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Get Carter (1971)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

GET CARTER (1971)

Starring: Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland, John Osborne, George Sewell, Geraldine Moffat, Tony Beckley

Written By: Mike Hodges, Ted Lewis (novel) Directed By: Mike Hodges

The Short Version

A London mobster in Newcastle gets set atop the rogue cop blueprint with powerful results.

Prepare for Michael Caine as you’re probably not expecting to see him.

If Get Carter was any grittier, they’d have needed to film it on sandpaper.

This is undoubtedly one of the best revenge movies ever made.

If you like hard-edged stuff in an underworld setting, Get Carter is a must.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

DOUBLE GLOUCESTER.

Yeah, I know: wrong part of England.  But it’s flavorful and hard and complex, and that fits.


Pairs Well With...

NEWCASTLE BROWN ALE.

Explanation #1: Duh.

Explanation #2: I could have said Scotch, since the people in Get Carter certainly drink enough, but once you actually see the movie, you’ll understand why I decided not to. 

“You even screwed his wife, didn’t you?  The poor bastard didn’t even know if the kid was his!”


You know that unstoppable badass of doom just about every person on Earth swears he or she will turn into if anyone dares to mess with a member of his or her family?

That’s Michael Caine’s character in Get Carter.  Only unlike most of us, he’s not full of shit.  He makes good on his promise, and he does so in harsh, gritty fashion.  Don’t let that make you think he’s some kind of hero or something, though, because Jack Carter is anything but.  In a city full of nasty bastards, he just happens to be the angriest.

Our story starts in London, where a group of mobsters are gathered around a slide projector enjoying some porn.  (Did you notice the date up top?  Different world now from 1971, isn’t it?)  In between comments about otherwise naked people keeping their socks on, the boss is trying to dissuade one of his soldiers, Jack Carter (Michael Caine, Batman Begins), from going up to Newcastle to attend his brother’s funeral.  Things are tense between the Newcastle and London mobs, see, and it wouldn’t do to make waves by having a Londoner suddenly showing his face up north, even if it is a family matter.

But Carter doesn’t give a damn what the boss thinks.  He’s getting on that train to Newcastle, and it’s not just so he can be there to send a pine box down to the crematorium.  Despite the official word that Jack’s brother died in a drunk driving accident, Carter thinks he was murdered, and he’s not leaving Newcastle until he finds out what really happened and who’s responsible.  After that, of course, there’s the matter of settling accounts, and maybe taking down the whole damn syndicate, while he’s at it…

You can scream about vengeance, or you can shut up, grit your teeth, and get down to business.  Just don’t expect everything to be right with the world when it’s all over, because revenge doesn’t work that way.  Of course, modern filmmakers – especially American ones – don’t seem to like that idea much (and if you need proof, there’s a certain watered-down remake you can look at later on), which is why you have to cross The Pond and go back forty-plus-one years to find the nasty gem that is Get Carter.

This isn’t you standard slam-bang explosion show about a really decent guy who got pushed too far; far from it.  Instead, Get Carter starts off slowly, taking the time to set the stage for the audience, allowing them to not only get a clear understanding of Jack Carter, but also of the world he lives in.  Much like English director Peter Yates used his cameras to paint a ground level picture of San Francisco and its denizens in Bullitt, so does first-timer Mike Hodges do everything possible to not simply establish Newcastle as a location, but to really get the members of the audience into every scene almost to the point of being background participants.  When characters are drinking in a pub or at a card game, the background conversations often drown out what the main characters are saying, but it’s not a distraction; it’s scene setting, and it’s realism.  Hodges wants the audience to see every little detail of every room, because those places in part define the people who occupy them.  (Even if it’s definition by opposition; have a look at the plaque above the bed in Carter’s rented room.)  It’s something most modern filmmakers (and, alas, many audiences) just don’t have the patience for, but if you give the approach a chance, you’ll find that it really enriches the story.

The “slow boil” approach of setting the scene and establishing all of the players before things get heavy pays real dividends when the time comes for violence.  This is because the violence comes across as meaner, nastier, and grittier once you understand all of the forces that drive it, which means that a sudden knife to the gut without so much as a kung fu lead-in carries a lot more resonance than the average flick’s oversized explosions ever will.  Indeed, it can be argued that the most powerful kill in the entire movie involves someone whose body you can’t see, even though you know you’re watching someone die, and whose actual killer has no idea that he’s killing her.  He just shoves an object (which the viewer will almost certainly have forgotten about until seeing it again at that moment) into the river for a laugh, while the man who actually does know what just happened watches without remorse.  Trust me; it’s wince-worthy when you see it.

And the more attention you pay to all of the little details, the grittier it gets.  At first, Get Carter is all about Mr. Jack Carter suspecting that his brother was murdered, being proven right, and getting his revenge.  Of course, roughly two-thirds of the way in, the audience learns that Mr. Carter has an even more powerful reason to get his revenge… but I suspect that the real motive is even stronger than what’s offered out in the open.  I can’t say more without giving away the store… let’s just say that I’ve already passed along a hint about my suspicions.

One thing about Get Carter that is crystal clear, however, is the fact that there are absolutely no heroes in this movie, especially the guy who is made our hero by default.  Jack Carter even describes himself as a villain, and really, the word’s not strong enough.  He’s a murderer by trade, a brute by nature, and an asshole by choice.  He’s screwing around with the boss’s wife – that would be the mob boss’s wife, mind you – and has phone sex with her while he’s sitting directly in front of the rooming house landlady, whom he shags in person the following evening.  (The phone sex scene, by the way, is just all kinds of creepy to watch, especially if your image of Michael Caine is the nice, grandfatherly chap of several decades on.)  He’s a sociopath who pops pills constantly and who doesn’t think twice about using people he calls friends as fist fodder for others; when one gets beaten up for helping him, Carter’s reply is to toss him a few pounds and tell him to take karate lessons.  If your last name isn’t “Carter,” he just doesn’t give a shit about you, and even then, it sounds like he wasn’t all that kind to the brother he showed up to avenge, either.  So no; our “hero” is not a nice man.  Jack Carter is not the “killer with a heart of gold” that modern Hollywood would prefer to wrap its head around; he’s just a killer.  A mean, nasty killer.

And that’s what makes Get Carter so good.

With this kind of framework, you want Jack Carter to be a cop, or a private detective, or at least someone decent, and really, it wouldn’t be all that hard to make the necessary adjustments for any of those things.  But this film won’t compromise.  Even if its hero is a hypocrite, Get Carter has integrity, and doesn’t give in to anyone’s standard expectations, even in the final frames.  It’s unpleasant, it doesn’t move quickly, and the ending is anything but satisfying.

Just like revenge.

And that’s why, even though it’s not perfect by any means, Get Carter stands as one of the best revenge films ever made.

Bottom line, if you’re at all into gangster movies or revenge flicks, Get Carter is very much worth your time and attention.  Throw in one of the most intriguing performances of Michael Caine’s career, and you end up with what I’d call a must see movie.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2012


More From The Bar! | The Mechanic (1972) | Magnum Force | Out for Justice |



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