I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

The Shy Master of the Movie Thriller


June 13, 2004 NEW YORK TIMES

HE English director Mike Hodges has made so few films he should be legendary. Mr. Hodges's new movie, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" (opening on Friday), is just his ninth feature in 33 years, and even that total is a little misleading: he disowns "A Prayer for the Dying" (1987), which was taken away from him and recut by the studio, and "Black Rainbow" (1989) was never released theatrically in the United States. This sparseness of output should place him solidly in the maverick/perfectionist class of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, but a Mike Hodges film has never generated the frenzies of anticipation that a new Kubrick once did, or that a long-delayed Malick or Quentin Tarantino movie does now. In an age of hype and instant overexposure, it's almost easier to become a legend than to remain, as Mr. Hodges stubbornly has, a minor cult figure. There's a weird dignity in his obscurity.

When Mr. Hodges's "Croupier" opened here in 2000, the film was, to put it mildly, not burdened with heavy expectations. Its star, Clive Owen, was then an unknown, and the relatively few American moviegoers who recognized the director's name had probably not thought about Mr. Hodges for years, except, perhaps, in the form of a whatever-happened-to question. His debut feature, the brutal underworld thriller "Get Carter" (1971), had earned him the reputation of a fiercely original visual stylist, and as that film's fame grew — to the point where it is now regarded, rightly, as one of the great British gangster movies — Mr. Hodges became, in the 1970's, a semi-hot director. Despite his best efforts, in the bizarre black comedy "Pulp" (1972) and the clammy, nightmarish thriller "The Terminal Man" (1974), to demonstrate that his talent was both unpredictable and uncommercial, he was nonetheless rewarded with what passed for a plum assignment in the disco era: he was put in the director's chair for the campy, mega-budget "Flash Gordon" (1980).

That picture represented pretty much the peak of Mr. Hodges's visibility; and, characteristically, he violated all expectations. He made the movie so garish and outré that viewers couldn't get comfortable with it, couldn't settle into the kind of cozy, knowing condescension the retro-pulp material was (presumably) intended to evoke. The film's visual audacity and twisted wit can be amusing, if you're in a certain mood — but it's a mood you wouldn't want to find yourself in too frequently. The idea of turning out a straight-forward crowd-pleaser that might recoup its investors' enormous outlay appears not to have occurred to Mr. Hodges — or more likely, so repelled him that he simply decided that he had to do something different. Because if there's one constant in his otherwise bewilderingly diverse career, it's the desire to keep the audience off balance, unnerved, uncertain of what might be coming next.

So after shooting himself in the foot with Flash Gordon's ray gun — and, perversely, following that self-destructive experiment with another (more modestly budgeted) science-fiction comedy, the mostly dismal "Morons From Outer Space" (1985) — Mr. Hodges returned to the thriller, which has the advantage of being a form that lets him unsettle his viewers without their actively resenting him for it. And his thrillers are distinctively unsettling: they're as somber and as menacing as ghost stories, and their effects are as hard to shake.

"Black Rainbow," which finally had its American premiere on the Showtime cable channel in 1991, is a ghost story, of sorts, and it's a shame that the movie was never shown in theaters here. It's the most complexly beautiful film of Mr. Hodges's career; if "Black Rainbow" had been better known, the director's so-called comeback in "Croupier" might not have seemed so out of the blue. "Black Rainbow" takes place in an eerily timeless American South, kudzu-covered and as forlorn-looking as a Hopper painting. An alcoholic con man (played by Jason Robards) and his psychic daughter (Rosanna Arquette) travel from town to town telling fortunes in churches. She starts seeing violent deaths before they happen, and, as you might expect, some nasty people come after her and her daddy. The movie's considerable suspense doesn't derive from anything so simple as a chase plot, though; Mr. Hodges whips up an almost metaphysical sort of tension, a held-breath sense of imminent revelation (or catastrophe) that seems to emanate from the ragged landscape, the dusty hotel rooms and the faded ornaments of the churches. "Black Rainbow" is all hushed anticipation, its characters moving in a kind of premonitory daze, as if they knew the second coming was at hand and had given up even trying to get out of the way.

