Mike Hodges, Get Carter and Flash Gordon director, dies aged 90

<span>Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Mike Hodges, the British director known for films including Get Carter, Croupier, The Terminal Man and Flash Gordon, has died at the age of 90.

Mike Kaplan, a longtime friend and producer on Hodges’ final feature film I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, confirmed his death to the Guardian. Hodges died at his home in Dorset on Saturday. A cause of death was not given.

Hodges’ career was bookended with British gangster films: Get Carter (1971) and Pulp (1972), then Croupier (1998) and his final film I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003). He was also known for his campy cult classic Flash Gordon.

Related: How we made Flash Gordon – by Brian Blessed and Mike Hodges

Born in Bristol in 1932, Hodges first worked as a chartered accountant, then spent two years serving on a Royal Navy minesweeper around fishing ports in the north of England. It was there that he “witness[ed] horrendous poverty and deprivation that I was previously unaware of”, an experience that he later said had informed Get Carter. “I went into the navy as a newly qualified chartered accountant and complacent young Tory,” he wrote in a letter to the Guardian, “and came out an angry, radical young man.”

Hodges entered show business as a teleprompter operator in British television, where he could observe how television was made. He began writing scripts and soon his talents saw him move into producing and directing news and documentary series. He wrote, directed and produced two thrillers for ITV Playhouse, titled Rumour and Suspect, in 1969 and 1970, which resulted in him being approached to adapt Ted Lewis’s novel Get Carter.

Related: Get Carter review – Michael Caine delivers in stone-cold crime classic

Set against a working-class background in northern England, Michael Caine plays the titular London gangster who seeks his own form of justice after his brother is killed in Newcastle. Released in 1971, Get Carter was a huge hit and was soon regarded as England’s answer to The Godfather. The following year, Hodges and Caine reunited for their next film, Pulp, which saw Caine play an author who is asked to ghost-write the memoirs of an ageing actor famous for playing gangsters (Mickey Rooney), and suspected of having ties to real gangsters. When the actor is killed, Caine’s character goes hunting for the murderer.

Hodges’ 1974 film The Terminal Man was a loose adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel, in which a computer scientist goes on a rampage after electrodes are placed in his brain. The film did poorly in the US due to distribution problems, but won Hodges the admiration of Stanley Kubrick, who called the film “terrific”, and Terrence Malick, who wrote to Hodges, “I have just come from seeing The Terminal Man and want you to know what a magnificent, overwhelming picture it is …. Your images make me understand what an image is.” Malick’s letter was later used in an ad for the film.

Hodges co-wrote and was set to direct the 1978 horror film Damien: Omen 2, but left the project after three weeks on set. Hodges claimed a producer pulled out a loaded gun and put it on the table during a heated conversation about budgets. “I found it very scary, I have to confess. The whole film was very threatening,” he told the Guardian in 2003. “I should never have taken that film on in the first place. I needed the money, and the whole thing was a disaster. The gun was incidental.”

Hodges then made the space opera Flash Gordon in 1980, being brought in after director Nicolas Roeg left the project. “I had no idea what I was going to do when I took over,” he told the Guardian in 2020. “I think that’s part of the success of the film. It’s like a souffle. We managed to put all the right ingredients in and it sort of rose, in some mysterious way.”

Mike Hodges on set of Flash Gordon with actor Sam Jones.
Mike Hodges on set of Flash Gordon with actor Sam Jones. Photograph: Ronald Grant

It was around this time that Hodges “rejected materialism in any excessive form”, having gone through a divorce that he said “partly came from struggling to keep up a style of living for the family”.

“I found myself doing all the things I swore I would never do,” he said in 2003. “The kids were going to private school, and we had the country house and the town flat and two cars and God knows how many television sets in every room … once you remove all the pressures and the money worries, you immediately feel freer. And then you can start making the films you really want to make.”

Related: ‘I was angry’ – Mike Hodges on his lost film Black Rainbow, rescued after 31 years

He directed the 1987 Mickey Rourke thriller A Prayer for the Dying, but later disavowed it, saying he had no control over the edit. His 1989 film Black Rainbow, starring Rosanna Arquette as a mysterious medium who attracts the attention of a journalist when she seems to predict a violent murder, failed to make much impact when its distributors fell into financial difficulties. “By the time I made Black Rainbow I’d got kind of used to it,” Hodges told the Guardian in 2020. “I was pretty angry of course, but there we go. One of those things.”

His 1998 film Croupier, starring Clive Owen as a dealer in a gambling den who then gets roped into robbing it, bombed in the UK. Hodges assumed his career was over and decided to retired. But the film screened in the US to rave reviews and its success there earned it a second release in the UK. “You think your film is going down the toilet, and then it gets stuck. And then it comes back up again,” he told the Guardian in 2003.

Hodges came out of semi-retirement to reunite with Owen on his final film in 2003, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, with Owen playing a criminal hungry for revenge after the rape of his younger brother (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) by a London gangster (Malcolm McDowell). The Guardian called the film “startlingly bleak; a no-frills existential gangster tale that, at its best, exudes the same reptilian menace [Hodges] showed on Get Carter. Certainly it touches on similar themes: honour, revenge, male violence.”

Hodges experienced a late burst of appreciation over the last two decades of his life, as his films that were affected by distribution problems in the 1970s and 1980s were restored and rereleased. “He’s a rare bird in British cinema, and I’m just pleased he’s getting some recognition,” McDowell, a longtime friend of Hodges’, told the Guardian in 2003. “I’m pissed off that it’s taken 35 years, but that’s typical of England. We never realise what we’ve got until it’s almost too bloody late.”

But Hodges had no intention of returning to film-making, and said in 2020 that he was happy growing vegetables at his home in Dorset and writing noir fiction; he published a novel, Watching The Wheels Come Off, in 2010, and a collection of novella, titled Bait, Grist and Security, in 2018.

He is survived by his wife, Carol Laws, his sons Ben and Jake, and five grandchildren, Marlon, Honey, Orson, Michael and Gabriel.

• This article was amended on 21 December 2022 to correct an instance of a misspelling of the surname of Clive Owen.