Mike Hodges, a director whose visceral feature-film debut, “Get Carter” (1971), is regarded as one of Britain’s best gangster movies, died on Saturday at his home in Dorset, England. He was 90.
Mike Kaplan, a longtime friend and a producer of Mr. Hodges’s 2004 film, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” said the cause was heart failure.
Mr. Hodges wasn’t prolific — writing about him in The New York Times in 2004, the critic Terrence Rafferty said, “The English director Mike Hodges has made so few films he should be legendary,” like Stanley Kubrick and other limited-output directors. But he had successes, none bigger than his feature debut.
Mr. Hodges had directed for a handful of British television series when he stepped up in class with “Get Carter,” a movie he wrote based on a novel by Ted Lewis. Michael Caine starred as a criminal out to avenge his brother, who had died under suspicious circumstances.
“Its violence is so ghastly and unremitting and its view of the human condition is so perfectly vile that one would almost rather wash one’s mouth out with soap than recommend it,” Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The Times when the movie came out. “Yet it is so finely acted and crafted — and is so spectacularly better than the run of its genre — that as a lover of movies one feels practically duty‐bound to sing its praises.”
After “Pulp” (1972), a crime comedy that also starred Mr. Caine, and “The Terminal Man” (1974), a blend of science fiction and horror based on a Michael Crichton novel, Mr. Hodges took on a high-profile assignment, the big-budget sci-fi yarn “Flash Gordon.” Released in 1980, the movie divided critics.
“It means to be escapist entertainment,” Vincent Canby of The Times wrote, “but it’s all so extravagantly witless that it stirs the social conscience, if not too deeply. It reminds you that there are people in India who would be glad to eat the spinach you leave on your plate.”
But Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times admired Mr. Hodges’s campy take on the story, which was based on the popular comic strip of the same name.
“At a time when ‘Star Wars’ and its spinoffs have inspired special effects men to bust a gut making their interplanetary adventures look real, ‘Flash Gordon’ is cheerfully willing to look as phony as it is,” he wrote. “I don’t mean that as a criticism.”
Later in the 1980s Mr. Hodges made some flops, including the sci-fi comedy “Morons From Outer Space” (1985) and the crime drama “A Prayer for the Dying” (1987), which he disowned because he objected to the editing. But “Croupier” (1998), a crime drama about a writer (Clive Owen) who goes to work in a casino, brought him a burst of new attention.
The movie didn’t get much notice when it had a limited release in Europe, but then a friend found an American distributor willing to give it a two-week run in some markets in the United States, and critics hailed a comeback.
“‘Croupier,’ filmed by Mr. Hodges from a screenplay by Paul Mayersberg, shows that the director hasn’t lost his knack for whip-smart, tongue-in-cheek suspense,” Stephen Holden wrote in The Times in 2000.
Mr. Hodges said that until those American reviews, his disappointment over the original lack of attention to “Croupier” had him considering quitting the business.
“I was sitting at home in Dorset, getting over a hip replacement,” he told The Daily Telegraph of Britain in 2001, “and these amazing notices from America started pouring from my fax machine. I couldn’t believe it. It was like some crazy fairy tale.”
Yet he directed only one more feature, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” which also starred Mr. Owen, as a gangster who investigates his brother’s suicide. With a plot not unlike that of “Get Carter,” it seemed like completing a circle.
“It’s hard not to see ‘I’ll Sleep’ as a kind of unofficial sequel to ‘Get Carter,’” Xan Brooks wrote in The Guardian in 2003. “The film plays as a wearied elegy to the gangster life, full of characters slightly past their sell-by dates, angry and outmoded as they nurse their ancient feuds and clamber in and out of their E-type Jags. Hodges watches their decline with a cool, clinical eye.”
Michael Tommy Hodges was born on July 29, 1932, in Bristol, England, to Sandy and Norah Hodges. His father was a cigarette salesman, his mother a homemaker. He grew up watching the westerns and musicals of the 1940s and set his sights on becoming a director, though at his father’s urging he studied accounting for a time.
He had grown up in Salisbury and Bath — “cities with soft centers,” as he put it — but in the mid-1950s, two years of national service in the Royal Navy, which sent him to “every fishing port in the U.K,” opened his eyes to a rugged, saltier side of life, an experience later reflected in his films.
After the Navy he got a job as a teleprompter operator for the BBC in London, which introduced him to television. He began writing advertising copy and was eventually producing and directing.
In 1999, when a retrospective of Mr. Hodges’s movies was showing in Los Angeles, Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times said that the crime films stood out for their complexity and ambiguity.
“Just when you think Hodges is building to a payoff that will clear everything up,” he wrote, “he may leave you to sort things out for yourself.”
Mr. Hodges’s first marriage, to Jean Alexandrov, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Carol Laws; two sons from his first marriage, Ben and Jake; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Hodges reflected on his career in an interview with The Evening Standard of Britain in 1999.
“I’m always astonished that my messages in bottles, as I think of my films, ever got off the ground at all,” he said. “Astonished, but very happy too.”