"Defend your films and you risk being branded as difficult. Be passionate about them and you're vulnerable"
~ Mike Hodges
You have to feel sorry for Hodges, he wasn't even the original choice for the directors chair. Initially Franc Roddam of Quadrophenia fame was to helm A Prayer For The Dying but turned in a script that was deemed 'too violent' for audiences. Hodges was parachuted in and had just five weeks of preparation before going to shoot with the film's allotted star name; Mickey Rourke who was to play Fallon, an IRA hitman seeking redemption whose 'one last job' is witnessed by a priest.
Hodges secured both Alan Bates and Bob Hoskins (who sadly died, at the time of writing, yesterday evening aged 71 ; see previous obituary post for details here) as a gangland boss and the priest respectively despite their understandable reservations regarding the script. He also persuaded Rourke to go with Sammi Davis as his leading lady, a timid virginal blind girl, and not an unconvincing Californian leggy blonde! Unfortunately Goldwyn hated it. They found Rourke's performance listless, a great unfairness as Rourke delivers very well here as Fallon, despite struggling with the notoriously difficult Northern Irish accent required for the role - an accent they struggled to understand. It wasn't long before the scissors were out...
But could A Prayer For The Dying be saved?
Let's be fair here, I don't feel this was ever going to be a classic. The source material stems from one of the most prolific pulp writers going, Jack Higgins, and trades on some of his well known and familiar obsessions with Kray brothers like gangsters and 'charming' IRA terrorists (Thank heavens there were no Nazis in this one!) The BIG issue of The Troubles is not explored in any depth whatsoever, it's merely a backdrop for the melodramatic would be noirish tropes Higgins employs, like some third rate 1930s B movie. In Hodges' hands we (just about) see glimpses of something and it's only natural to compare it to his most renowned movie; Get Carter. Like that, this film concerns a lone killer (Rourke's Fallon) adrift in an alien world (here it's East London as opposed to the native Northern Ireland he is escaping from) except of course that this is no cold blooded Carter. Where the film does have some thought provoking interest is in the notion of a violent man turning his back on the horror and bloodshed and seeking some form of redemption. This is particularly pleasing given the latent parallel between this character and that of Hoskins priest, who himself is that familiar cliche of 'warrior' turned 'monk'; a former SAS man who turned to the Catholic Church when he had had enough of war and killing, but even this is mishandled and stodgy in this edit.
Given the events of the last 24 hours I have to of course reflect on Hoskins performance here. Hoskins was an actor who - like his good friend Michael Caine - appeared in some bad movies down the years and this must count as one of them, but he always seemed to give his all. His role here is not the easiest, its saddled by being the film's moral compass and has to represent the fanciful dichotomy between a professional killer and a holy man within his performance. It's less of an intense rendition from the Hoskins of that era that many of us may be familiar with - indeed its naturally a little fusty and grandfatherly at times - but he does get to have one scene that he would often excel in; that of the repressed persona slipping momentarily to allow the animal lurking beneath it to leap suddenly to the fore, with violent consequences. It's a trademark Hoskins would employ in many, better, films including of course The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa and Twenty Four Seven - three of his very best as far as I'm concerned.
The rest of the cast are capable enough with a young Liam Neeson and Alison Doody skulking around London as IRA operatives and an ever impressive and menacing turn from a young Christopher Fulford playing the runtish and sadistic brother of crime kingpin, Alan Bates. And so to Alan Bates utter cheese performance - it's a campy menacing delight, like a Disney cartoon villain made flesh. I've seen some criticism of his acting here, that it doesn't seem to fit or correspond those around it, but to be fair his character is pure panto, the kind of villain you think only exists in Bond movies, the type who tries to win the day by planting a bomb and gleefully counting down rather than doing the sensible thing and getting out of the bloody way!
Ultimately, I'm left in no doubt that A Prayer For The Dying is and could only ever be pure B movie fodder. Hodges may feel aggrieved, and I do for him too, but there's no way on earth his cut could turn this material into something classy. I daresay its an improvement on what we have, but - if it ever sees the light of day - it won't be the Holy Grail some may hope for or expect.