach, and he filmed the unforgettably chilling, forty-five minute operation sequence in subtly desaturated color.

In a theatre of ghost-white walls and glistening silver-white instruments, surgeon, assistants, nurses and a disapproving psychiatrist (Joan Hackett) all wear long white gowns. With the operating team also wearing elaborate headgear and masks, like a group of aliens, and monitors recording progress like spaceship controls, the effect borders on surrealism.

But after Benson's girlfriend Angela helps him escape from the hospital, it becomes clear that instead of forestalling a seizure, the computer chip inserted in his brain over-stimulates his rage. He savagely murders Angela, then wanders into a church and kills a priest. The psychiatrist stabs him with a kitchen knife when he starts to attack her, and he continues to wander, wounded, bleeding, in a maze of confusion, until he reaches Forest Lawn burial grounds. By then totally dehumanized, he jumps into an open grave as a funeral procession approaches - and is shot from a patrolling helicopter.

It's the most bitter of all Hodges' ironic endings, as Benson had always feared the potential of science to manipulate human life. Today, with American medicine overly dependent on technology (antibiotics as well as surgery), The Terminal Man seems dismayingly topical. But although powerful and disturbing in 1974, with Segal's subtly despairing portrait of a man descending to terminal loneliness, it was almost unanimously lynched by reviewers ("tedious", "dreary" etc), and died at the box-office.

Hodges admires the paintings of Edward Hopper (as did Hitchcock), and in Black Rainbow (1989), the story of a travelling medium (Rosanna Arquette) in a depressed area of the American south, he evokes a Hopper-toned world: lonely streets, closed-up storefronts, almost empty cafes and hotels. Trained by her alcoholic father (Jason Robards) in the tricks of the fakery trade, Martha consoles the credulous faithful at spiritualist churches; but when she discovers a genuine psychic gift, she's totally disoriented by alarming messages from the real "other side".

They warn of a series of imminent local deaths, and they all occur, beginning with the murder of a worker at the nearby nuclear power plant, who had threatened to expose violations of safety rules. Later, after "the other side" has warned of a whole group of men about to die, an explosion at the plant kills several workers there.

According to Hodges, the explosion was "the crossroads of many different ideas" that made his original story come together: corporate indifference to environmental dangers, exploitation of grief by fake mediums, Hodges' personal view of "life after death" as "some kind of psychic residue" left behind. And in a literally haunting epilogue, this is exactly what remains of Martha, after she becomes the second victim of the corporation's hit man.

Dandelion Dead (1994), the TV miniseries, was based on a 1921 murder case mentioned by George Orwell in The Decline of the English Murder. Its "great period", he believed, ended four years later, and the Armstrong case contained its basic ingredients: poison the preferred method, the murderer "a little man of the professional class", outwardly respectable, who kills after "long and terrible wrestles with his conscience".

Although Orwell's setting of choice was suburban, Herbert Armstrong lived in its rural equivalent, a genteel country town; and the "little man" becomes another of Hodges' outsiders, sadly aware of his mediocrity, "driven to his limit" by an aggressively bitter wife. The script by Michael Chaplin (son of Charlie and Oona) creates a quietly devastating portrait of class divisions, the upper crust nostalgic for "the good old days" before the first world war, the lower middle class unaware that they ever existed. As husband and wife, Michael Kitchen and Sarah Miles give painfully truthful performances; and Hodges sustains tension in his signature style, at once as detached and intense as Simenon's.

Croupier in 1997 marked a turning point in Hodges' fortunes. Paul Mayersberg, who wrote Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, originated the idea for the film, and Hodges provided "much of the visual interpretation" when they worked together on the final version of his second masterwork, a noir about a loner estranged from himself and the world. Jack Manfred, an unsuccessful novelist, gets a job as dealer in a London casino through a connection of his father's. Renaming himself Jake, he soon discovers "pleasure in watching people lose" at the place he calls "the house of addiction", then realizes he's found a wonderful subject for a novel.

Like Mickey King in Pulp, offscreen narrator in the deep purple first-person prose of his thrillers, Jack's offscreen voice reads extracts of his (more sophisticated) first-person novel. Published anonymously, it becomes a bestseller, but Jack has become an addict in the house of addiction. Moving deeper into alienation he now gets off, like Jake in his novel, on "the power to make people lose", and the fictionalized self takes over the actual self.

In a house of artificial light, glittering with mirrors on every wall, the underworld is once again not far below the surface; and as Jack (like Jake) gets involved with it for a while, the pacing once again creates psychological as well as physical danger. At the centre of the film, Clive Owen proves an ideal interpreter of the Hodges outsider, deliberately impassive, yet with a dark, penetrating gaze that warns whoever he encounters, and reminds himself that he trusts nobody.

According to Stanley Kubrick, an admirer of Hodges, "the basic purpose of a film is to show the audience something he can't see any other way". It requires great persistence as well as talent, he added, and although Kubrick was obviously speaking for himself, the same can be said of Mike Hodges. But he's a master of irony as well as his medium, and if satire in the theatre, as George Kaufman remarked, is what closes Saturday night, irony in the movies may not even get a chance to open.

Fortunately, the critical recognition and modest commercial success of the modestly budgeted Croupier seemed to mark a turning of the tide. The gamble with irony paid off. Hodges was able to set up I'll Sleep When I'm Dead only two years later, a short time for someone who often waited much longer to make the kind of personal movie that unnerves even a minor-league distributor and goes straight to video.


© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

"A British Classic. Richly Atmospheric"
Ray Bennett, Hollywood Reporter