|Get Carter (1971)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 03 October 2000|
When 'Get Carter' was first released, it was excoriated in some quarters for its "extreme" violence; seen today, the violence itself looks almost tame -- but the cold ferocity of Michael Caine's performance is still unnerving, even frightening. For a man who is personally obviously so likable, he has the uncanny ability of making his eyes go lifeless and cold, and he has plenty of opportunities to do so in 'Get Carter.'
This was really the first serious movie about British gangsters in many years, and that itself shocked some people, those who preferred to think that such types just didn't live in Jolly Old England. But they did, and evidently Ted Lewis' novel Jack's Return Home, the basis for the movie, nailed the idea. Mike Hodges wrote and directed the film, establishing himself at once as one of the hottest young directors in England -- a position he toppled from after the likes of 'The Terminal Man' and 'Flash Gordon,' not to mention 'Morons from Outer Space.' But with this year's excellent 'Croupier,' he shows that promise was not misplaced -- just delayed.
'Get Carter' is cool, sleek and hard, almost metallic in its understated, almost austere approach. It's been called a film noir, but it's something more basic and primal; there's no sense of redemption, no sense of thwarted ideals. Jack Carter (Caine) is no hero; he's a soulless man out for revenge. Even though there are flickerings from time to time, as he reaction to noticing a family near him on a ferry, that he knows just what kind of person he is, and regrets it, 'Get Carter' is not about what he has lost, or even what he gains in his implacable campaign of revenge. It's a hard, tough movie about a hard, tough man -- a character who'd be a villain in almost any other context, and who is hardly the hero here, just the protagonist.
Although it's never explicitly stated, it's obvious that Jack is a hit man working for a pair of London gangster brothers. As the movie opens, he's just learned that his brother has died back home in Newcastle; despite the fact that his bosses want him to stay in London, Jack heads for Newcastle, the town he'd gone into crime to escape from.
He concludes that his brother Frank was murdered, leaving his teenaged daughter Doreen (Petra Markham) without any parents, her mother having died some years before. (There is a strong hint that she's actually Jack's daughter, the result of his affair with his sister in law.) Margaret (Dorothy White), Frank's last girlfriend, has no interest in Doreen at all, and gets away from Jack as soon as possible.
His return to Newcastle has aroused a great deal of interest among the less savory residents of Newcastle (mostly known as a coal mining town -- you know, "coals to Newcastle"?). He encounters Eric Paice (Ian Hendry), and we realize that though they've known each other a long time, they are anything but friends. Carter suspects elegant, sardonic Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne, the playwright) is involved, especially when Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley), another shady character, urges Carter to kill Kinnear.
But it's not the unraveling of the well-constructed plot that makes 'Get Carter' such compelling viewing. Nor is the dialog particularly memorable. It's the way the story is told both technically and dramatically, and the superlative performance by Michael Caine. Furthermore, the movie was shot entirely on location, and a sense of place is precisely and clearly evoked; the interiors of buildings have the somewhat awkward and cramped feel of many British buildings. The skies are gray, the city and the people are dingy -- no wonder Carter fled; just watching this movie can drop the temperature in your room. Even if a few very bizarre, but very real, touches such as an all-girl marching kazoo band wander by.
Caine is one of the greatest actors today, and always working; he's even in the depressingly bad remake of 'Get Carter' starring Sylvester Stallone. Unlike all too many American stars, though, Caine is fearless about playing unlikable characters; he's interested in the role, not whether the audience likes him personally. And though we do occasionally get those brief glimpses of a decent man buried under Jack Carter's icy surface, that man is buried, and will not be resurrected. He keeps stuffing money in people's pockets, hoping to buy -- what? not salvation or their gratitude, but just a little good will. Carter is a bastard, a murderous, hardened thug, however well he dresses.
The DVD includes the usual extras, including a very good commentary track featuring Hodges, Caine and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (all recorded separately). Their memories of the film, made 30 years ago, are mostly clear, and they obviously had a precise idea of just what the film was supposed to be. There's an odd short featuring the brilliant, melancholy and spare score by Roy Budd (which is trashed in the remake).
Technically, the disc is very good. Suschitzky's photography used a lot of long lenses, desaturated colors and gray skies, ideal for showing on television. Hodges, whose first feature this was, uses sounds like music, even in a similarly "unrealistic" way; during a sex scene between Caine and Geraldine Moffat, Hodges doesn't use music but the sound of wind as an "underscore." It adds a kind of coldness to the scene, which is otherwise pretty hot.
When 'Get Carter' was released, the reviews were mixed to bad, but when a list of the hundred greatest British movies was compiled a year ago, it came in around 26th. It's one of the great crime movies of the 1970s, and will be remembered long after both the remakes are forgotten. (Yes, 'Get Carter' was remade once before; only a year after its release, it was remade as the blaxploitation 'Hit Man.') It's as timeless, chilling and involving a thriller as anyone could want.
If you liked this movie, you might also enjoy; Mona Lisa, The Long Good Friday and The Krays