After launching his career with star turns in Alfie, The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, Michael Caine wanted to play a bad guy. In writer/director Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, he got to play one of the baddest.
A bleak, angry underworld story of brotherly love, vengeance and betrayal, Get Carter opened to mixed reviews and a lukewarm box office. But like a good wine, it has improved with age.
In 1971, one British reviewer called it a “revolting, bestial horribly violent piece of cinema.” Another likened it to “a bottle of neat gin swallowed before breakfast.” (In a country where a typical breakfast consists of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, fried bread, mushrooms and baked beans, a little gin might not be a bad idea. But we digress.)
Nearly 30 years after its release, the British Film Institute listed Get Carter at No. 16 on its list of the Top 100 British films of all time. And in 2004, film critics in a survey conducted by Total Film magazine chose it as the greatest British film ever.
We rate it somewhere in between those two extremes and give it extra credit for creating a genre that has become part of the British cinematic canon. Films like The Long Good Friday, The Krays and Sexy Beast owe a nod to what Caine and Hodges created.
Caine plays Jack Carter, a hit man totally in control of his passions. But at the same time, Carter conveys that those passions—anger, lust, pride and envy—are constantly simmering just beneath his surface. Part of the fun in watching the film is waiting for Carter to act on those feelings.
He doesn’t disappoint.
Carter is a mercenary whose loyalty to his London crime boss Gerald Fletcher (Terence Rigby) is questionable at best. His decision to head north to Newcastle to look into the circumstances surrounding the death of his brother Frank, despite Fletcher’s suggestion that it wouldn’t be a good idea, is the first indication that Carter is his own man.
A few scenes later, when Carter engages in phone sex from Newcastle with Fletcher’s wife, Anna (Britt Ekland), there is no longer any doubt.
Carter’s quest to find out how and why his brother died is the driving force behind all the action. He’s told that Frank was drunk, lost control and drove his car into the river—an explanation that he rejects.
Finding out what really happened puts him in conflict with local mob boss Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne), former associate Eric Paice (Ian Hendry) and shady businessman Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley). Brumby tries to manipulate the London hit man. Paice tries to match wits with him. And Kinnear tries to kill him.
All three men come to bad ends.
Along the way, Carter gets to reconnect with Doreen (Petra Markham), his niece who may actually be his daughter. And he ends up in bed—at different times—with both a boarding house landlady, Edna (Rosemarie Dunham), and Glenda (Geraldine Moffat), a mob moll and part-time porn actress.
In one scene that captures his multifaceted persona, Carter emerges naked from bed with the landlady to confront two mobsters sent up from London to end his adventure in Newcastle.
Waving a shotgun and totally in the buff, Carter orders the mobsters out of the boarding house.
“Put that away, you know you won’t use it,” says one of the gangsters as he retreats.
“The gun, he means,” adds the other.
Long hair, thick sideburns and shiny miniskirts establish the movie as a period piece. So do the frequent and clearly dated references to pornography. In the opening scene, Carter and his London mob friends are watching a pornographic slide show—black-and-white pictures popping up one after the other on a living room wall. Later, in Glenda’s apartment, he watches a grainy porno movie from an eight-millimeter film reel she has set up in her bedroom. (Today, it’s all in color and, thanks to the Internet, available to almost anyone with a computer.)
Carter gives up bits and pieces about himself as he interacts with his brother’s old friends and associates. But his most telling line comes after his brother Frank’s prostitute girlfriend, Margaret (Dorothy White), makes a disparaging remark about her late boyfriend.
“Frank wasn’t like that,” he says. “I’m the villain in the family.”
The porno movie ends up being an important plot device. It helps Carter understand who killed his brother and why. Once he’s certain, it’s simply a matter of tracking them down and sending them on their way. Employing cold, calculating but controlled fury—along with a gun, a knife and a hypodermic needle loaded with enough heroin to snuff out one of his targets—Carter becomes a one-man hit machine.
Totally focused and completely amoral, he is never in doubt about what he will do and remains unfazed as he goes about doing it.
HIT: The pub scenes in the film are perfect. Anyone who has spent time in England can practically smell the dank, smoky and boozy atmosphere that the settings expertly convey.
MISS: Carter is a tough guy. We get that. But there are just too many scenes in which he puts himself at risk and other tough guys pass on the chance to take him out.
PIVOTAL SCENE: After Carter beds Glenda, he watches a porno movie in her apartment. The movie, Teacher’s Pet, shows a young girl being seduced. The girl is his niece Doreen, Frank’s daughter. Carter then surmises that his brother was killed because he found out about the film and went after those who had forced his daughter into it.
BEST LINE: When Carter confronts Paice at a racetrack, his old acquaintance asks what brings him back to town. Carter says he’s visiting relatives. Paice says that’s nice, to which Carter replies coldly, “It would be . . . if they were still alive.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “There is nobody to root for but the smoothly dressed sexual athlete and professional killer (Michael Caine) in this English gangland picture, which is so calculatedly cool and soulless and nastily erotic that it seems to belong to a new genre of virtuoso viciousness.”—Pauline Kael, New Yorker
GOOF: During a foot chase leading up to his murder, Paice loses a shoe in the mud along the waterfront. In the next shot, with Carter in hot pursuit, he has both shoes on.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: When Carter is riding in the train from London to Newcastle at the start of the film, he is reading Farewell, My Lovely, the Raymond Chandler novel that became one of the best film noir movies of all time.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: There were two remakes of Get Carter, neither very good. Sylvester Stallone starred in the 2000 version, set in America, with Michael Caine making a cameo appearance. A less-than-memorable 1972 movie, Hit Man starring Bernie Casey and Pam Grier, also retold the story, only this time within the blaxploitation genre.
CASTING CALL: Director Mike Hodges originally wanted Ian Hendry for the role of Carter, then decided on Caine. Hendry, who played Paice instead, was never happy with the switch. The tension between the two characters in the film reflects the friction between the two actors on the set.
BODY COUNT: Seven. Eight if you count the murder of Frank Carter, which happens before the movie begins but is the driving force behind all the action.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”