Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Get Carter Film Review

“You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job.”

It’s Spring! As has been the case for the last few years here in sunny L.A., that means it’s cool and rainy as we crossed into the season. Perhaps, the blustery overcast sky is fitting for this post since it highlights a particularly iconic film from the 70s — a decidedly British one. And, as it’s time once again for the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to add another of our duo posts to the series we started last year, we took advantage of the film’s 40th anniversary this month. As usual, the wordy one will examine the text of a famed novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at the source crime novel from the U.K. for the 1971 Get Carter film, Jack’s Return Home. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis

[Blogger’s note: Rachel was kind enough to allow me to pick this month’s book/film. Since I wrote the recent celebratory piece of the film for Ed Copeland on Film’s blog, I repurposed it for this parallel post entry.]

A brief synopsis of the film: Jack Carter is a man no one in their right mind wants visiting them (in London, or anywhere else). Jack works for mob bosses in The Smoke, and by all appearances is particularly adept at getting his (or their way) when called upon. The fact that he possesses an almost angelic face with a contradictory, and especially unpredictable, harsh nature is a plus for a racketeer’s curriculum vitae in this line of work. So when his older brother dies in a car accident back home in Newcastle, even his bosses are nervous about his trip up north for the funeral. The protagonist’s estrangement from his sibling and family will only add to the mix. The lies and cover-up Jack discovers upon his return home and the underworld toes he’ll step on to get at the truth of his brother’s murder will go to the revenge story’s unmistakably dark heart.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film are revealed in this review]

When director Mike Hodges‘ first feature film debuted 40 years ago this month, I don’t believe it made much significance on the movie-going public at the time. For us here in the U.S., we were just leaving winter (and the 60s weren’t that far off in the rearview) and happily expecting better forecasts in our future. The fact was we were just starting a decade we wouldn’t truly begin to regret since it hadn’t fully touched down as yet. But for all the uncertainty and controversy which followed the waning years of the Vietnam War, that same atmosphere would go on to have a distinct and triumphant impression on the cinema of the time. Few realized what was coming in the next ten years (the economic downs that commingled with the dark, creative ups in motion pictures) till it was all over. The exception surely was the state of Hawaii who somehow caught a foretaste of the said upheaval via the weather. They were still picking up the pieces from the winter storm of 1971 when Mr. Hodges’ movie landed two months later. And just like that little remembered climatic event (except for those who went through it), Get Carterleft its mark.

It’s been a remarkable ride for this tale as it has made its way across movie screens (mainstream and revival), VHS rental tapes, and disc players over the decades since. Get Carter has gone from being despised as a motion picture, especially by United Kingdom critics for its violence and nastiness (even seen as a threat to U.K. tourism), to an anti-establishment cult film (especially after its initial release and the political corruption of Watergate, Cold War tensions, nuclear threat, oil-crises, and the like settled in with a flourish), and later entering the Valhalla of the British Film Institute at the 16th position on its BFI Top 100 British Film of the 20th Century. Total Film some years later went one better and named it as the top film in its list of 50 Greatest British Movies Ever. Scanning both lists, and the distinguished films this feature accompanies, should gather those who’ve not experienced the movie around for a long denied viewing, IMO. Not bad for little crime film and its story of a British underworld figure seeking retribution for his brother’s murder in the grim outskirts of England no one puts on the travel brochures.

Michael Caine, fresh off the 60s with the roles like Harry Palmer and Alfie, and in films that ranged in variety from Zulu, The Ipcress File, The Italian Job, to The Battle of Britain, at first wouldn’t seem a good fit for a nihilistic film adapted from the noirish Ted Lewis novel. But, he proved he was up for the task. He mastered the ‘unlikable’ attraction quality and garnered movie viewers over time with this character. Surely, up until this role, audiences thought they knew what to expect from this actor. He was affable in a way most Americans find appealing in actors from ‘across the pond’. There are those familiar aspects in the film. His initial screen introduction is a measured, fastidious presentation meant to follow some well-worn ground… till he, and the newly minted screenwriter/director, drove it off a cliff, that is. When it came to this film, only one hyphened word would suffice thereafter: game-changing.

One key quote may bring some clarity on this, and help establish the sober tone for the picture and this character:

Jack Carter: “No, I’m visiting relatives.”
Eric: “Oh, that’s nice.”
Jack Carter: “It would be… if they were still living.”

