Michael Caine is the proverbial pit bull in Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971); a brazenly nihilistic crime/thriller – often salacious in its exposé through the seedy undercarriage of Britain’s swinging, sex-crazed counterculture. Arguably, the role of cold, calculating hit man, Jack Carter is Caine’s finest hour. Without a doubt, it marks a turning point in the actor’s career. Caine had begun his journey into stardom playing variations on the lovable bastard. In Get Carter he drops the ‘lovable’ part for a purely acidic turn as the ruthless and maniacal anti-hero in what is ultimately a spiraling revenge/tragedy with one of the most shocking dénouements in screen history. Mostly set in the perpetually dank working class dystopian landscape of ‘then’ contemporary Newcastle and Gateshead, Get Carter doesn’t thunder across the screen with jet-propelled action sequences, but rather quietly builds to its decidedly ill-fated climax.
This, of course, is in keeping with Hodges’ desire to make a ‘realistic picture’ – “an autopsy” of contemporary societal ills. This would capitalize on the public’s recent fascination with crime after the tabloid-esque media circus surrounding the conviction of the Kray Twins – Ronald and Reginald; a pair of thugs who literally dominated East End London’s organized crime syndicate throughout the 1950’s and early 60’s. Get Carter is a deliciously dark and uncompromising view of this seedy and scandalous netherworld. Hodges adapted his screenplay from Ted Lewis’ 1969 novel, ‘Jack’s Return Home’, with producer Michael Klinger approaching the beleaguered Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for financing and distribution. Get Carter really is the end of the line for MGM; a studio once holding dominion over the world’s popular entertainment. But by 1971, various disastrous corporate restructurings and the advent of television had broken the company down to bedrock. Indeed, the year after Get Carter’s release, MGM shuttered its Borehamwood Studios for good as it prepared for its own final takeover and take-down, as it were, by Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian.
Fueled by pianist/composer Roy Budd’s uncomfortably jazzy riffs, a theme since become iconic, Get Carter is a relatively subdued affair – at least, by today’s standards. Nevertheless, it retains some of its gristle and shock value. In its time, the film earned a notorious R-rating from the MPAA and X-rating in its native Britain for what was then considered ‘indecent’ content: a few quick flashes of co-stars Brit Ekland, Geraldine Moffat and Rosemarie Dunham’s breasts, a brief (and artfully shot) masturbation sequence featuring Ekland, and, some ‘overt violence’. This amounted to Caine’s vengeful reprobate exacting payback on the parties responsible for his brother Frank’s murder, also in involving Frank’s teenage daughter, Doreen (Petra Markham) in C-grade porn; manhandling the affluent Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley), then later, tossing him off the roof of a six story parking garage, and, fatally stabbing a former associate, Albert Swift (Glynn Edwards) in the gut several times in a back alley.
Cinematographer, Wolfgang Suschitzky drew inspiration from Hodge’s insistence he use long-distance lenses, creating a very documentarian feel, particularly during the crowd scenes. Viewing Get Carter today, one is immediately struck by the purity of Suschitzky’s work; a lot of over the shoulder shots, partially obscured by the back of somebody’s slightly ‘out of focus’ head and shoulders; areas of deep shadow mixed with penetrating streams of stark and wholly unflattering gray light; interesting angles that deliberately cut the tops or sides off of people’s heads (with other action taking place in the not so distant background). From a purely visual perspective, Get Carter is far more ‘art house’ than mainstream; less of a venture put forth by a major studio, and much more the little ‘independent’ that could. This sort of departure from the norm would never fly with movie audiences today. And yet it works spectacularly in Get Carter; holding up remarkably well even with the passage of time.
Despite an unexpected strike the first week of shooting, and Klinger’s firmness on Hodges using John Trumper as his editor (the two did not get on, even though Hodges recognized Trumper’s immense contributions on the film), Get Carter’s principle photography went smoothly. It could have gone the other way. After all, Michael Klinger was known as a very ‘hands-on’ producer, who nevertheless, on this occasion, left Hodges and Suschitsky mostly to their own accord. Klinger’s ‘suggestion’ for a climactic car chase was vetoed by Hodges, who convinced Klinger such a sequence would most likely draw an unfair comparison between Get Carter and Peter Yates’ iconic car-race in Bullitt (1968).
Hodges’ flat fee of £7,000 to adapt Lewis’ novel was well-deserved; the writer/director retaining the book’s essential structure, but also introducing some minor changes along the way; heavily influenced by the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and – stylistically – by the B-noir thriller, Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Lost in translation from page to screen were Jack Carter’s back story and a voiceover narration, as well as proposed flashbacks to crystalize the relationship between Jack and Frank. Hodges also chose to rework the story so both Brumby and Carter die – dispelling the assertion that just because Carter is the ‘moral agent’ of the piece it does not stand his penultimate satisfaction will denote a triumph of his relative ‘goodness’ over pure evil. In fact, Get Carter’s shocking end - the assassination of Jack Carter - dovetails perfectly into Hodge’s ‘eye for an eye’ morality play. Hodges’ excisions/revisions may have streamlined the plot. Yet, in retrospect, these also tend to convolute the essential elements of the story for the first-time viewer.
