Review: Get Carter

Michael Caine knew what he wanted.

 

"There have been several British gangster films of late," he said. "And the gangsters are either stupid or funny. I knew from personal experience that they were neither. So I wanted to make a film about a gangster who was very, very clever and very, very mean."

Caine's wish was granted with Get Carter, the stark tale of a London gangster who comes up north to find his brother's killer. It was certainly a departure from Caine's previous incarnations. The chirpy Alfie, the roguish Charlie from The Italian Job or even the laconic Harry Palmer had hardly prepared viewers for the cold-blooded killer on display here.

 

But Caine's impatience with cartoon-ish characters was timely. This was the decade that saw public terrorism come to London. Letter bombs and embassy attacks would shape headlines; violence and ugly attitudes would simmer around the country. There was corruption exposed in industry and local government. The colourful optimism of the sixties no longer suited the landscape.

Carter's director, Mike Hodges, was certainly aware of the shift in the nation's mood, having worked on Granada TV's investigative reporting show, World In Action, where he'd witnessed some ugly realities:

"Working on that show affected me," he acknowledges, "I had seen a certain element of truth which Britain was trying to keep hidden. It was as corrupt as every other country - and it was worse, in a sense, because it pretended it was something else."

Get Carter reflected all of this and marked a shift in tone for British film. Gone was the pop art colourings of the previous decade. In its place came a sour, greyer, viewpoint - more cynical or more realistic depending on your politics.

Meanwhile, Hollywood, exploring America's own period of dissatisfaction and lost naivety, would provide Carter with peers, in films like Point Blank and Dirty Harry - all three detailed tough men traveling treacherous paths alone. Similarly bleak is Sean Connery's turn a year after Carter as the policeman who kills a suspected child molester in Sidney Lumet's The Offence.

Unfortunately, without the benefit of such hindsight-fuelled perspective, critics were not initially taken with Hodges' debut feature.

"Cheap", "Sleazy and second rate", "Inept... almost pornographic" were among the barbs delivered on release.

But time has been kind to the elements in this brutal gangland thriller. Caine's cold, controlled performance now chills and perhaps marks the point at which the film star also became a credible actor. Wolfgang Suschitzky's bleak photography captures the sense of waste and regret emerging in Britain's industrial towns, where the sixties boom led to high wages, a macho workforce and rampant consumption

 

Roy Budd's melancholic score seems entwined with the film's own world weariness and nihilism. (The assassin who comes for Carter at the film's end is actually visible on the train at the beginning. Carter's fate is already sealed.)

Equally impressive is Hodges' own unsentimental but eminently quotable screenplay which feels more contemporary with each passing year ("You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. They're still the same, piss holes in the snow"). Little wonder that Tarantino once cited it as his favourite British film.

Behind the camera too, Hodges’ skill is on display. Every composition is carefully constructed, every character contrasted or isolated by their surroundings. The overall effect is bleak and remorseful.

And rampaging through it all is Carter. As the search for his brother boils over into a bloody mess of abuse and betrayal, the gangster, Samurai-like in his focus, mows down any man, woman or child that stands in his way but somehow still elicits our support - a reflection of both Caine's screen charisma and the power of his performance.

In the nineties, the emergence of the 'lad mag' culture saw Caine deified as the ultimate lad and his body of work hailed as ideal viewing. But while some of his other roles may have made him the perfect poster boy for such campaigns, Carter's bleak, hard, misery seems a little out of place in the celebrations. Carter is a nasty piece of work and Get Carter is a deliberately nasty film. It is the spiteful savagery of it that makes it such a brutal masterpiece.

Meanwhile, Hodges is just grateful that people have rediscovered an interest in his once-maligned debut. As he observed philosophically: "I've come to regard making films as putting a message in a bottle. If you manage to get whatever you are talking about into the bottle at least it's out there on the ocean somewhere and it may float in and hit the shore at some point or another."

© 2020 by Aubrey Day.