And that strange fatefulness carries over to the brighter world of "Croupier," whose hero, Jack Manfred (Mr. Owen), though more sophisticated than the anxious pilgrims of "Black Rainbow," is no less a fool of fortune. Jack, a blocked, broke writer, takes a job at a London casino on the advice of his reprobate father and soon finds himself falling out with his girlfriend, becoming involved with a bitter ex-prostitute, betraying his co-workers and taking part, without ever quite understanding what he's doing, in a daring crime. Mr. Hodges, working from an exceptionally cunning script by Paul Mayersberg, traces his hero's downward spiral with patient, chilly precision, and the course of the disaster feels so inexorable that you're shocked when the worst doesn't happen — or, rather, when it happens in a way that leaves the apparently ill-fated Jack untouched.

The sneaky irony at the end of "Croupier" is that the price of its protagonist's ability to control his own fate is near-total self-alienation: the only way for Jack to beat the house is to turn himself into the cynical "Jake," the hero of the novel he has been trying to write throughout the film. Mr. Hodges appears to take especially keen pleasure in this last spin of "Croupier" 's wheel, perhaps because he recognizes in Jack's radical detachment a funhouse-mirror reflection of his own creative temperament. Advertisement

Right from the beginning of Mr. Hodges's career, the defining quality of his work has been its unearthly remoteness, a deep-space chill that seems to pervade both his imagery and his concept of character. His films often have a stark, overlighted look ("The Terminal Man" is practically white-on-white); he uses more long shots, and fewer close-ups, than just about any other director in mainstream English-language films; and it's virtually impossible to find a "big" emotional moment in his entire body of work. The scary, and memorable, thing about "Get Carter," after all, was the way the film's elegantly lucid style seemed to match the predatory implacability of its avenger hero: Mr. Hodges showed us the world through the hooded, reptilian eyes of Michael Caine's Carter, and though it wasn't a pretty sight, there was a peculiar thrill in sharing, for a couple of hours, that hard, icy vision.If revenge is, as the epigraph of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" asserts, a dish best served cold, then "Get Carter" is the specialty of the bloody house. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is a payback thriller, too, but Mr. Hodges as usual declines to repeat himself. For the first time in a while, he has a few expectations to frustrate: devotees of "Get Carter" might be hoping for the new last word in revenge; Mr. Hodges's more recent fans might be lining up for another "Croupier." Clearly, he has some work to do if he is to resist, once again, being turned into a legend.So "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" (which was written by Trevor Preston) has a significantly lower body count than "Get Carter" and a somewhat higher emotional temperature than "Croupier." There's a remarkably ugly act of violence early on — performed by Malcolm McDowell, who is, in the style favored by Mr. Hodges for his villains, over-the-top loathsome — but the film is otherwise unusually quiet and restrained: the gunshots that finish off the story are fired almost off-handedly, and through a silencer. Although Mr. Owen, again the star, looks as cool as ever, his lack of affect seems more strenuously willed here, as if, this time, he had some genuine sadness to suppress. And Mr. Hodges's compositions are as lyrical and evocative as any in "Black Rainbow"; since much of the picture is set in Brixton, one of London's roughest and unloveliest neighborhoods, the muted beauty of the images is all but unaccountable.At the end, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" repeats its opening scene, perhaps to tempt clever moviegoers and desperate critics into believing that Mr. Hodges intends to bring his odd career full circle with this movie: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, revenge thriller to revenge thriller. He's over 70 now; he can see the influence of "Get Carter" on a younger generation of neo-noir filmmakers; the times have caught up with his tough-minded sensibility, which once looked startlingly amoral. He's entitled to a summing-up movie, a work that could make everyone, finally, comfortable with the idea that this brilliant eccentric is in fact an old master. But this quirky, unassuming, contemplative thriller doesn't qualify. It obviously wasn't meant to. Mike Hodges doesn't want his audience to be comfortable even now, and he refuses to be a legend before he's dead.

The Complete HodgesThe filmography of the English director Mike Hodges is tiny — a scant nine features in more than 30 years of moviemaking. Here is a list of his feature films, only some of which are currently available on VHS or DVD.• I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2004)• Croupier (2000)• Black Rainbow (1989)• A Prayer for the Dying (1987)• Morons From Outer Space (1985)• Flash Gordon (1980)• The Terminal Man (1974)• Pulp (1972)• Get Carter (1971)Terrence Rafferty is the author of "The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies."

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