Director / Screenplay: Mike Hodges (from novel by Ted Lewis) / Editing: John Trumper / DP: Wolfgang Suschitzky / Score: Roy Budd
Cast: Michael Caine / Ian Hendry / Britt Ekland / John Osborne / Tony Beckley / George Sewell / Geraldine Moffat / Dorothy White / Rosemarie Dunham / Petra Markham / Alun Armstrong / Bryan Mosley / Glynn Edwards / Bernard Hepton / Ben Aris
A REAL Northern Powerhouse…
It’s a familiar story. Not Get Carter’s gangster-revenge plot, but how its first-time Director / Screenwriter flourished, once liberated from the constraints of working in TV. ‘The Movies’ somehow tap endless wells of creativity, from those fortunate to be given the chance and with Get Carter, a young Mike Hodges was merely the latest to prove the rule. His adaptation of Ted Lewis’ original novel ‘Jack’s Return Home’ went from contract-to-screen in just ten months which, given the parlous state of the British film industry in the early Seventies, might be something of a miracle.
To ensure we’re not distracted, Roy Budd’s singular motif opens the show with a black screen. This is no surprise, for it’s a moody, timeless theme and it’s to Hodges’ credit that either he – or Editor John Trumper – gives it space to breathe. As Hodges pulls-back the curtain on a full-frame window, we see Michael Caine as Jack Carter, looking out blank-faced. We move into the room. We sense the men here, to be villains – British villains – before we know anything else. Their idea of a good night in, is watching a blue slideshow; perhaps compromising material on blackmail victims? We’re not told but, even this early, Hodges is unafraid of setting up plot strands that go nowhere.
As they lasciviously paw their dolly-birds, Jack makes a case for him to travel North ‘to see what’s happened’. Watching him with cool interest, is Anna; an under-written Britt Ekland as another of these Molls. A look passes between her and Jack, that’s not as innocent as it appears, if you get my drift. This is more expositionary labour from Hodges; he’s freighting Jack’s character with secrets from the outset: either those kept from him, or by him.
Working to a threadbare budget, Hodges shot Caine in-character, on the train up to Newcastle. A long trip, it allowed for a dynamic montage, set against the full version of Budd’s score, in which we get further, candid insights into Jack. For a start, he travels First Class. He takes an interest in his health: are those pills & nasal drops for a cold, or uppers? Again, Hodges is content to let such ambiguities slide past. Jack’s a reader, too: Chandler’s ‘Farewell My Lovely’, is as much a statement of intent by Hodges, as it is Jack’s. Along the way, Hodges and his DP, Wolfgang Suschitzky, are voyeuristically squeezing a handheld camera into passenger compartments & toilet cubicles. Watching a sharp-suited Jack eat in the dining car and pad back down the corridor, is to be reminded of Sean Connery in From Russia with Love. There’s a documentary feel about the lack of mannerisms here; again, this is Hodge’s first feature. He’s still working-out cinema as he goes along.
All is excitement.
All is play.
When the show eventually rolls-in to Newcastle, Jack’s first port of call is a large pub in the middle of town. After ordering a pint of bitter (‘in a thin glass’), he takes a phone call. Someone called Margaret. She can’t meet him that night as arranged but, rather than kick his heels and stare at the drinker with five fingers and a thumb, Jack leaves for what’s understood to be the home of his dead brother. That’ll be Frank, who lays in his open casket in the front room of his cramped red-brick terrace. This then, is why Jack is here: to find out what – or who – killed his brother. He retrieves a shotgun from atop Frank’s wardrobe; he knew it was there. It’s as if Jack had Frank keep it there ‘just in case’. As Jack later admits, ‘I’m the only villain in my family!’.
Next day, as the funeral arrangements begin, Jack meets his grieving niece Doreen (Petra Markham); a girl stunned at the turn of events. As will prove to be Jack’s rote response to crisis, he peels a banknote from a healthy looking roll and suggests she gets her hair done! She’s just lost her father, so a new hairdo probably isn’t the first thing on her mind, but Jack is at a loss as to how to respond. This might be his old stomping ground, but Jack is a stranger to both the city and this familial situation; he finds himself unable to offer any support beyond financial. To this point, his only outward (and private) expression of grief, was to touch the body on its shoulder, before drawing-down a veil over Frank’s face. Jack is numbed to suffering: even his own.
At the small funeral itself, they’re joined by Frank’s lover, Margaret (Dorothy White). After the service, this blousy, shifty character admits to Jack that she’s actually married and that her relationship with Frank had been ‘a bit of fun’. In that moment, Jack’s unconvinced. There’s a subtlety in Caine’s performance here; a nod to the very reason he decided to travel back to his home town in the first place.
Let’s consider the look & sound of the film. To me, its warm, earthy palette is another deliberate choice by Hodges & Suschitzky, as if they’re saying ‘there’s not much colour North of London and what there is, is gaudy & artificial. Take the neon lighting at a bingo hall, as an example. Director & DP also embrace what was then Newcastle’s headlong lurch towards The Future: the razing of the slums. In their place, are new tower-blocks. New roads. New amenities, designed by Oxbridge architects in velvet jackets and cravats, who either don’t know – or care – that their client is also a villain striving for respectability. Or that their towering visions will merely become the new slums…
There’s also no music in the film, beyond Budd’s theme; there being neither budget or time. Nonetheless, the soundscape works brilliantly as-is. A later scene in a new multi-storey carpark comes alive with its natural echoes. The strident blaring of a local marching band, that cuts-into Jack’s languorous morning in-bed with his B&B’s landlady. This is Hodges using what’s available to him, to best effect and at times throughout Get Carter, it’s perfectly judged.