Contempt for the powers that be (on either side of the law) was evident throughout 70s cinema. This is hinted at when Jack’s own management attempts to warn our dark protagonist off looking into his brother’s death at the start of the film. It is for their own protection, not his. They simply don’t want, or trust, their Doberman going off the leash in this regard. I’d say Caine’s interpretation of a British gangster was so eye-popping, you’d have to wait until the start of the next decade for another quite like it. That being Bob Hoskins’ Harold Shand role from The Long Good Friday (although people keep telling me to checkout Richard Burton’s character in Villain as they believe it is in the same league as those). Jack is a fiercely singular character, and the film does an excellent job at conveying that fact. Years later, Hodges noted that real British gangsters afterward came to him and expressed, proudly, “… they were really pleased with this film.” Obviously, this feature had a distinct impact. Even in a year that released such remarkable motion pictures which spotlighted lone characters butting up against decaying from within societies (Dirty Harry, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange), the little film that could managed to shove its way on to that level much like Jack does with his North East England counterparts in the story, even if the filmmakers didn’t have such expectations.

“Frank said you were a shit and he was bloody well right! You even screwed his wife, didn’t you?!? The poor bastard didn’t even know if the kid was his!”

Think about this for a moment. Mike Hodges, who accumulated some British TV fame from 1963 to 1970, delivered his first big screen movie (with a striking and lasting antihero) in record time — and with few applauding or recognizing how great an achievement it was (film critic Pauline Kael being one of the early lone admirers). Add to that, at the midst of its story, it contained the unspoken dirty secret of the pornography trade. Note Brit Ekland‘s character’s discomfort in being in the same room as the bosses are watching the ‘porno’ at the beginning of the film. In the context of the time, the subject was not spoken of in polite company. It’s a taboo the film was unafraid to cross in the telling of its story (note, Gerard Damiano’s own game-changer, Deep Throat, wouldn’t debut until the next year). Regardless, all of this happened under what the director termed as a “white heat” schedule:

“… getting the book, doing the deal, writing the script, finding the location, making the film, editing it… it was like 36 weeks.”

That he could turn it all around in such a short term (shooting took up only about 40 days) is remarkable in itself. Let alone carrying off what’s now considered “among the pantheon of British cinema classics“, as noted by author Steve Chibnall in his excellent film guide of the film. It’s unheard of, even for back then. And he accomplished it using the location of the windswept, industrial, and dismal setting of Newcastle of the time. Contrast that with Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather release in 1972 with its glamorous New York City, Hollywood and Las Vegas whereabouts for its gangster backdrops, and you can see part of the reason many consider Hodges’ film astonishing.

The remaining cast, like the pubs and rundown urban housing (along with the local faces) used throughout the cold canvas of the piece, was equally adept at joining in the predatory mood Hodges built into his film. For American audiences, outside of Caine and Ekland, not many were readily recognizable. Still, they were a terrific lot. Originally, the director cast the solid Ian Hendry (who would eventually oppose Vincent Price in the splendid Theatre of Blood film a couple of years later) for the role of Carter. But as it’s almost always the case, the bigger star won out for the lead. It was a sore point for the actor, but it produced a tension between he (Hendry moved over to portray Eric Paice) and Michael Caine that made their scenes together crackle. John Osborne, Bryan Mosley, Geraldine Moffat, Petra Markham, Dorothy White and the rest contributed a great deal in making the ‘trip up north’ quite a memorable (if not a little uncomfortable) experience. DP Wolfgang Suschitzky’s camera work should also be lauded. The stark visuals depicted (particularly those used in the impressive main title sequence on the train and the closing scene along the desolate dark shores of the city) make this vividly clear to those who’ve watched the film more than a few times.

“I should know. I’m the villain in the family, remember?”

Get Carter remains a bleak, if not ferocious, little gem. As with films like The French Connection (which also came out later in the same year), it heralded a time and an avant-garde set of pictures — many notably in the crime genre (a category of film that up until that time didn’t get the respect it deserved) — that epitomized the antihero for that particular decade. While Friedkin’s gritty picture is a cop film through and through, Carter is decidedly on the other side (of the law and ocean). Like films of the era, Get Carter mirrored the disillusionment of generations, new and old, with their establishments. Mike Hodges, as William Friedkin did in his hardboiled classic, was forward-looking in introducing a character few audiences could like, but found themselves inevitably empathizing with among the ruins. If you dig the 70s style of movies, this one has it in spades. While the finales for both of these 1971 films would be considered less than satisfying in any of the ten years which bracketed The Me Decade, each of those endings sure worked on-screen.