As Get Carter gets underway we’re not entirely certain where the story is headed; the introduction of our eponymous anti-hero and his discovery of Frank’s body, his queerly flirtatious interactions with Doreen, never identified as Frank’s daughter (and thereby Jack’s niece) until much later, feeding into the movie’s underlying smut and prostitution subplot with far more vexing ramifications later on. Lost in the shuffle is the significance of Jack’s choice of weapon – a double barrel shotgun, meant to reference happier times when he and Frank used to hunt together. We also lose the association between the Carter brothers and gangland goon, Albert Swift, as well as Jack’s bitter rivalry with gangster, Eric Paice (Ian Hendry), merely suggested in the movie. In Lewis’ novel, Eric brutalizes Jack’s lover, Audrey (rechristened Anna in the screenplay and played by the frisky – if forgettable - Britt Ekland).
Undeniably, one of the defining characteristics of Get Carter is its’ overbearing, morally bankrupt, socially course and environmentally depraved locations; Newcastle with its grayed out concrete and iron jungles, its sparse vegetation and cracked cobblestone streets; its tenements cast in a shadowy pall of sooty, smog-laden foothills behind a colliery; Gateshead, dominated by Trinity Square – a poured concrete monolith, representational of that postmodernist architectural brutality imposed upon this traditional landscape of cottage-styled housing and quaint ramshackle of independently owned shops; the apocalyptic, windswept Blackhall Beach near Hartlepool, with its steely-gray, imposingly mechanized colliery towers and conveyors. All of these superbly chosen locales greatly contribute to the overall sense of hopelessness and foreboding in the movie.
Get Carter opens with a discombobulated shot of Caine’s Jack, immaculately suited, looking bored through a high rise window; the camera zooming in until the dimly lit interior fills our frame of reference. Jack is entertaining…well…sort of. In the days before home video, organized crime overlords, Gerald (Terence Rigby) and Sid Fletcher (John Bindon) are amusing themselves with a pornographic slideshow. Jack works for these brutes. But he is despondent and not amused by their party. In fact, Jack already knows his brother, Frank is dead. But has he been murdered? Gerald and Sid advise him to leave well enough alone. Instead, Jack takes the first train from London to his old stomping grounds in Newcastle; Roy Budd’s palpitating theme music kicking in for the ride home.
Jack has been bedding Gerald’s plaything, Anna for some time. In fact, Jack toyed with the idea of making a clean break with Anna to parts unknown in South America. But then, Frank died. As they say, blood is thicker than water – or semen, in this case. The story that Frank died in a drunk-driving accident doesn’t wash with Jack; neither with Frank’s daughter, Doreen, who turns Jack onto her father’s evasive mistress, Margaret (Dorothy White) for a few clues into the mystery. Margaret isn’t exactly forthcoming, despite Jack’s forcefulness. Later on, the implication arises that Jack – not Frank – might actually be Doreen’s father. Jack is empathetic toward Doreen, tossing her a few bucks and encouraging her to come with Anna and him to South America. She’s not particularly interested in this latter prospect, but takes his money just the same.
Jack’s next port of call is the Newcastle Racecourse, where he hopes to put pressure on Albert Swift – an old acquaintance with underworld connections. Seeing Jack approaching, Albert ducks out. But Eric Paice is also at the races, presently employed as Albert’s chauffeur. Eric artful dodge leaves Jack to tail the pair back to the country estate of their crime boss, Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne); who has even more ice water running through his veins than Jack. Knocking one of Kinnear’s goons unconscious, Jack bursts in on Kinnear and the Fletchers in a heated poker game. Inebriated sex kitten, Glenda (Geraldine Moffatt) flirts with Jack, almost passing out on his shoulder. The game is played on several levels, Jack realizing there is nothing to be gained by partaking in the swindle. But a short while later Jack is paid an unwelcome visit by three of Kinnear’s goons; Keith (Alun Armstrong), Eddie (Godfrey Quigley) and Thorpe (Bernard Hepton), the latter encouraging Jack to get in their car, suggesting he has been sent as an escort to get him out of town.
