Out on Blu-ray this month from Arrow Films is Black Rainbow (1989), the obscure and underrated supernatural thriller from writer/director Mike Hodges.
Rosanna Arquette stars as medium Martha Travis, who finds herself dealing not only with alcoholic father Walter (Jason Robards) but chilling messages from the future. Tom Hulce plays journalist Gary Wallace, who gets mixed up with the family and small town corruption.
Get Carter (1971) and Flash Gordon (1980) are Hodges’ best known movies but he’s had a diverse career including the likes of The Terminal Man (1974) and of course Black Rainbow. We sat down to talk about how the film came and went, together with fascinating insights into his life and creative process…
Contains spoilers about the plot of Black Rainbow
THN: What sparked the idea for Black Rainbow?
MH: It’s got many strands in some ways. I went to America on World In Action (long running documentary series) in the early Sixties. I went to Detroit and I interviewed the Reuther brothers, who were left wing United Automobile workers. I then learnt the mayhem that surrounded the setting up of unions in America. And both the brothers had been shot in their own homes, much as it is in Black Rainbow, through the window of their homes. One lost an eye and the other one had a withered arm. So that’s sort of one element. The unions were really upended and the whole process of providing protection for American workers was lost, as indeed it has been here really.
Then when I was travelling around looking for locations and things I started buying the local newspapers. They had wonderful names like the Bee, the Sentinel, the Bugle… I bought them because I wanted to find out about ordinary American people’s lives away from the big cities. One story that kept coming up all the time was workers, usually union officials or foremen, being beaten up or on some occasions even being murdered. When the investigation was pursued it was usually found they were whistleblowing on health and safety breaches.
The second element, and probably much more important in a sense, was I wanted to find a way of looking at society – or civilization or whatever you want to call it – ahead of what I thought was very dangerous territory we were moving into, and how unstable it all is. So I came across Doris Stokes, who is a medium, she used to do big shows and I watched her several times and I got a documentary about her. I watched how she played the audience. I realized, once I started playing with the idea that time is a man made effort to control things, that if I had her slip ahead in time then I could start having her talk about what she was seeing in the future. And therefore I had a way of airing my concerns about what we were heading into.
It’s very odd that the film, which was lost… pretty big in Europe and Japan and various other places but here we got terrible distribution… I find it very ironic that when the film got lost, it’s now being revived during a pandemic! It really is kind of fortuitous in a back-handed kind of way that the film is going out in this moment. It carries much more resonance, even than when I made it in some ways.
Casting-wise, you had Jason Robards, a veteran actor, with the younger Rosanna Arquette and Tom Hulce. Both experienced but at different stages of their careers. How did you all work together and build the relationships in the movie?
That was all written before we brought them together. Burt Lancaster was interested in playing Walter. He considered it for some time, I’m glad he eventually decided against it because I was able to get Jason. Because with Burt, the film would have been compared, unfairly, to Elmer Gantry (1960), which he was in with Jean Simmons. Secondly, he’s too strong a character. It’s very difficult for Burt Lancaster to play a weak man. Jason had done all those amazing Eugene O’Neill Broadway productions. He was into that character.
Rosanna… she was very brave to take this on, because the character that she plays questions the existence of God, questions the raison d’etre of religion. She suggests in many cases “maybe what I’m telling you is untrue”, and any kind of afterlife is ridiculous. In America a lot of actresses didn’t want to do this role and I suspect it was because of that. And of course the agents tend to step in, so if there is any sense of controversy over what the character is portraying they will step in, as it’s liable to damage that person’s career. I was very grateful to her for doing it. I went to about six actresses and they liked it but none of them wanted to play it.
Tom Hulce was the last actor on board. He’s just highly professional, the least showy role. He’s terrific in it.
Black Rainbow is an American story made by a British company (Goldcrest). Did that make a difference in terms of how it turned out? Would it have been different with major studio backing?
It’s difficult to say. My dealings with Hollywood were kind of odd, in the sense that with Get Carter for example, I had to fight tooth and nail for the casting. They wanted to put American stars into it, Telly Savalas and people like that. I had to resign about twenty times, saying “I’m just not doing the film if you’re going to fill it up with actors who are fine in their own right, they’re just not right for this film!” You always had that fight. Then after that The Terminal Man, which I wrote, produced and directed myself, I didn’t really have a problem with the studio. I didn’t really work much more with American companies.
Goldwyn (the Samuel Goldwyn Company) did A Prayer For The Dying. The shooting of it wasn’t a nightmare but the editing was, they took it away and re-edited it without asking me, or showing me the result. They put new music on it. So I’m wary of the studio, but I would be very curious to know if it had been made for the Americans what would have happened, I don’t know.
They certainly would have wanted it to be scarier, but I wanted it to unfold in its own time and its own way, and allow the audience to absorb what was happening. And I think they would have wanted it to be much more Hitchcockian and frightening… I mean, it is frightening but it’s not the conventional edge of the seat kind of movie, biting your nails and the rest of it.
At one point White Heat with James Cagney is shown playing on a TV. Burt Lancaster was nearly involved. Were you looking to make something that was a bit old school Hollywood?
