Get Carter/Review

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Sometimes the perfect movie for a damp clammy evening is one that's bitter, bleak and gritty. None are better than this gem from 1971 that features perhaps Michael Caine's best performance ever, as a professional killer who believes in only one law of the jungle: revenge. My kind of people!

Get Carter was an obvious influence on several later British films such as The Long Good Friday, The Krays and Mona Lisa--Films that unflinchingly focused on character above all else.

You can see Carter's influence on recent films such as Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Limey and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, with their simple revenge driven motifs. Those films however added gimmicks and tricks to the mix. Get Carter trusts its material and it's actors and stays disturbingly quiet, and deceptively simple-though internally quite complex. It's a bit of a stretch but there are influences in Taxi Driver as well.

Get Carter remains a very English (as in British) film though its influence is John Boorman's 1967 classic Point Blank. In fact at the time of its release several critics called Get Carter a British Point Blank. Point Blank however had a very discernible style as it somewhat re-invented and updated noir. And while Point Blank feels American, Get Carter is a thoroughly British film which would not translate well to an American setting (and I can imagine what a waste of time the poorly received Stallone remake of the film truly is).

Michael Caine as the gangster Carter will probably remind many of a darker, more cynical and somewhat more mature Alfie (the cheeky Casanova from the 1966 film that made Caine an international star). He's an over-confident, immoral, womanizing hit man who'll snap his fingers and demand a pint of bitter in a thin glass and then later have phone sex, while being observed with his married mistress, Britt Eckland (a cutting edge scene in '71).

Some of the events in the film are inspired by real life events, but few Americans have ever heard of them (they concern British gangsters). The film opens with Carter (Caine) at a get-together of mostly men who are watching pornographic film loops. We immediately see a determined intensity. spare dialogue informs us Carter's brother has been killed in the working class town of Newcastle. Caine doesn't believe his brother committed suicide and he's decided to investigate, in spite of being advised against doing so.

The film slowly reveals details to us as Carter returns to the town he spent part of a rough youth in. The gang he works for in London is known and respected in Newcastle, but the gangsters in Newcastle are anxious to help Carter leave town as soon as possible. They don't want him sniffing around. Carter finds a room in a boarding house run by a lonely woman just past her prime. We realize Carter cares about his now fatherless niece. He feels it's his responsibility not to interfere in her life but to be sure she is safe and cared for. Perhaps there's another reason for his caring. He also quickly realizes his hunch was right and his brother was indeed murdered­brutally. Finding out why, and making sure he personally gets revenge on the perpetrator becomes his only purpose, his only focus.


The film is purposely stripped of any visual poetry and shows us a drab, Newcastle. There are seedy pubs, run down row houses, sloppy construction projects and polluted beaches. There are no classic German or American Noir shots of shadows and light, fog or atmosphere. Director Hodges is being stylish by carefully avoiding a sense of style, observing methodically, like footage shot for some unimaginative city planning board study. It creates an underlining feeling of despair and takes us to places almost absent of any charm, whose only character is one of slow rot. Of course this makes a good analogy to what Carter is internally. He's crossed over all ethical and moral lines in his life too many times to remain untouched. And he can't ignore what he's become when it's caused his brother to be brutally murdered.

We see him trying to hold onto some sort of idea of romance (he reads Chandler's Farewell My Lovely) on the train. He at least briefly satisfies some women sexually. He adheres somewhat to a criminal's code of ethics. He's trustworthy up to a point, and he's not interested in hurting people who don't deserve to be hurt­unless they get in the way.

The prettiest lady in town is the head gangster's moll and eventually she assists Carter and of course they sleep together. Carter sleeps with almost anyone he feels like, but it means almost nothing, he's barely alive inside. He's made his living as a cool calculated hit man. He's cut himself off from real feelings and so part of him lives in some lonely place within himself (like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle). He's also full of guilt which he can no longer avoid and must now deal with. He lets it help fuel his purpose even if it ultimately makes him reckless and so single minded on his goal of revenge that he ignores the danger he's put himself in.

At times Get Carter is a brutal film. There are sudden explosions of violence in the film which are ugly as violence truly is. When we realize there is a bit of good in Carter, it means we also realize he's made choices which have doomed him to this life. As the film progresses we realize that several choices he's made have created an inner-turmoil and horror Carter barely lets us see.

It's a bleak, unromanticized film of thugs, gangsters, and the working poor. The humor comes from the desperate bitterness of the characters we meet. Characters played to perfection by Ian Hendry, Bernard Hepton and John Osborne (who wrote the play Look Back in Anger).

Caine, is superb. He refuses to remind us he's acting and wears his role effortlessly. He never forces a line or a look or tries for audience sympathy or understanding. Anyone who relishes great performances will find this one among the best on film. So even if you have seen too many gangster films, and even if the prospect of seeing a rather bleak one doesn't interest you all that much, perhaps the fact it contains Caine's best performance will convince you to watch Hodges' 1971, Get Carter soon.

NOTE OF INTEREST: Mike Hodges directed another gem called Croupier, a 1998 film that was barely released to U.S. theaters in 2001 and discovered by many on VHS and DVD.

Reviewed by Count Graf Orlock

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