Get Carter (1971)
Director: Mike Hodges
Screenwriter: Mike Hodges
Starring: Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland, John Osborne, Geraldine Moffat, Dorothy White, Bryan Mosley, Alun Armstrong, Petra Markham
50 years after its release, you would imagine that Get Carter would have lost some of its initial sting, especially as the social perception of this film has now been condensed into a few iconic yet nonetheless reductive moments: a bollock naked Michael Caine with a shotgun in hand and an unfortunate dive from a high-rise car park being prime examples. But, no. Even the most hardened fans of gore and violence are still shocked by the sheer brutality that is Get Carter.
Mike Hodges’ adaption of Ted Lewis’ novel “Jack’s Return Home” was certainly one of the films that marked the shutting of the door on what was the hopeful and colourful decade of the 1960s; and what better antithesis is there to Swingin’ 60s London than bleak 70s Tyneside? Newcastle Upon Tyne has never shook off the grim depiction it earned through Get Carter – though the people of Tyneside have never proven too displeased with their association, dire depiction and all – so it is no surprise that the area is still used as the setting for films regarding poverty and destitution, such as I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, to this day.
Here, Michael Caine plays the part of Jack Carter, a gangster working the London scene who, despite the pleas of his mob boss, returns to his hometown of Newcastle on the premise of attending his brother’s funeral but with the actual intention of investigating his brother’s mysterious demise in a supposed drink-driving accident. After the many unsuccessful attempts to wheedle any information from the uncooperative faces of the Newcastle criminal underworld, Carter eventually uncovers the pornographic scandal his family has gotten tangled in. This discovery unlocks a primal fury in what is already an extremely dangerous killer, and in his quest for vengeance Carter quite literally paints the town of Newcastle red.
Get Carter’s plot is initially a convoluted affair, which causes a little difficulty in following the story. All the ugly faces of the Tyneside criminal underworld meld into one, making the game of working out who is actually who on the same level as following the characters in a badly translated version of one of the great Russian novels. In some of these brief moments of confusion you are left with the sinking feeling that you may have missed some important exposition. Patience, however, is a virtue, and eventually these concerns simply evaporate away as any prior pretence of plot is immediately eradicated as we become fully transfixed onto the terrible transformation of Carter. Important plot points remain as Carter ties up the loose ends of his vengeance, but only the bare minimum details of the “whodunnit” are actually required to enjoy the sight of Carter stabbing and brutalising his way through the ganglands of Tyneside.
Mike Hodges’ subversion of our expectations is what makes Get Carter still so fresh and raw to this day: his illusion of the film being a plot piece when it is actually character focused and driven by emotion helps it to stand out against the plethora of gangster films preceding and succeeding it. And at the heart of Get Carter‘s numerous thrilling deceptions is the casting and performance of Michael Caine in the titular role.
Both in 1971 and 2021, Michael Caine is one of the most recognised and esteemed British actors; his enduring charisma has audiences geared to adore whomever he portrays. In Get Carter, it initially appears that Carter will gladly fit into the jolly tropes often associated with British gangster films that often dance into the territory of comedy – Caine has, after all, often dabbled in the morally grey but utterly likeable types before. As Carter wins the allegiance of his dead brother’s associates, smiles at the larger than life characters that could only be found in his quaint hometown, and generously doles out money for the damage and inconvenience caused by his troublesome criminal lifestyle, it is easy to chalk up Carter as an anti-hero, a diamond geezer. But as his quest to find the truth about his brother’s death continues, any illusion over Carter being some hard knock cheeky chappie disappears: Carter is just a straight up cold-hearted bastard. Although Carter’s affairs are strictly within the criminal underworld, it still doesn’t stop his mission from sucking in the innocent bystanders who aren’t always spat out whole. This, combined with some of the nightmarish deaths of the sleazy gangster associates Carter directly and indirectly causes, ensures we can be nothing other than stunned as not one ounce of remorse or shame is given. Jack Carter is not an anti-hero, he’s a monster.
What makes Carter so monstrous is the brutally efficient (almost economical) approach to both Caine’s performance and Hedge’s direction, effectively fleshing out Carter beyond a two-dimensional villain and into something terrifyingly real in the briefest of moments. The complex and sorrowful relationship with his hometown is summed up in one line – “[…] the only reason I came back to this crap house […]” – while the depth of his humanity is entirely illustrated in a single moment of pathos: silent tears at the uncovering of the truth. These tight, punchy moments of emotion may succeed in getting us to empathise with Carter, but the path of violence he leads us down leaves us with little doubt that he is still one evil bastard. For the most part, Caine plays Carter with a devastating coolness, only occasionally dispensing the barest indication of disgust when trawling the Tyneside underbelly, but as he comes close to actually getting a hold of the truth, he goes berserk and the fullness of his fury and rage is let out in a matter of seconds. Carter’s two stabs to the gut release as much power as the Hiroshima bomb and yet it’s over before you realise.
The hugely effective minimalistic methods used in the depiction of Carter are in fact seen throughout all elements of the film, making Get Carter an excellent example of great production value. Absolutely nothing goes to waste as Director Mike Hodges and Producer Michael Klinger get the best from their resources. The film went from concept to completion in only ten months, the musical theme was produced on a budget of £450 with it being recorded directly alongside the playback of the picture (yet still achieving a score quintessentially gritty and British), and not one shot within the film is meaningless – all are packed with either symbolism or fore-shadowing, promising something new on each rewatch. The cinematography in of itself is a major part of the film’s entrancing power. Most clever is the use of unusual close-ups that helps to thrust us into the middle of all the action, making us feel partially responsible for the depraved underworld activities we witness. This forced voyeurism is heightened to an almost meta level when close ups are used as Carter dabbles with some phone sex with his fiancé and our attention is focused on the eaves-dropping landlady, enjoying herself with a good listen.
The use of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and locations all over the North East of England is in hindsight a stroke of genius. The most was made of the local talent, such as Alun Armstrong who would go on to have an illustrious career in film and television, the eccentric Denea Wilde who highlighted the uniqueness of the region with her portrayal of a flirtatious club singer, and the immortalised six-fingered extra appearing in a shot set in a local pub. The area has always been fantastic for lending a sense of grittiness and harshness to a production, but in 1971 the heavy industrialisation of the area made the place look like a terrifying alien planet. Chases through the mix of the iron industrial and concrete brutalist architecture heighten the sense of danger and obstacle in Carter’s mission, adding to the anxiety of the whole affair. The setting of the film’s conclusion at a coastal colliery where the contents of a slag heap is mechanically dumped into the sea achieves a sense of desolation that has not been seen in a movie since, and will probably never be seen again given the dismantling of the coal mining industry in the region throughout the 1980s.
Get Carter may tackle themes and concepts that are difficult to stomach – with the level of misogyny and the brutality of violence, it is certainly not a film for the faint-hearted – but it certainly rewards the brave. A film like Get Carter will never be made again, and is thus a hugely significant part of British Cinema history. Through its production value, excellent direction and a performance from Michael Caine that comes from close to home for him (he often refers to Jack Carter as the ghost of Michael Caine, referring to a path he could have gone down if he had taken a wrong turn in his life), Get Carter is possibly one of the only gangster films to truly illustrate the actual horror of the real criminal underworld, and does the most effective job of convincing us that crime doesn’t pay without any pontification or gimmicky comedy. Get Carter is a film that is fifty years old in 2021 and is guaranteed to stay in our memory for another fifty years.