Criminal past

Film byJonathan Romney

A few years ago the National Film Theatre ran a programme proclaiming the British director Mike Hodges as the Quentin Tarantino of his day, on the tenuous grounds that he, too, started his cinema career with two crime movies, one with the word "pulp" in the title (just plain Pulp in his case). Hodges' time in the Zeitgeist pantheon now seems to have come. His 1971 film Get Carter routinely is hailed as one of the precursors of the catchpenny comedy thriller Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, along with another Michael Caine vehicle, The Italian Job, and The Long Good Friday. Of these, Get Carter enjoys special hip status: it has been serialised as a comic strip in Loaded, and its re-release is accompanied by a club remix of Roy Budd's bare-bones jazz soundtrack.

You can see how Get Carter lends itself to geezer-mag fetishisation, with Caine's sardonic nemesis persona and a tawdry panoply of mini-skirted birds in fast cars. The closeness of all that to Lock, Stock's bullet-headed self-regard may superficially make the film seem contemporary. But what really makes it fascinating now is the very opposite of modernity - its status as a period piece. This is very much a film about the early 1970s - that is, about another country.

Its story of a London gangster going home to Newcastle to avenge his murdered brother may echo the Californian scenario of John Boorman's Point Blank, with Lee Marvin's monolithic righteousness replaced by Caine's icy bonhomie. But Get Carter is unusual among British gangland thrillers in that - apart from a shot of Carter reading Raymond Chandler - it renounces any yearnings for America. It's much more a tale of two nations - the smoothies down south with their musical whisky decanters and flash foreign crumpet (Britt Ekland in a token bra-shedding role) versus the sweaty northerners with their shoddy restaurant deals, council-flat molls and seedy chauffeurs (Ian Hendry with mutton-chop sideburns, Godard dark glasses and slurred cod-Connery diction - now there was a 1970s icon). Get Carter depicts a world of scumbags called Cliff, Cyril and Eric, a world in which the mob kingpin, and supposed arbiter of vicious glamour, is a whiskery, drawling John Osborne. The film seems almost exotic now, with its uncanny echoes of small-screen domesticity - one of the villains, a T Dan Smith developer figure, is none other than Alf Roberts from Coronation Street, and one of Carter's victims was the bluff Welsh teacher on Please, Sir!.

But this world seems aeons away. The modernity of Get Carter has to do with its recognition of an ending - that of the disappearing industrial north. Carter walks out of penthouse (or Penthouse) London and into a coal-fire past - the world of 1950s and 1960s northern realism, of The Wednesday Play. Newcastle is a two-up, two-down universe of bedsits with racy landladies, of pubs with decrepit flat-cap clientele and matronly cabaret singers. The film may be set in 1971 but it could belong to the faded-wallpaper world of Graham Greene's 1930s; it's comparable less to Robert Altman's adaptation of Chandler's The Long Goodbye than to Brighton Rock.

One of British cinema's outstanding evocations of place, Get Carter is a great vindication of the "regionalism" that has long been a battle-cry of the British Film Institute (which is distributing this re-release). The film now looks like regional archaeology: at one point, several men in overalls step off a ferry, and we could almost be watching the Lumiere brothers' workers leaving the factory. The final location looks prehistoric - the filthy sea, with mud flats and scraps of dead cars, prefacing a grim showdown on a slag heap. Hodges never uses shorthand for Newcastle but really works the locations with a documentarist's eye, as if determined to cover every inch of the city before it subsides into the ground, or into history. It's the ugliness of the setting that makes the narrative at once gritty-realist and surreal: there's a startling disjunction in setting a flamboyant revenge tale amid such kitchen-sink mundanity. Even the film's attempts at glamour and raciness suggest a seedy, sweaty Britain dressing up fancy on a Saturday night.

To reclaim Get Carter as a forebear of 1990s style culture is to miss the point. In one sense, however, the film is a direct ancestor of Loaded culture, with its Neanderthal, vindictive sexual attitudes - bad girls ending up in car boots, Caine getting his landlady hot under the collar by ringing Ekland for phone sex. The film never spawned any notable cinematic descendants, but its polo-neck machismo fed directly into TV cop dramas such as The Professionals and The Sweeney - punch-drunk, rot-gut series that you could imagine Hodges' villains staying in of an evening to watch.

So what did happen to Mike Hodges? If you had asked that question a couple of years ago, you'd have had to cough politely over titles such as Flash Gordon and Morons from Outer Space. Now, however, Hodges seems to have caught up with himself. He has recently made Croupier - a small, taut existential thriller featuring Clive Owen as a writer who becomes caught up in the gambling underworld. Written by the former Nicholas Roeg collaborator Paul Mayersberg, it's wry, pared down and claustrophobic, as a gaming-table movie should be. A self-reflexive fiction complete with poker-face voice-over, it's shot to suggest a meeting of Chandler, Bresson and Mamet. It's a prime example of a director hazarding the high stakes of low-budget stylistic austerity, and winning.

"Get Carter" (18) continues at selected cinemas in London and nationwide; "Croupier" (15) opens on 18 June in London

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war