Wonderful things, weekends – you have time to yourself, time to devote to paying due respect to what is simply the finest gangster film ever made. Take it away, Jack…
Mike Hodges’ seminal, Chandleresque study of society’s sickening criminal underbelly, Get Carter (1971) has endured not only as a sublime account of its time’s crimes, a marvellously grimy tale of just how far a well-dressed heavy will go to get even and a stark warning about not messing with family, but also, in much the same way as Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1987), as a treasure trove of supremely quotable quotes that sum up the film’s mood and mores impeccably.
Carter, an immaculately tailored hit-man for the London mob, has decided, against his bosses Gerald (Terence Rigby) and Sid (John Bindon) Fletcher’s wishes, to travel north to Newcastle, to investigate the death of his brother Frank who was killed in a mysterious car ‘accident’.
Sid Fletcher: The police seem satisfied.
Carter: Since when was that good enough?
Upon arrival in ‘the Toon’, Carter is immediately angry and suspicious when he finds that Frank’s former girlfriend, the prostitute/’tart with a part’ Margaret (Dorothy White) has stood him up, and also left his brother’s body alone in Frank’s grotty house.
Carter: [Answering phone in pub] Margaret? Why the hell aren’t you here?…Who’s with him then?
Seeking out his old school friend Albert Swift (Glynn Edwards) at the races who, unseen by Carter, mysteriously flees when he sees Jack approach, our man instead bumps into another old acquaintance, Eric Pace (Ian Hendry). While seemingly now following a respectable ‘career’ as a chauffeur, Pace is nevertheless also a killer for local crime lord Cyril Kinnear (a simply brilliant, grinning, John Osbourne – yes, the playwright).
Carter:[To Eric] You know, I’d almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. They’re still the same – pissholes in the snow.
Warned of the perils of being nosy by Eric, Carter nevertheless digs deeper and deeper into Newcastle’s underworld of under-age pornography and drugs and, when he discovers exactly how and why Frank died, turns avenger – one that is very far from angelic.
This could so easily have been just another dated crime saga, but Hodges’ direction and script (adapted from the Ted Lewis novel Jack’s Return Home) combined with Caine’s simply huge screen presence from the very first frame (it’s curtains for Carter but, of course, we don’t know that yet) and consumate performances from the entire cast (including a sizzling Britt Ekland as Anna, Carter’s boss’s ‘bird’ who does a bit of ‘long-distance sexy’ with Jack), ensured the film’s elevation to all-time classic status.
Carter: [To Cliff Brumby] You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape – with me, it’s a full time job. Now behave yourself.
It is also chillingly violent – rarely has the horror of calculated murder and depravity been so accurately portrayed on screen and, while Caine’s sympathy for and protection of his brother’s now-orphaned daughter Doreen (Petra Markham) gives a hint that he may still have a heart beating (but, then again, Jack may in fact be her father) his cold-blooded mission of revenge is only ever going to end one way. You root for him, because he’s one man against the mob, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth – the death of one of Jack’s other ‘conquests’, gangster’s moll Glenda (the very sexy Geraldine Moffatt), his revenge on Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosely), whom he casually throws off the top floor of a multi-storey car park, and Carter’s brutal slaying of Albert when he finally catches up with him, all give new meaning to ‘amoral’.
Which is probably why Hodges felt it was appropriate to change the ending of Lewis’s book – and how pleasing, in modern cinema, to see the deliberate insertion of a downbeat denouement.
I’m giving nothing further away, of course, so as not to spoil it for those of you yet to take a trip up north with our man, except to say, when you watch the film a second time, keep an eye out for who else is sitting in Carter’s first-class compartment.
So let’s take a drink with Jack to finish, shall we? Trust me, you’ll never see the like of Get Carter again and, sorry, but the less said about the awful 2000 remake starring Sylvester Stallone, so very much the better.
Carter: A pint of bitter [snaps fingers as bartender walks away]…in a thin glass!