Based on Ted Lewis’ pulp novel Jack’s Return Home, Mike Hodges took an interesting scenario and vastly improved upon the material. The film follows Jack Carter (Michael Caine), a no-nonsense right-hand man to a top London gangster (playwright John Osborne as a sinister Mr. Big, Cyril Kinnear). Carter is well known for his ruthlessness. His brother has died in what is alleged to be a drink-driving accident, and Carter goes home to Newcastle for the funeral. He suspects murder and he is right. Slowly and surely the plot reveals the ghastly details. As Jack uncovers the truth, anyone with the slightest connection begins to regret it.
Hampering Carter’s investigations are Cyril Kinnear’s representatives from London. The boss doesn’t appreciate his links with the Newcastle mob being damaged. Initially they try to negotiate and placate Carter. When they attempt to buy him off, it’s too late. When they resort to using force, they are no match for Carter’s steely resolve.
Get Carter is often called a ‘gangster’ movie, and though it involves gangsters as characters, it doesn’t really fit the conventions of that genre. It’s more of a Jacobean revenge drama, set against the backdrop of petty organised crime in a northern British town.
At the height of the ‘anti-hero’ movement in cinema, Caine’s Carter is an amoral man on a moral crusade. He adheres to the only ethos of crime syndicates: money. How many times in a gangster film have we heard a killer before a mob execution utter some variation on ‘it’s nothing personl; its business’ to their victim? But for Carter it becomes personal. When it becomes personal, his motivation makes him less pragmatic and entirely unpredictable.
Carter is not a decent man. Either by habit or necessity he is methodical and cruel. It is interesting that he does not ascribe any motivation to others apart from money. When an associate is brutally beaten helping him, Carter coldly throws him money for his suffering. A moral hero would not be so steeped in the methods and manner of the underworld element. A moral hero’s actions are measured by decency, thereby becoming half measures, stunted and hesitant. Carter is Hamlet without the hesitation. Carter’s motives and methods are absolute. He has singularity of purpose. His is total war.
The use of provincial locations in the early 1970s was almost unique in British cinema. One look at the Newcastle of Get Carter makes it easy to see why – bleak and dreary, it makes you speculate that suicide might have been the cause of Carter’s brother’s death. Moving the setting to Newcastle was a brilliant choice on the part of Hodges, as he created a milieu perfect for the dank events unfolding on the screen. The almost vérité style and the local flavour of disheartened blue-collar 1970s Newcastle gives it all the atmosphere it needs
Some of the film is also darkly funny and wonderfully subtle. The ease with which Caine has phone sex with Britt Eckland in front of his landlady is priceless. Also wonderful is the scene in which Caine, naked with a shotgun, dispatches would be assassins from a council flat.
I would recommend listening very carefully to the dialogue. Not because it is remarkable, but because you can’t hear anything! The sound quality is very poor on every print I have seen. It seems at times that the frequent long shots are accompanied by even further placement of the microphone. And even medium shots have the audio quality of a mike wrapped in duct tape, placed in a cardboard box.
That said, I will take any and all technical limitations to the wrong-minded, budget-bloated US remake with Sylvester Stallone (Get Carter, 2001). I hesitate to mention the remake except in the necessity to warn potential viewers of mistaking this bad film for the original. The remake even managed to attract Caine for a cameo. But then what bad movie doesn’t have a Michael Caine cameo?
If you wish to expand upon the tone of a film like Get Carter without defaming its memory, I recommend the similarly gritty Croupier (1998) also made by Mike Hodges.
Director: Mike Hodges
Writer(s): Ted Lewis (novel), Mike Hodges
Runtime(s): 112 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.