GET CARTER, a relentless revenge saga from Britain in 1971, with Michael Caine ruthless and remorseless, is regarded as an influential genre classic, laying down a marker for numerous subsequent gangster films, those set in the English underworld in particular. Made for an estimated £750,000/$1,000,000, the rough customer did well on home sod, ranking #6 in England. In the States, despite good reviews it was thrown away by distributors, a gross of $3,900,000 chipping 71st in ’71, faring unwell against that year’s other brutal Brits of A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs. Time healed the box-office bruises, though none of the characters in the merciless movie get away unscathed.
Cool, confident and cold-blooded, London gangster ‘Jack Carter’ (Caine) journeys to his Newcastle hometown to find out the truth about his brother’s ‘accidental’ death. His dogged, dismal search for the truth leads him to, through and over a scurvy cross-section of the local hood hierarchy. They all deserve what he dishes out.
Written & directed as his feature debut by Mike Hodges, the lean & mean script was based off the novel “Jack’s Return Home” written by Ted Lewis, who later wrote two Carter prequels. Besides the poorly received remake in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone, the book was also adapted just one year after the Caine version, as Hit Man, a Blaxploitation thang with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier.
Just to show how serious fans of the original are: the car park shown in the movie, the one Caine drops another thug from (to splat onto a car’s windshield, and presumably take out the innocent driver as well as Mr.Falling Object), became known as the ‘Get Carter Car Park’. When the town of Gateshead leveled it in 2010, pieces of the rubble were sold as souvenirs. Now that’s a tough crowd.
With one exception (Carter’s victimized niece) everyone and everything in the film are hardcore, and Hodges observant direction highlights the bleak milieu of settings, possibilities and choices, the brazen coarseness of Carter’s class of crooks and concubines, and the brutal vengeance he has on ready tap. The violence is sudden and jarring but not gratuitously laid on (ala another homebred Michael, Hodges more successful contemporary, blunt force purveyor Michael Winner), though the voyeuristic sex scenes with Britt Ekland and Geraldine Moffat seem added just to goad (this is not a complaint). *
Channeling rage from his own rough-hewn upbringing in a depressing environment laced with the unsavory, Caine’s Carter manages to be sleek and composed on the surface while boiling underneath, a walking human shotgun of contempt. This was one of three excellent performances he delivered in ’71, also as tough men in hard times, playing a mercenary warrior of the 1600s in the neglected The Last Valley, and the robust soldier of the 1700s in the forgotten remake of Kidnapped. **
Undercoated by a superb score from Roy Budd, who also did fine work for Kidnapped. Besides the sordid steam generated from Moffat and Ekland, the supporting cast oozes with venom and spite from Ian Hendry, John Osborne (a rare foray into acting for the noted writer specializing in ‘angry young men’, if not as nasty as Carter), Alun Armstrong (debut, long before his betrayer ‘Mornay’ would meet Braveheart‘s mace, face-first), Rosemarie Dunham (Carter’s bitter landlady), Tony Beckley, and John Bindon (a real hood offscreen as well). Petra Markham (24 playing 16) gets the one sympathetic token as the abused niece. 112 minutes.
* Hodges: “I’ve always found the United Kingdom a really deeply hypocritical place. And when I worked on World in Action (an investigative TV show) in the Sixties it took me all round not only the UK but America, Vietnam, and I dealt with a lot of politicians and I saw how the system worked. It was very patently obvious. I … by the time I got to make Get Carter, I was pretty aware what was going on, you could sort of smell corruption and the UK was full of it, as indeed was the UK police force. Everyone in those days said, ‘What a wonderful country. It was Johnny Foreigner who was corrupt and the foreign police were corrupt and so on, not the British, and the British Bobby was perfect and so on and so on. It was patently obvious to me that this was not the case and in Newcastle you could actually feel it in the air. And, erm, of course, subsequently it was all, it all came out and it was a highly corrupted city – and the council and everything. And now, of course, we realise that the whole country’s actually corrupted now.”
And this was before Maggie the Ironheart, Tony the Poodle and Boris the Fool. Thank God for The Stones.
** Caine: “”One of the reasons I wanted to make that picture was my background. In English movies, gangsters were either stupid or funny. I wanted to show that they’re neither. Gangsters are not stupid, and they’re certainly not very funny”….”Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood; I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.”
A world of fans are grateful for the path young Mike chose.