“Are you coming in, or you going to piss about all day?”

All of the films mentioned set the standard for the era, I think. And Hodges’ film very much embodied that unique decade — and it sure went out of its way to say the Age of Aquarius was definitely over, didn’t it? Get Carter‘s uncompromising and unpromising tone (some would say it has a misogynistic take), alongside with its ultimately bleak resolution, was the point. Over time, the film has accumulated more than its share of  enthusiasts on either side of the Atlantic (crime film aficionados can spot its influence on both Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie’s work). There’s no doubt in my mind, it (and others) marked a turning point in cinema. The later The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Charlie Varrick also come to mind. If there’s a worthy remake to take in (as it seems there must be in today’s market), I’d recommend the almost scene-for-scene black-exploitation flick, Hit Man (with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier). It was an American redux in the same spirit of the original — I’d also suggest steering clear of Sylvester Stallone’s 2000 film of the same name as it is the antithesis of a 70s film, IMO. Lastly, the films of this decade seemed to exhibit their own riff on the cinéma vérité style of movie making. That this exceptional film in particular was distinctly British shouldn’t be surprising. It had an inroad to connecting audiences separated by a common language as it were. We, the crumbling empires (old and new) of the time, had a lot in common. And self-destruction was the name of the game way back then. Indeed, the film did have an old-world charm to it… even as it swung that shotgun down on to someone’s head.

Parallel Post Series

21 Responses to “Get Carter Film Review”

  1. Rachel

    Wonderful as usual and packed with all kinds of historical context and tid bits to educate the uneducated (two thumbs pointing back at me here:). Ok, so I had not seen this before and watched it just last weekend with my hubby and the dogs (the dogs slept through most of it – chumps!). My number one favorite thing was the music. I bet whoever did the music is smiling big time but maybe the director would take exception… but it’s true, that music was perfect!

    I like the quote you included under the first graphic as it really pin points what kind of guy Carter is. It’s one of those scenes when he knows words can take care of quite a lot so why bother with the action (at first anyway). But when words won’t do, he’s quick to do what needs to be done. This personality trait I’ve never seen done well in a movie and I feel this movie also falls short on this aspect. What do you think? I just don’t think the medium of film works well with a zero grand-standing kind of character. I could be convinced otherwise, though. Anyway, that part of his character worked much better for me in the book.

    The one other part of his character I felt the movie got wrong was Carter’s charm. He can really lay it on and lay it on well but in the movie I felt it got confused with aggressive sex appeal. Like they took the charm away and made him into a guy that, no matter how skeevy he is, the ladies still want him. That DOES NOT equal charm. A truly charming person is able to charm men AND women. Sex appeal is an extension of that (and may become a part of it with whichever party you prefer to dally with) but charm is the ability to make someone pleased they are interacting with you. Book Carter had that ability in spades and he was equally charming to men and women when he chose to be. I missed that in the movie.

    The atmosphere of the movie was so dead-on awesome! Man, talk about grim and soul-sucking.

    I didn’t pick up at all on the anti-establishment theme and it was interesting to replay the movie in my mind with that lens. I’ve never thought to apply such a theme to organized crime and I’m not sure I’m wholly convinced but it certainly adds an interesting spin that I enjoy mulling over.

    Ok, for the big one: What did you think of the changed ending? I know that ultimately the ending was the same but the details were vastly different. I loved the way the book ended! I thought the movie way was a bit out of left field. Like they needed the end to be the way it was and felt the source material was too complicated so took an easier way out. Thoughts?