Obviously I’m in my eighties now, and when I was starting to go to the cinema it was in the Fifties and there was a great period of American films. I loved particularly Billy Wilder, Ace In The Hole, Double Indemnity… these were great films. Then of course there was the British industry. It was collapsing when I started Get Carter in the Seventies, there was no industry really. You didn’t go from film to film as you used to under the studio system. I’ve always been influenced by, and I admire, that period of filmmaking.
The comparison between Black Rainbow and Get Carter is odd in many ways, because Newcastle was on the cusp in 1969 when I shot there. I’d been on a minesweeper during my National Service and I’d been all up the east coast going into the most poverty-stricken fishing resorts. Grimsby, Hull, everything… eventually I’d gone into North Shields. I drove up the east coast because I wanted to change the location from Ted Lewis’s book (Jack’s Return Home) and I wanted to incorporate the sights I’d seen during my two years on board minesweepers. We were the Fishery Protection Squadron. The sentiment of the film is exactly the same as in the novel, but I just wanted a different location.
All the ports going up the east coast, they hadn’t gentrified but they’d lost their character. In Hull for example there was a pub called the Albert Hall, it was huge and had sawdust on the floor and there were all these punch ups in there and god knows what. Stuff I wanted to incorporate. They’d all vanished 10 years since I was in the Navy.
And then I remembered North Shields, but of course this time I’m driving so I have to go in via Newcastle. So I see Newcastle for the first time in my life and I think ‘This has got to be the location’. To explain how someone like Jack… not because of the Geordies, they’re lovely people… you can see with the poverty there you might get someone as psychotic as Jack Carter. So I caught Newcastle literally on the cusp. They were pulling down the Scotswood Road, T Dan Smith was in charge so the place stank of corruption as well.
Then back in Charlotte, when I was shooting Black Rainbow, I found a city in exactly the same state. It was on a cusp, just like Newcastle so as a filmmaker you’ve got this wonderful balance between the past, i.e. the films you were talking about, the Hollywood movies, and the future really. In Charlotte there’s a gleaming citadel in the middle of the city and surrounding it you’ve got all this Hopper-esque imagery… you know, Edward Hopper, the American artist who epitomized loneliness with the most incredible paintings… and you had this decaying corruption. That’s another element that came into the making of the film.
When you make a far out type of project like Flash Gordon, do you have a different approach? Or are there real places you think of when putting these fantastical landscapes together…?
When Dino (De Laurentiis) asked me to make Flash Gordon I said “Look, I’m the wrong director.” When Nic Roeg left the film, he then came back to me and talked me into doing it. And I’m glad he did, I enjoyed making it and I enjoy the enjoyment it’s given people! It’s a lot of fun Flash. (laughs) But I had never intended to do… one’s career is slightly dictated by the fact you have to earn a living. After I’d finished The Terminal Man, which was not successful at the box office, nor was it critically successful, although I think it may be one of my best films… it was just difficult for me to get finance actually. And here the industry had collapsed, so in part I had to make do with what came my way. Although I resisted it I’m glad ultimately I took it.
When BFI re-released Get Carter, young people saw it for the first time, all the Jack the Lads. The lads’ magazines were onto it like a fly on… cow pats. (laughing) When they then learnt I’d also made Flash Gordon they found the two pretty irreconcilable! Directors make all sorts of different films, like Billy Wilder. If you want to perform a career nowadays, you’ve got to turn yourself into a brand. I mean Hitchcock was very smart in that sense. He just made one sort of film basically. If you want to be successful it’s probably better not to diversify too much because you lose your identity as a director. I don’t know, I can’t answer that.
The character I found most interesting in Black Rainbow was the hitman (played by Mark Joy). Usually in this type of film he’d be a loner living in the shadows but in this movie you show his family, you show him experiencing all these inconveniences like getting bumped from first class to coach. Then when he finally gets to the scene of the action he’s shot by about 12 gunmen! I was wondering why you approached him that way?
There’s quite a lot of humour actually, because you see this guy with his family…he’s an assassin… his daughter asks “What’s the population of the world Daddy?” and he says “Too many.” The phone rings and he’s had to reduce it by one! (laughs) Then when he walks out on his commission, he goes to his garage and there’s a bum sleeping there and he picks him up, throws him aside and says “Club members only.” He later checks into the airport and wants to go in the club, and the receptionist tells him “Club members only”! He’s kicked out. (laughs) I’m glad you find him intriguing, I did too and why shouldn’t a hitman have a conventional family? And of course it all takes place around Christmas. A lot of sad Christmas decorations in a lot of the scenes.
I’m really pleased you liked that character! Villains are the hardest to cast. I was lucky with Get Carter because of John Osborne, who was so great. You tend to go for obvious, physical looking people, I’m interested in finding other ways of portraying them because they come in all different shapes and sizes.
Both Carter and Black Rainbow, they have a curious sense of timelessness. Get Carter could have been Newcastle at any time from the 1940s onwards. Rainbow’s much the same, it could be any time. I don’t think I did it deliberately, it was accidentally. You don’t know when it’s taking place in a way. I’m very glad it’s out now before I kick the bucket!
This interview first appeared on THN.