Jack sabotages the moment, and then their escape, kidnapping Thorpe and dragging him up to his rented apartment at the Las Vegas rooming house where he tortures Thorpe until he gives up the name ‘Cliff Brumby’. Brumby’s a businessman with a chichi spread and a wayward daughter who throws wild parties for her friends when the folks are away. Despite being an arrogant bastard, Brumby isn’t who Jack is looking for…at least, not yet. Returning to the Las Vegas, Jack attempts to quell the proprietress, Edna’s suspicions by taking her to bed; easy target/very easy lay. But the next morning, Jack gets a rude awakening when Keith and Eddie return – sent by the Fletchers to collect him. Instead, he escapes, meeting up with Margaret a short while later. She is still closed lip. Fletcher’s goons reappear, forcing Jack to hotfoot it to relative safety and a waiting car driven by Glenda.
The plot thickens as Glenda drives at a breakneck speed up six flights of a parking garage to a rooftop restaurant still under construction. Brumby is waiting for them, along with his two effete architects (John Hussey and Ben Aris). Brumby fingers Kinnear as Frank’s killer, explaining how Kinnear is trying to muscle in on his business. Knowing what Jack is, Brumby offers him a handsome £5,000 to kill the crime boss. Instead, Jack gets insulted, storming off in a huff; collected at the base of the parking garage by Glenda, who now takes him back to her place for a little badinage on the side. Afterward, she decides to take a bath, leaving Jack to peruse her collection of 16mm homemade porn; one of the movies featuring Glenda and Margaret and a rather unseemly forced sexual encounter between Albert and Doreen. Shedding a few unlikely tears, Jack rushes up the stairs and into the bathroom in a rage. He holds Glenda’s head beneath the water for a few moments of contemplation, until she confesses the movie was Kinnear’s idea.
Half naked and barely conscious, Glenda is tossed into the boot of her car by Jack, who hunts Albert down inside a sleazy betting shop. Cornered in the back alley, Albert confesses he told Brumby Doreen was Frank’s daughter. It was Brumby who showed Frank the snuff movie, thus inciting him to call the police on Kinnear. Eric, who had arranged for Doreen to be in the movie, then orchestrated two hit men to take care of Frank. With nothing to lose, and very little left to gain, Jack knifes Albert to death in the alley. But Eric has played his cards very close to his chest; setting up Jack with the Fletchers by revealing his affair with Anna to Gerald. Keith and Eddie pursue Jack to a ferry. Jack shoots Eddie dead while Eric and Keith make their escape, pushing Glenda’s car over the edge of the docks while she is still trapped inside the trunk. Jack has had enough skulking around. It’s time for action; and he finds plenty of it by posting the 16mm snuff movie to the Vice Squad at Scotland Yard; also by returning to Brumby’s restaurant, beating him senseless and then tossing him off the sixth story of the parking garage.
As they say, payback’s a bitch. So, Jack now abducts Margaret, telephoning Kinnear and lying about having the porn movie in his possession; negotiating a straight exchange to presumably buy his silence and get what he wants. Jack wants Eric. But he also wants Kinnear. Nothing modest will do. Jack forces Margaret to strip at gunpoint in an isolated field, giving her a lethal injection and planting her corpse inside Kinnear’s home before telephoning the police, who raid the house shortly thereafter and arrest Kinnear. In the meantime, Eric arrives at Blackhall Beach for his penultimate showdown with Jack. However, unbeknownst to Jack, Eric has also hired his own hit man to dispose of his adversary once and for all.
Revenge comes too little/too late for Eric, forced by Jack to consume a whole bottle of whisky, in effect, recreating the frame-up of Frank’s ‘accidental death’. Jack beats Eric to death with his rifle butt, depositing the bloody remains into one of the colliery conveyor dumps, carrying it past a few pylons, before dumping its contents into the turbulent waters. It might have been divine retribution, except the sniper hired by Eric now takes Jack down with a clean bullet to the brain. As Jack collapses in the sand, the tides slowly roll in, soon to carry his corpse out to sea.
Get Carter is an unapologetic, bleak movie. Arguably, its’ ending is much more effective today than it was in 1971; our contemporary cynicism yielding a queerly perverse satisfaction - witnessing this ultimate assassin get his own before the credits roll. Caine is the superior presence that makes this movie click as it should. Initially, producer Klinger had been encouraged by MGM’s hierarchy to consider Telly Savalas in the lead – an American name above the title to help bolster box office. Savalas had yet to break ground on his iconic alter ego – TV’s Kojak – but was a formidable presence in a few high profile movies throughout the 1960’s; most notably The Dirty Dozen (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970).
Certainly, Get Carter would have benefited from Savalas’ inimitable blend of insane cruelty and courtly culture. But Michael Caine brings something else to the part; an intangible mercilessness, nevertheless, firmly grounded in a sense of upstanding propriety. He knows what he is, or rather, the level to which he has sunk and it doesn’t matter. Caine’s Carter isn’t out for personal salvation – just revenge – begun out of love for a lost brother and pity towards the child who may or may not actually be his.
