(SPOILERS) Inspiration to a generation of pretenders, the likes of the Ritchies and Vaughns. It’s curious to see Get Carter’s Wiki-page suggesting its reappraisal as a classic was down to the likes of of these two and Tarantino, as I recall it being held in esteem before that. I think the real distinction comes in the shift in its reception; before their input, it was regarded as respectable but nasty, and the latter took the most emphasis. After the revellers in nu-gangster violence were through, Get Carter became nasty but cool, the latter taking the most emphasis.
And there is a coolness here, in the stark, grim Newcastle location and the haunting twilight jazz psychedelia of Roy Budd’s (actually very sparsely used, but the soundtrack album is a must) maximum harpsichord score. And Caine, with his 70s overgrowth of hair and three-piece suits, strutting through the milieu and paying deference to anyone. Mostly, the coolness is in Caine’s Carter, unapologetic and unswerving in his mission.
It’s dangerous to use the word authentic in reference to movies – Caine recites how an underworld associate suggested the film was “a load of crap” because Carter had no family, emphasising a life of worrying about the kids’ chicken pox – but Carter’s iconography isn’t based in the movie-referencing gangsterism and self-conscious stylistic and soundtrack choices of the generation it influenced. It’s pared ruthlessness gives it its stark power, and anything stylish is dampened by a seedy, sleazy, claustrophobic gloom (and sense of doom). Hodges and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky favour long lenses and an unflattering, documentary look. There’s no sense of indulgence, rather one of unremitting bleakness, no matter how pockmarked it is with moments of humour (and it’s a very, very droll film, not least in Ian Hendry’s Eric Paice, reciting the mantra “Not lost your sense of humour, Jack” whenever they cross paths).
Alex Cox’s first comment in his introduction was “Get Carter is a nasty British gangster film”. Caine suggests they were previously all “stupid, silly or funny”. Forgetting Brighton Rock, evidently (Cox doesn’t). Cox also gets to the nub of the lead character, noting Caine is “really good as the fastidious brute… He’s an evil man; the only difference between him and his adversaries is that they are not as self-righteous as he”. Or as charismatic: we need Hodges there, not pulling his punches and letting Carter survive, as Carter’s victorious grin on putting paid to Eric is infectious. Pauline Kael recognised this, praising/squirming at its “sadism-for-the-connoisseur formula” and suggesting it was “so calculatedly cool and soulless and nastily erotic that it seems to belong to a new genre of virtuoso viciousness”.
Certainly, the picture’s rise in reputation has seen it become one of the quotable Caine roles – a crime that such a fate isn’t reserved for The Man Who Would Be King. With lines like “You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape” and "You know, I’d almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Like pissholes in the snow”, and his request for a pint “... in a thin glass”, it effortlessly joins the ranks of The Italian Job.
The escalation of violence, when it comes, following Carter just doing the rounds, is particularly striking. He repeatedly knifes a pleading Albert Swift (Glynn Edwards of Minder fame) with a ferociously snarling “I know you didn’t kill him! I know!”. Then there’s his shooting of Peter the Dutchman (Tony "Harrison Chase/ Camp Freddy" Beckley) and the darkly humorous moment of looking impassively on as Glenda’s car is forced into the harbour; Glenda (Geraldine Moffat) is locked in the boot. And throwing Cliff Brumbly (Bryan Mosley) off a multi-storey carpark. Followed by giving Margaret (Dorothy White) an overdose and placing her body on Kinnear’s (John Osborne) estate. All as a prelude to killing Eric, and then being dispatched himself.
Carter has been compared to a Jacobean revenge tragedy., which structurally it is, but it would be misleading to lend it the characteristic of a tragedy. There’s no introspection on Carter’s part. He’s more like a machine, betraying no humanity or feeling (never have his heavy-lidded eyes been used to more serpentine effect), except in that brief moment where he sees the porn film (the moment is unreadable in a more expansive sense, given what we have just heard about his possibly being the father of Doreen (Petra Markham), and all that tells us about his relationship with brother Frank).
There isn’t a bum note in the supporting cast – even Britt Ekland is shrewdly utilised (featuring in an amusingly twisted phone sex scene, where much of the focus is on eavesdropping landlady Rosemarie Dunham in her rocking chair). Ian Hendry, a long way from his peak fame The Avengers role and suffering from declining health and alcoholism, has been noted as antagonistic towards Caine’s upward streak – he was Hodges original choice for the lead – but his sour sarcasm serves the part perfectly (“What are you doing? Advertising Martini?” mocks Carter of Eric’s chauffeur outfit). It rightly garnered the actor a BAFTA supporting actor nomination.
Osborne is similarly superb casting, exuding, as Caine noted, “the calmness of the truly powerful”. Mosley is in the kind of part you could imagine played by Peter Kay today, in over his head with actual hardmen and shown having to deal with the kind of domestic hassles Caine’s aforementioned critic harped on about (shutting down his daughter’s party and complaining about an attendee “Spewing all over my bloody goldfish”). There are further fine turns from George Sewell, Beckley, Bernard Hepton (as oozing coward Thorpey) and Alun Armstrong (“Frank said you were a shit and he was bloody well right!”) Terence Rigby and John Bindon are in the first scene as Kray types, and Bindon of course had his own very public crime world links.
Hodges, making his first film (it is, sadly, one of those examples of his first being by far his best) adapted Ted Lewis’ 1970 novel Jack’s Return Home. He brings the discerning eye of someone who has worked in documentaries (World in Action), but also considerable creativity to bear. The further he moved from the down-to-earth, the less effective his work became (Morons from Outer Space, the much-loved but not all it might have been Flash Gordon). I don’t know how much I buy the entirely upright police aspect, whereby Carter’s plan entails their being in no one’s pocket (the Vice Squad, at any rate). Some report that the Blu-ray release has the redubbed opening dialogue (for the US release) corrected, but my copy isn’t (fortunately, I kept hold of my DVD). For anyone seeing that version, though, it isn’t as awful as is made out, just clumsy. Nothing about the rest of the film could be labelled as such. Get Carter is the peak of its genre.