The English magazine Total Cinema called ‘Get Carter’ the ‘#1 British movie of all time.’
You probably haven’t seen it.
Several reasons for that. It was released in 1971, when you were unborn or otherwise engaged. The American distributor thought so little of this future classic that it released ‘Get Carter’ on a double-feature with ‘Dirty Dingus Magee,’ a forgettable Frank Sinatra vehicle. Oh, you might remember there was a remake of this film in 2000 — with Sylvester Stallone — but if you missed it, count yourself among the lucky.
I finally caught up with ‘Get Carter’ not long ago, and spent 111 minutes like that guy in the commercial for a super sound system: knocked back in my chair, the violence on the screen like a blow-dryer to my hair. Oh, yeah, and with my mouth slack.
Michael Caine, the young charmer in ‘Alfie’? Not present here. This time out, Caine is Jack Carter, a gangster from the North of England who has become successful enough to make it with an outfit in London. Then his brother — apparently a pleasant, un-connected Northern lad — is found dead. The police find nothing curious. Carter suspects otherwise. And so he heads to the bleak North to visit…well, let’s call them “old friends.”
The story is told in the manner of all great films — through the camera. Once in gray, grubby Newcastle, Carter goes to a house and collects a shotgun with two sets of initials on it: his and his brother’s. There’s a coffin in the next room. Carter covers the face. Ah, the dead brother. A Land Rover idles outside. Someone’s watching.
This is crisp, efficient storytelling. It bypasses charm — as, for that matter, does Carter’s method of investigation. No one has spent a second making his character ‘sympathetic’ or even ‘understandable.’ He’s a man on a mission, a machine. [To buy the DVD or rent/stream the video from Amazon, click here]
ERIC: So, what’re you doing then? On your holidays?
ERIC: Oh, that’s nice.
JACK CARTER: It would be… if they were still living.
He pushes his way into a local gangster’s house, where the boss and some of his crew are playing cards. Harry, the boss, isn’t happy to see Carter.
HARRY: Thought you were going soon.
JACK CARTER: Soon. When you’ve lost your money. Won’t take long.
HARRY: Clever sod, aren’t you?
JACK CARTER: Only comparatively.
Are you getting the idea that Jack Carter would rather kick ass than talk about it? Good, because once Carter gets on the trail of the guilty, dialogue becomes scarce — he’s on a killing spree, without much concern for the innocent who get busted up along the way. He sleeps with a hood’s girlfriend, stuffs her in the trunk of a sports car, and then watches impassively as some tough guys push it off a dock. He kills one guy with a knife to the heart. Another flies off a building. And so on, until four or five people are dead.
Sex? Crude and graphic, and way beyond what was being shown in films of the early 1970s. Carter shags his landlady, an older woman of no great beauty. Does a few rounds with a looker. And has a pleasant session of phone sex with Britt Ekland, who has to pretend she’s doing ‘exercises’ and chatting with a girlfriend when her husband walks in.
I won’t spoil the ending, which hits like a right to the jaw, except to say that reviewers and the studio loathed it. Indeed, most of the kind words for the film upon its release were for the soundtrack. Nearly everyone seemed to miss that Michael Caine had given what is probably the performance of his career, or that Mike Hodges was one gutsy director. (Hodges finally got some good press a few years ago, for ‘Croupier,’ another chilly English film about the underside of respectability.)
Somewhere out there are filmlovers who believe — in part because of his looks, in part because critics write such swill — that Jude Law is the new Michael Caine. Dream on! Caine is in a league of his own, and ‘Get Carter’ is the proof. Put simply: The Caine of ‘Get Carter’ would sneer at a lad as pretty as Law. And then, because Law is occupying valuable space, Caine would turn him into a gorgeous corpse.
You want warm and fuzzy, ‘Get Carter’ is not for you. You like brilliant, pull up a chair.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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Photo credit: IMDb