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  2. le0pard13

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed some of the film. To your points:
    • Roy Budd’s rhythmic jazz soundtrack is great. I picked it this year, too, because of this look back at the film
    • I’m a fan of Caine’s characterization, likely due to the fact that I’ve seen the film many times over the years and I only read the source novel this year. So it’s shaped (or warped) my opinion. If I’d read the book first, I could see that might changed it.
    • Good point in comparing Carter’s charm (and way with words) in the novel with his more aggressive posture from the film. The film didn’t have the luxury of expounding upon the character’s inner workings as the author does on the page. Hodges depended upon Michael Caine’s physicality and acting expressions to try and get around that fact.
    • Yes, wasn’t the atmosphere as chilled and grim as the industrial surrounding of Newcastle (and northeast England). The director and cinematographer used it to great effect, I think.
    • IMO, the anti-establishment bent goes toward the burgeoning presence of the antihero of that time. It’s certainly more common these days, but back then that style of protagonist was really coming into its own, and was more in response to what was occurring during that decade. As well, here the ‘establishment’ (the underworld) the audience sees is as corrupt and mean as it gets. It’s an aspect that many saw in their government, business, etc., and it could be argued that the disillusionment dawning upon people then made out that the business of crime was no better or worse that what was around them.
    • Again, my perspective is biased by the film. The shock and coldness of the its sudden finale (by the dark shoreline) was a slap in the face to viewers. And it was one that heralded the bleak ending that became a trademark for 70s cinema. Unhappy closings were the point in an era of defeat (Vietnam, unemployment, fiscal and political uncertainty, to name of few). And the fact that your fate was in the hands of others, well… Yet, Ted Lewis’ written ending is a stunner. Now if Stallone’s 2000 remake would have used it, THAT would have made it a worthy one.

    What do you think? Again, another very interesting book/film. Thanks.

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    • Rachel

      Since you had seen the film so many times before reading the book do you think you applied your film experiences to the book? I was asked this while I was reading DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS last month since I’d already seen the film. My answer was that I did but only at first. As the book became a really different version of the same story I left the film totally behind. In the case of GET CARTER I thought it was such a faithful adaptation that it’s very easy to intertwine the film and the book. But since I read the book first I don’t know how it would be going in the other direction.

      I think you’re right re the charm bit in the movie. A book can really express such things (and a character’s inner thoughts) so much more easily and with more time (obviously). Can you think of a movie that’s really captured the type of person that uses very little dialogue and mostly action? I don’t have one, it’s very hard to do in film, but I’d love to see it done well.

      Ah, good point re the emergence of the anti-hero. This is one of those “This is Spinal Tap” moments for me. That movie is just the kind of comedy I like and so people are always shocked when I don’t rave about it. The problem with source material is that if you don’t see it first you don’t know that it started everything. If GET CARTER was at the head of the anti-hero portrayal in movies I would miss that and all its accompanying themes.

      Great description of how affecting the movie ending is. As I was watching the movie I really felt the absence of Carter’s history with his brother (details left out for obvious length reasons) and I think it softened Carter’s character a bit. With that feeling being so pervasive I was so nervous that the ending would be left out. I was ecstatic that the unhappy ending remained. I feel like it really cinched the movie as a faithful adaptation to the theme of the novel.

      I didn’t watch the Stallone remake. To be honest, it’s been well over a decade since I’ve been able to watch anything Stallone is in. DEMOLITION MAN might have been the last thing I enjoyed with him. What year was that?

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      • le0pard13

        Good point about my experience with the film (and in comparing it with the Devil in a Blue Dress source/film). It did take on its own life a bit. Although, my attempts to discern the novel’s distinct slang kept bringing me back to film to help understand what was happening with the dialogue. I agree with you that the adaptation to film was very faithful to the novel. Plus, I just kept seeing Michael Caine’s face as Jack’s.

        Excellent question! I’ll have to think on if there’s a movie that captured fully a character through the visual medium as well as the source written material. Hmm… I’d have to say Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, from Stephen King’s first novel, comes closest. Maybe I can think of others.

        I agree with you, too, that the little seen brother (and his only fleeting contempt of him) softened somewhat Carter’s character in the film as compared to the novel’s protagonist. Still, wouldn’t you agree it was like adding a bed ruffle to The Rack?

        I’m probably being too hard on Stallone’s GET CARTER. There are some good points to it… and it’s more upbeat ending (in a remake of a distinctly 70s classic) probably turns it into something else. BTW, Michael Caine has a wonderful cameo in it. Ah… DEMOLITION MAN. I really enjoyed that humor, social commentary, and decent action. That one was from 1993. Where’s the time gone?!?

        Thanks so much for the considerations and observation you bring up re: the book and film, Rachel.

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  3. Colin

    A first rate thriller, and I can’t really add much to the excellent points already made – an excellent analysis.

    I don’t know if you picked up on it but there’s a wonderful moment early on when Carter walks into the bar and orders a drink. He asks for it in a thin glass, and several customers pause and glance futively at him. At the time it was the custom to use chunky tankards with handles – the thin glass meant this was a man used to violence, one who wanted something to hand that could be smashed easily and used to slash viciously. A nice little touch that’s probably lost its impact with viewers over time, but one that speaks volumes about the kind of man Carter is.

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Colin. I’m glad you added that context to the scene in the bar as it says a lot about the character of Jack Carter. I gathered it meant something, but I knew I was missing it. The scene is in the Ted Lewis novel, as well:

      “I put my hold-all down and looked at the barman. He didn’t move.
      ‘Pint of bitter,’ I said.
      He let his arms unfold, reached out for the pint mug and made his weary way to the pumps and without putting anything more into it than it needed he began to pull the pint.
      ‘In a thin glass please,’ I said.
      The barman looked at me and the bloke down the bar looked at the barman.
      ‘Why didn’t you bloody well say?’ said the barman, slowly putting the brakes on the beer.
      ‘I was going to, but you were too fast for me.’
      The bloke down the bar threw back his head and gave a short hard laugh.”

      It’s a great scene. Thanks so much for your comment, my friend.

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      • Rachel

        This scene in the book really stood out for me but mostly because of the last two lines of it making me laugh out loud. I missed the significance of the thin glass as weapon – I think I know too many people who are picky about what type of glass they drink beer from to note this as anything other than that. ha! misapplied experience.

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    • Andy

      I’ll think you’ll find that he asks for a straight glass so he gets a true pint, the thicker jugs naturally held less!! This also shows people that Carter is not someone to take liberties with!

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  4. The Sci-Fi Fanatic

    My friend. Late to this one. I loved Get Carter. I never did see the Stallone remake.

    Michael Caine is such a perennial joy to watch as actors go.

    I have seen so many wonderful films. Cider House Rules, something as cheesy but fun as Blame It On Rio, Alfie, gosh the list just goes on. He can elevate just about any film with his presence.

    Not sure about Jaws 4 though. I never did see that one. : ) All the best my friend.

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  5. le0pard13

    Yes, Get Carter is a great one, indeed. We’re in agreement once more. And Michael Caine is a perennial joy to watch. Even lesser movies (and Jaws 4 is one and The Island is another) are not as bad because he’s in them. BTW, since you’re a fan, and if you’ve not seen it, I’ll lend you my R2 disc of The Fourth Protocol with him as the lead. He and Pierce Brosnan are marvelous in this Frederick Forsyth Cold War thriller which still doesn’t have an official U.S. release.

    Thanks so much for your comment, my friend.

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  6. Herb

    only 2 nights ago watch an early Caine film “Play Dirty”. What a master of the art, he merely cocks an eye brow and watch out, he is oscar nominated! Thanks for another great post.

    Jack Carter: “It would be… if they were still living.”
    Caines voice and timeing came to me as I read that quote.

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  7. David Steece

    Leopard,

    Awesome review. I definitely saw a lot of influence on QT’s ‘Res Dogs’, and I think I’ve heard him mention it in an interview somewhere. I really want to see Hodges next film “Pulp” also w/Caine. Have you seen it?
    Again, great review, and great blog!

    David

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    • le0pard13

      Welcome, David. Very kind of you to say, my friend. You know, I’ve heard about Hodge’s Pulp but I’ve never seen it. Because of youe comment, I found that Netflix is streaming it! It’s now in my Instant Queue. I’m so glad to have found your blog due to the recent Lance Henriksen blogathon. I very much enjoy your writing and look forward to reading more of your wonderful content. Thank you so much for your comment.

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  8. Dan

    This is one of my favourite Michael Caine performances and films. I still wonder what they were thinking when they remade it – and with Sly Stallone in the lead role!

    Very interesting and well-written review. I too believe Get Carter has had a significant influence on the industry, especially in the way audiences can warm themselves to the plight of anti-heroes.

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Dan. It’s much appreciated. And yes, it also is one of my all-time favorite Michael Caine performances and films. Many thanks.

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