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Non-Review Review: Get Carter

Get Carter still makes a very unsettling viewing experience, one that feels no more comfortable for the fact that it has been forty years since the film was originally released. The fact that the film’s grim and perverted vision of modern Britain has been imitated countless times doesn’t diminish its impact. On one level, Get Carter is a very British exploitation film, but it’s also a fairly powerful look at the urban underworld festering in surroundings far too familiar.

All washed up?

The settings of Mike Hodges’ classic British thriller aren’t strange or alien in any way. They aren’t glamorous nightspots, or luxury penthouse apartments, or even strange cabins in the woods. For the most part, Get Carter takes place in the thick urban sprawl of Newcastle, in semi-detached houses, on the public ferry service, in run-down betting shops and in half-complete car parks. You might almost believe that there wasn’t a single set used in the production, it just feels that organic and that real.

These are the types of places that anybody familiar with a major British city would know inside out. They aren’t a world away from what people encounter every day, and we even see Jack Carter staying in a small British boarding house on a small British street, with regular British neighbours – he drives through lines of washing put out to dry to get away from two goons, he stalks his prey in a bingo hall, and the grand finalé takes place in what seems like an old British quarry.

Hanging him out to dry...

The only real indication of the sinister underworld that Carter is unearthing with in the signs of urban decay around the place. There’s an abundance of graffiti to be seen scrawled on walls, and none of the facilities in use seem like they’ve had maintenance work done of late. It’s a very grey world, with very drab surroundings. It seems the very best that anybody Jack Carter encounters can hope for is to work at Woolsworth. There’s a darkness lurking at the very edge of the frame, one stalking Carter on his train journey from London to Newcastle to discover who murdered his brother – and why.

Carter inhabits a world of vice and prostitution. As played by Michael Caine, it’s  remarkable how brilliantly unsympathetic Carter is as a lead. He concedes that he was hardly a good brother, and there’s a host of evidence to support it. In fact, he’s an active part of the very underground culture that he’s seeking to expose – introduced at a meeting of pornographers in London and popping pills like nobody’s business. Carter is charming and witty, but he’s not a nice man. He’s certainly pillar of moral virtue. In fact, it’s only when the pornography ring strikes close to home that Carter sees fit to really take it on. There are any number of actions Carter takes over the course of the film that prove he’s a villain, up to and including cold-blooded murder – he’s literally only a sympathetic character because his brother is dead.

Riding shotgun...

Of course, it’s hard to find any completely innocent characters in the film, save perhaps Carter’s “niece.” Everybody seems to have an angle to play, and some seem quite ready to treat Carter as a pawn in their own grand schemes. Hodges’ film is unrelentingly bleak, populated with characters who never seem particularly likable, and who are all trapped in a world of darkness and vice that overlaps disturbingly easily with the one that surrounds us every day. It’s that darkness in plain sight that makes Get Carter so compelling and fascinating, it’s raw and it’s edgy, in a way that most modern films would struggle to be.

Hodges’ confident direction certainly helps, with any number of iconic shots captured perfectly – from Michael Caine holding nothing but a shotgun to the wonderful final chase sequence. Hodges’s script, adapting the novel Jack Returns Home by Ted Lewis, is packed to the brim with any number of witty one-liners. My better half has personally vowed to work “you couldn’t win an egg-and-spoon race!”into her daily lexicon. It’s just a very, very well-made film. Even the opening credits, appearing over Carter’s train journey North, are wonderful.

View from the top...

Of course, you can’t discuss the film without considering Michael Caine. I think this really is the quintessential Michael Caine performance – Alfie is really perhaps the only other contender for that title. It’s the one that gives us the no-nonsense persona that many of us would come to associate with the actor, but it’s also an incredibly deep and nuanced performance. Witness the character’s elation when his task is finally finished, or his shifting reaction to watching a seemingly innocuous blue movie he finds in a lady friend’s bedroom. Those are great moments, among many in the film, effortlessly carried by Caine, adding nuance to an iconic performance.

Get Carter is a dark little film, but it’s a powerful one. There’s no denying the massive influence it had on British cinema, and that’s if you’re being skimpy with your credit. It spawned an entire subgenre of these gritty urban revenge films, exploring a decaying British culture. However, the original’s staying power is perhaps best judged by the fact that – despite forty years of imitators and homages – it’s still the very best of its kind.

2 Responses

  1. Oh, hell yes! This remains one of the great films of the 70s. Great article on this one. In case you’re interested, I wrote a celebratory post on its anniversary release date in the U.S. at a friend’s blog here and took a look at its superb movie titles sequence on my site. Great read for a truly classic film. Thanks, Darren.

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