Should I Watch..? 'Get Carter' (1971)
What's the big deal?
Get Carter is a British crime film released back in 1971 and was based on the book Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis. The film focuses on London-based gangster Jack Carter who returns to his hometown of Newcastle after the death and possible murder of his brother Frank to investigate. The film stars Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland, John Osbourne and Bryan Mosley. The film marked a new grittier and realistic style of film-making that hadn't been seen before in a British film, a style influenced by director Mike Hodges' background in documentary film-making. Critics were divided on the movie - its technical aspects were praised but the amoral storyline, excessive violence and complex story came in for criticism. Despite the initial reception, the film maintained a cult following over the years and it is now widely regarded as one of the best British films ever made. It was also remade in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role but was met with critical derision.
What's it about?
Newcastle-born gangster Jack Carter has lived in London for years, working for crime bosses Gerald and Sid Fletcher. Secretly conducting an affair with Gerald's girlfriend Anna, Jack plans to escape to South America with Anna after attending his brother Frank's funeral back home. Unsatisfied with the explanation that Frank was killed in a drink-drive accident, Jack takes it upon himself to investigate the circumstances around Frank's death.
Before long, Jack meets up with old acquaintance Eric Paice who now works as a chauffeur for local crime boss Cyril Kinnear. Having been warned not to get involved with Kinnear's operations and risk a war between him and the Fletchers, Jack is then attacked by two thugs who soon cough up another name from Jack's past. Cliff Brumby is a local businessman who finds his seaside arcades attracting the attention of Kinnear who wants to take them over. As Jack finds himself mired in sleaze and petty power struggles, the Fletchers send up a couple of their boys to bring Jack home...
What's to like?
Get Carter might be as bleak and desolate as the city it was filmed in but it's an interesting film for a number of reasons. It was probably the first film that aspired to feel like a traditional Hollywood noir with unlikeable characters, plenty of reprehensible behaviour and a hero whose moral compass was somewhat askew. The whole thing feels dirty and grubby which is how this sort of material should feel. The only hint of coolness comes from the memorable soundtrack provided by Roy Budd which has a strong Lalo Schifrin-vibe to it.
It has plenty of surprises as well, not least the central performance by Caine. It is the polar opposite of roles like Charlie Croker from The Italian Job as Carter is without remorse, sympathy or a hint of joy - even after sex, he still looks annoyed. The supporting cast, mainly made up of local actors and people, add to the film's realism and makes the violence even more shocking. You can still see elements of this film in contemporaries like The Long Good Friday and Layer Cake which further reinforces this film's reputation.
- Not long after the film's release, Caine actually met the real-life gangster the film is based on while he was appearing in the West End. The criminal was highly critical of the film and rather than risk upsetting him further, Caine agreed with everything he said.
- Mosley, long-time cast member of TV's Coronation Street as Alf Roberts, was a devout Roman Catholic and was so disturbed by the script's level of violence and criminal behaviour that he consulted his priest about whether to accept the role.
- Hodges was surprised that Caine took the role. Caine later explained that he identified with Carter very closely, having a working-class background and friends and family involved in crime. He described the role as "the dead-end product of my own environment... the ghost of Michael Caine".
What's not to like?
Some surprises, however, don't go down as well as others. The sight of Caine slapping women about comes as a real shock, especially given the fun-loving nature of some of his other roles up to that point - can't imagine the likes of Alfie engaging in that sort of violence. And it isn't a one-off either, such is the dramatic twist of seeing someone like Caine in a film like this. It's like seeing Julie Andrews play a prostitute addicted to heroin, machine-gunning kittens. It throws you a curveball, making you question whether Carter is someone to get behind or get away from.
The film's unending bleakness does get to you after a while - there is little fun to be had in the movie, despite the odd flashes of humour here and there. It reminded me of films like Payback or Point Blank where you spend the movie half-cheering for bad guys doing bad things to worse people and half-hoping that those same people get their comeuppance for being such "bar-stewards". Get Carter is not an easy film to recommend because of its depressing atmosphere but as a crime film, it stops gangsters looking stupid or funny like they are in Guy Ritchie films and turns them into the urbane monsters they actually are. Lastly, the plot is devilishly difficult to follow - you know who the culprit is but you have no idea as to the why.
Should I watch it?
American audiences might be more used to this sort of vigilantism but for British viewers, Get Carter is a searing look at the criminal goings-on under our very noses. With Caine excelling playing against type, the film is a grim but effective thriller that stays in the mind after its finished and not because you're still trying to work out what happened. It's bleak but well-made and a genuinely game-changing film in British cinema. But the best British film ever? Not really.
Great For: residents of the North East of England, British cinema, American audiences looking for something different
Not So Great For: easily shocked liberals, making the police look cool, domestic violence
What else should I watch?
As good as Get Carter is, I must object to those who claim it to be the best British film ever. Really? According to the 1999 BFI Top 100, there are quite a few films that are "better" from film noir The Third Man, romantic melodrama Brief Encounter and even Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. Britain has produced a number of crime films over the years, often combining the genre with comedic twists to lighten the mood. Worthy examples include Guy Ritchie's wonderful debut Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels which is very funny indeed along with Sexy Beast while Caine would return to a similar premise as Get Carter for the later film Harry Brown.
I've already mentioned a couple of American films that closely mirror Get Carter in terms of style and storyline. Payback is actually a modern remake of Point Blank with both films based on the book The Hunter by Richard Stark. Both feature a career criminal betrayed by his colleagues and left for dead who comes looking for revenge as well as the money he was screwed out of. The films feature a character known as Parker in the books, an amoral and unlikeable crook who has been adapted to appear in a number of movies - the most recent was the Jason Statham vehicle Parker.
Mike Hodges *
Release Date (UK)
10th March, 1971
Crime, Mystery, Thriller
© 2017 Benjamin Cox