Produced by Michael Klinger; directed and written by Mike Hodges; based on a novel by Ted Lewis; cinematography by Wolfgang Suschitzky; edited by John Trumper; music by Roy Budd; production design by Assheton Gordon; art direction by Roger King; starring Michael Caine, John Osborne, Britt Ekland, and Ian Hendry. DVD, color, 112 min., 1971. A Warner Bros. Archive release, www.warnerarchive.com
Mike Hodges’ first film, Get Carter, based on a noir novel, Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis, came out forty years ago to a generally poor critical reception. But Pauline Kael admired its “calculated soullessness,” and over the years its critical reputation has been rehabilitated to the point that it is now regarded as one of the best British gangster films ever made. In fact, in the British Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 British Films of the 20th Century it achieved the sixteenth position.
Its London-based protagonist, Jack Carter (a coldly seductive and charismatic Michael Caine) is a gangster employed by a mob boss. Carter discovers that his older brother has died in a suspicious car accident in Newcastle and sets out to his hometown to attend the funeral and mete out bloody revenge. His bosses warn him from going, but Carter’s resolve cannot be swayed, despite a not close relationship to his brother—a working man, who was seen as a “good bloke” when he was alive.
Caine as Carter is in almost every scene in the film, delivering a striking performance as a relentless, ultimately doomed man. He dominates the film, but along the way, in classic noir style, a number of distinctive, usually sleazy secondary characters appear, trying to prevent Carter from discovering the truth about his brother’s death. Cyril Kinnear (Look Back in Anger playwright John Osborne) plays the subtly threatening, serpentine Newcastle crime boss, who Carter views as a “hairy-faced git.” Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley) is a grubby, overweight, wealthy businessman who owns amusement arcades. Carter’s underworld is littered with assorted mob gunmen and confederates—cringing messengers and deadly hired killers. Carter meets many women, middle-aged and young: sexually available landladies, often treacherous prostitutes, and voluptuous mob mistresses.
Most of the women go to bed with Carter, who is a veritable sex machine, as adept in bed as he is at killing. In one striking sex scene, Carter indulges in phone sex with his blond mistress in London, Anna (Britt Ekland), who masturbates during the conversation. In the same room while Carter is on the phone, his middle-aged landlady (who he also beds) sits in a chair, erotically rocking to the same words.
Carter has little feeling for the women or anybody else in the film. When the bartender Keith (Alun Armstrong)—one of the few innocents in the film—who assists him, is badly beaten, Carter’s cold, unsympathetic response towards his pain is to coolly unpeel a roll of bills to compensate him for his trouble. He is moved to tears once, when, watching a porn film, he discovers that his sad, waiflike niece has been persuaded to appear in it. But even his concern for her does not seem to run too deep.
Neither empathy nor sympathy is Carter’s strong point. He is a hard man who kills people—the guilty and the not so guilty— in myriad, sometimes imaginative ways. Carter throws one man off a multistory car park, injects heroin into the prostitute who has betrayed Frank and then drowns her, and leaves a femme fatale locked in the trunk of his car, where she also subsequently drowns.
Carter is brutal, fearless, and guilt-free, but Caine is a gifted actor, who turns him into a lethal charmer. He is able to deliver sharp comic lines; the film’s dialog generally sparkles. When threateningly removing the sunglasses from one of Kinnear’s henchmen, Carter describes his eyes as "pissholes in the snow.” But Caine plays the role straight, nothing tongue-in-cheek, and moves us to root for him, as if he is not an integral part of the same world as the people he beats and murders.
Hodges vividly sets the film in varied locations in Newcastle. The director, who started out as a documentarian, has a true feel for its smoky pubs, parades, racetrack, dance hall, and industrial black shoreline littered with piles of coal slag, bridges, dark alleys, drab back-to-back terraces, and demolition sites. The faces in the pub are wary and unhappy, and a fight even breaks out between two middle-aged women, rolling on the floor, over a man. It is symptomatic of a mean, squalid city that is a fitting location for the corrupt and vicious behavior of the film’s characters.
Get Carter is unrelentingly dark and alive but it remains bound by the conventions of its genre. It’s basically one-note nihilism. The world depicted is outside psychological, economic, or social explanations, it’s based solely on an implicit metaphysical belief in the triumph of the forces of destruction. If one expects nothing more, Get Carter is a triumph. It remains one of the best British gangster films ever made.
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the just-published, fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger).