4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Still relevant today and as fresh as ever. Welcome to Hell, conveniently located in Newcastle.
Make no mistake, Get Carter is a descent into the grimy underbelly of our so-called civilization. Of all the great gritty artistic breakthroughs that happened in British cinema during the early 1970’s (and several in 1971), Carter is still felt to this day. In fact, most crime and gangster films that have followed owe some sort of debt to Get Carter. Through simple location shooting and great light handed camera work, fist time feature director Mike Hodges plunges us into Jack’s Return Home.
This begins with the opening shot of Carter standing in front of a window in his London boss’s flat/private porno viewing room. “Must be a bloody contortionist.” We enter this dark and grimy world from the moment the film begins, and are instantly thrown off kilter as to just what is going on. The plot, on the whole, is extremely simple. Jack Carter is a top London enforcer for a crime boss, and his brother has recently been killed in Newcastle. Despite warnings to not poke his nose into it, Carter takes the train up to his former hometown to find out who did it.
“The police seem satisfied.”
-“Since when was that good enough?”
The title sequence is both ridiculously simple and mundane, yet perfectly epitomizes the entire film in one short segment. Carter takes the train on the grating journey up to dreary Newcastle. This seems almost boring, but scored to Roy Budd’s unforgettable title theme, we are immediately hit by a wave of a burned out cold playfulness that defines the character of Carter. As the train whisks through a series of tunnels, we are sucked into the wake of Jack’s pursuit and never leave this until the end credits.
There is a reason why our “hero” is shown reading Raymond Chandler’s second novel, Farewell My Lovely. It is not only a winking nudge from Hodges, but for those who know hard boiled fiction instantly recognizable as perhaps Chandler’s most angry and bitter tale of another unyielding pursuit of truth. Carter arrives in town, and is immediately sized up by clientele in the local pub. “A pint of bitter [snaps fingers as barman walks away] in a thin glass.” This man is not to be trifled with.
Quickly and with assurance, Carter makes his way through the crime hierarchy of Newcastle. He makes acquaintances both new and old with dangerous men, and pisses all of them off equally. “You know, I’d almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow.” He is not truly a vengeful man, but we get the sense that his brother’s death has stirred something deep within him that has remained dormant under all the death for many years. This man is not to be trifled with.
The scope of his one-man assault on the underworld establishment is incredible, just as his bored phone call winds up in phone sex with Britt Ekland (the first in cinema that I’m aware of) while the landlady begins rocking in earnest in a rocking chair in the foreground! The film is riddled with this incredibly black humor that makes some of the more grisly elements bearable. I simply love this movie. Caine’s unblinking gaze is glorious in this scene.
In perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film, Carter is played by Michael Caine who at that time was fresh off a string of roles playing military heroes and a certain Mr. Croker. The original novel featured a brutal protagonist, and with the casting of Caine it is inconceivable that the film’s portrayal would be anything like the book. How wrong can we be? In yet another shining example of his status as a master actor, Caine makes Carter inconceivably cold and then injects this persona with a sort of cheeky humor that makes this terrible human being almost lovable! He corrupts, kills, tortures, screws, lies, insults, drinks, smokes, buys off anything else, and occasionally even feels an emotion.
The film is constructed in a way in all aspects of production, as to constantly keep the audience involved, whether consciously or subconsciously, so that we remain as on the move as Jack Carter. Our suspicions are his, just as our confusion must certainly be his. And to add even another level to this already incredible experience, Hodges makes some subtle points and movements so that on each successive viewing more onion-like layers are peeled back to reveal an even more twisted and stinking rotted humanity.
I’ve always raved about the incredible realism of Friedkin’s The French Connection (also 1971), but Get Carter is a different kind of animal-cool and laser focused without ever seeming to be. It simply exists, and lives on in our consciousness just as the tide never ceases to come in. With a documentary like realism and a devotion to improvisation for vibrancy, Carter is just a fresh 41 years on, and Michael Caine is the badass of cinema.
“You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job.”
EDITIONS: One lone DVD release, thank god uncut and anamorphic 1.85. It’s a very early WB title, of course in the much admired (kidding) snapper case. The image is very grainy, as is the film, but this gets picked up usually as digital noise. Print defects are occasional, with one scene having repeated large defects. The left and right edges of the frame have rainbow lines running the length of the frame for the entire film, and demonstrates a complete lack of quality control. Audio is correctly placed in a lossy Dolby Digital 1.0 track, but does seem a bit low at times, especially on normal equipment. Surprisingly for a disc of this age there is the trailer, a music trailer, Director/Cinematographer/Actor commentary and isolated music score. The DVD is also sold a s a part of Warner’s Archive manufactured on demand series, with the exact same disc being sold at the exact same overpriced point. There has been news of a UK Blu-ray coming down the pipeline sometime this year, and by god I hope they do as it will wash up on US shores at some point. The 35mm print I was lucky enough to see two years ago was stunning. Picture and sound were incredibly good, and the DVD comes off a a poor representation of what the film can be like.