Classic crime, classic Caine, classic Carter
Initially forgotten through poor promotion, but retrospectively reappraised as one of the greatest films of all time, Mike Hodges’ 1971 crime classic Get Carter changed the face of gangster films forever.Up until that point, gangsters had been generally portrayed in cinema as either dumb or farcical – or both – and both then-rising star Michael Caine and debut director Mike Hodges were keen on providing a different spin on the genre, with cold violence and gritty realism the name of the game. Due to his star status at the time – having had a sling of both critical and commercial successes with Zulu, The Ipcress File, Alfie and The Italian Job – many were surprised that Caine would agree to portray the amoral anti-hero lead in this production, but the celebrated Cockney actor was very much personally interested in the role. Optioning to co-produce the film, Caine sought to bring his working class background and early experience of criminal acquaintances to the productionThe star noted that Carter felt, to him, like the person that he could have become had he chosen a different path. Stripping Carter of any residual decency, Caine championed the coldest, most gritty depiction that they could go for, with superior results. Hodges too welcomed the actor's input, and held up his side of the bargain by bringing in acclaimed documentary cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky to lens the feature in a very realistic fashion. The visual style favoured longer shots and natural lighting throughout which, combined with the bleak North England setting, gave them precisely the aesthetic that they were looking for. The film took the 'kitchen sink' realism of British dramas in the late sixties and successfully applied it to the gangster genre.
Based on Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home, the first in a trilogy of books centring on the eponymous character of Jack Carter (the latter two were prequels), the film follows the gangland enforcer, who returns home to Newcastle following the death of his estranged brother in what looks to be a drink-driving incident. Out of respect for – and fear of – his London connections, the criminal underground initially leave him alone, but it’s not long before they want him gone, lest he interfere with their operations. But the longer Jack stays around, the more secrets he uncovers about his old life and the family he left behind.
"You're a big man but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full-time job. Now, behave yourself."
In stark contrast to the gangsters portrayed in Caine’s earlier The Italian Job, Get Carter establishes a cold, bleak depiction of criminal life where almost everybody is cruel, twisted, back-stabbing and psychotic in one way or another. It’s an angle which shocked audiences at the time of the film’s release, but one which the modern generation have very much grown accustomed too. Few, however, have epitomised the cool, cruel bastard as perfectly as Caine with Carter, however, bringing us a character who is every bit as vicious as those he hunts down and, in reality, probably every bit as deserving of the same violent justice that he serves up upon them.
Indeed it’s a testament to the sharpness of Caine’s wholly against-type performance here – the first of a string of more demanding roles that followed immediately after, including the desperately underrated Sleuth, where he admirably stands his acting ground against none other than Lawrence Olivier – that, no matter how unlikeable his Carter is, no matter how nasty his acts are, you still ultimately root for him. That said, it probably helped no end that he was swimming through a sea of scumbags brought to life by the likes of Ian Hendry, John Osbourne and Bryan Mosley. Famously, Hendry – the sunglasses-wearing ‘driver’ whose eyes “still look like pi*sholes in the snow” – had originally been cast as Carter before the Producers dictated that a bigger star, namely Caine, be given the role. This left Hendry to turn to his increasingly rampant alcoholism to drown out his jealousy, and reportedly Hodges used the tension between Hendry and Caine to make the on-screen confrontations that much more authentic. And it works.
"Clever sod, aren't you?"
Looking back on the production now, it was just a perfect confluence of elements: a strong story based on a well-regarded source novel; a driven new director with a clear vision; a star-on-the-rise actor ready to do something different; a sharp, authentic style through the documentary-DOP; a superior film score by Roy Budd – held together by that classic main theme.
The end result is one of the greatest films of all time, featuring one of Caine’s strongest – and most atypical – performances, and setting the standard for no end of revenge thrillers that would follow suit, from The Long Good Friday to The Limey. Although audiences at the time were shocked by the gritty style and taken aback with Caine’s vicious antihero, now these have become defining features of the genre. If you haven’t yet seen this superior crime classic, then now’s the time to correct that mistake.
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