Kismet prevents Get Carter from being a truly great movie. First, and foremost, is the absence of instantly recognizable faces – at least in America – to compliment Caine’s trend-setting sinner. While the British cast gives competent to exceptional performances throughout the movie, Get Carter’s ever-evolving roster of gritty goons and gals are largely forgettable. The screenplay never allows any of them to achieve the sort of standout moment that might have truly distinguished them from each other. Second, is Hodges’ screenplay; uneven and spotty at best, and downright confusing to follow for a good solid hour. Get Carter is a marvelous claptrap of iniquity for its first third, a traditional British mystery at its core or middle, segueing into a perilous revenge/tragedy as it moves with reinvigorated tenacity into its last act finale. Hodges, arguably, knows these characters, their motivations and the storyline inside and out; having lived with his own clear-eyed picture of how it all comes together. But he isn’t entirely successful at conveying these secret thoughts in visual terms; the big reveals blunted by the audience’s mounting sense of frustrating confusion.
What the story lacks in narrative continuity is, therefore, left to be made up by Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography, unremittingly dark and oppressive. In essence, Suschitzky’s work gives the audience an illusion; like peeling away the bruised skin of an old banana, only to discover more rot and decay beneath its surface as our hero descends into an inescapable emotionless abyss. Jack Carter’s demise is very much a fitting end to his apocalyptic world view – or rather, his narrow-minded impressions of that tiny corner he currently occupies but would rather escape from. He doesn’t belong here – or anywhere, for that matter; the original displaced person barely able to function in a scenario he neither desires nor, in fact, might have pursued, if not for his brother’s untimely murder.
Get Carter was not immediately recognized for its’ gritty realism; MGM’s limited marketing campaign doing little to promote the movie state’s side, while in the U.K., critics were begrudgingly appreciative of the film’s technical proficiency, but rather put off by the complexity in Hodges’ intrigues, what was then considered ‘excessive violence’ and ‘amorality’, and, in particular, Jack Carter’s universal lack of contrition. Overlooked at Oscar time, Get Carter faded from view, though arguably, not from memory – acquiring a cult following to sustain its reputation, despite its absence on home video until 1993. Today, one can see more clearly Hodges’ and Caine’s vision for the movie. Indeed, by 1999, Get Carter had risen through the ranks of the BFI as the 16th most iconic British movie made in the 20th century. The following year saw an Americanized remake starring Sylvester Stallone (a painful experience to get through).
Certain movies come suitable to a time. In an era of social/moral decay and decline, the 1971 Get Carter played to an audience desperate to eschew their own cascade of bad fortune and despair. Arguably, the world has only grown more remote and isolated since that time, despite the proliferation of the internet – initially meant to unite us via its instant connectivity. Viewing Get Carter today, one is immediately teleported to another time, one unimpeded by environmental protection concerns and a far more laissez faire attitude toward promiscuity, drowning in its overabundance of filthy corruption and murderous deceit. Ah me, the 1970’s. You had to be there! Thankfully, Get Carter’s time capsule reveals how far we’ve come from this grisly snapshot – and just how similarly occupied we continue to be by the same wants and desires caught in the shadow from it. While styles have changed, Get Carter’s thematic elements remain as relevant as ever. Crime doesn’t pay. It’s exciting and distracts, perhaps. But it always exacts a human price much too high in exchange for its ill-gotten monetary gains.
Warner Home Video has given us Get Carter in a competent 1080p transfer. Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography was never going to impress with ravishing colors or startling amounts of razor-sharp clarity. The movie’s shoestring budget and Hodges’ and Suschitzky’s adherence to a documentarian style, shot under natural and low lighting conditions, ensures a harsher visual presentation. Still, colors can look just a tad faded at times; particularly flesh tones adopting a pinky hue, more so at the beginning of the movie. Grain is exaggerated during the initial optical zoom on Carter staring out the high rise window. Herein, the grain doesn’t look indigenous or film-based, but in fact, digitally harsh.
Thankfully, the overall quality of both the grain and the visuals in general vastly improves immediately following the main title sequence. Contrast seems solid enough – no crushed blacks or light bleeding around the edges. I do have to say, Get Carter on Blu-ray appears fairly accurate to me. Notice, I didn’t say impressive.
For although there are moments peppered throughout this transfer when I was moved to reconsider the image (as in Frank’s funeral procession, revealing a startling amount of clarity; the shiny tops of the black limos perfectly complimented by the dense green foliage at the cemetery, and, several close-ups of Michael Caine showed a spectacular amount of fine detail and exquisite tonality in Carter’s sad-eyed visage), on the whole this presentation is just a shay up from middle of the road. The 1.0 DTS accurately reproduces the aural limitations of this vintage audio. Extras are limited to an audio commentary by Hodges with inserted reflections offered by Michael Caine and Wolfgang Suschitzky – not the most cohesive commentary I’ve heard, but insightful nonetheless. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)