After the funeral comes an equally modest wake, back in the pub, with Keith, a young mate of Frank’s (Alun Armstrong, in his debut), Doreen and others. As the men talk of how decent a man was Frank, Hodges holds his camera on Doreen. Beginning slowly, she runs the full gamut of emotions, to the point where she douses a mourner, with her modest glass of white wine and stalks out. Unflustered, Jack lets her go, but not before he peels another banknote from his roll and urges the mourner to get his suit cleaned; an instruction, not a suggestion. These are modest people, after all. The suit was likely the only one the man possessed and, being a fastidious dresser, Jack would instinctively know that its preservation would be worth more to the man, than worrying about a moody teenager. Plus, he’s mending fences and saving faces in the hope belief it’ll all come good in-time. The scene ends with Jack asking of Keith ‘Do you know of a man called Albert Swift?’
It’s a small town after all: not only does Keith know him, he reckons he’ll be found at the racecourse. Which is where Jack goes next, except that, while Swift is indeed there (played by Glynn Edwards), he spots Jack first and escapes, unseen. This is important. Had Jack spotted him first, then all that’s about to unfold MIGHT have had a happier outcome for one or two…
Instead of Swift, Jack finds Eric Paice (Ian Hendry), a uniformed chauffeur wearing sunglasses; too ostentatious & conspicuous for both weather and location. What follows, is a masterclass from Caine, who manages both to cajole & intimidate Eric in just a few scant lines, as he tries to learn who’s employing this shifty weasel. Interestingly, Hendry was Hodges’ first choice for Jack, but had to settle for second-billing after Caine signed-on. The decision caused enmity between the two actors on-set, but antagonism between actors often makes for great performances, as the frisson in this single, unbroken take makes clear.
Jack’s encounter with Eric turns out to be the lead-in to the Second Act, in which Jack will begin to join-the-dots, between two local villains – Brumby (Bryan Mosley) and Kinnear (playwright and sometime actor, John Osborne). There’s another girl in-play here, too: Glenda, played with a delicious élan by Geraldine Moffat, who’s sent by an unknown benefactor to rescue Jack in the midst of ‘some bother’.
As she drives away in her pert Sunbeam Alpine roadster, we get the following exchange as Glenda asks: ‘You didn’t know you had a Fairy Godmother, did you?’ Bemused at his unexpected deliverance, Jack replies: ‘No, frankly, I didn’t know that.’ Glenda continues: ‘A Fairy Godmother all your own. Aren’t you lucky?’ ‘Yeah. So where are we going then, Princess?’ To the Demon King’s castle, of course!’ ‘Of course… Where else?’
Now it is revealed. The pattern is complete and Jack is devastated by what he sees. He snaps. Now it’s revenge he seeks, even if it means his own self-destruction: it’s a similar path that Caine would re-explore in Harry Brown (2009). For Jack now has nothing to lose. When even the innocents in his family have been snatched away, he takes it personally; as if a line has been crossed. His response? No more banknotes. Instead, Jack comes out swinging towards those who’ve wronged him, aiming to take out as many as he can before the end. The bodycount racks-up with little fuss. A drowning here; a stabbing there, barely register against, say, a John Wick movie, but in the context of this more realistic film, Jack’s sociopathic confidence in his actions remain chilling.
And throughout, Hodges continues to experiment, as if relishing the chance to direct an A-lister like Caine. Yet he’s far from being star-struck by his leading man: take the scene where a naked Caine walks out of the B&B, calmly levelling the shotgun at two gang-members sent from London to bring him home. Its tone is calm and unshowy; almost underplayed. Throughout the film, both Hodges & Suschitzky aren’t afraid of deploying long-shots, deliberately confusing sound-mixes and more, in-service to an overall look to their film. At-times, Caine’s presence is almost incidental to the film unfolding around him which, considering the man’s charisma, is no mean achievement.
Which brings us neatly to the picture’s iconic climax on a beach, blackened by decades of spoil, tipped offshore from a nearby coal-mine. Jack has chased-down Eric with a relentless zeal until, finally, his quarry has nothing left, but to drink a bottle of Scotch and consider his few remaining life choices. With the job done, Jack begins laughing wildly, crossing the streams between crazed madness and satisfaction at having avenged his brother’s death.
But his ebullience doesn’t last, for Death wears a nameless face. He waits, atop a cliff and marks his unwary target with a sniper rifle and a zoom lens. Jack, of all people, should’ve expected it. After all, those who live by the sword…
Maybe, that’s why he’s laughing. He’s worked it out.
We might’ve done too, if we’ve been paying attention. Death might be nameless, but we’ve seen his face before: right back on that train, sat opposite Jack in full view.
One obvious explanation, is that Hodges was simply bringing up all his cast & crew on that train; he admitted to that much in the commentary track of the Blu-Ray. But let’s go deeper. If we accept the premise that Hodges was exercising due care in the composition of his shots (e.g. the five-fingered drinker), let’s assume that this un-credited hitman was always intended to be there, in that First Class compartment, as anonymous as his quarry. Jack’s London bosses were trying to dissuade him from leaving town, NOT because he’d cause unwanted friction, but because they’d likely be soon losing one of their trusted lieutenants.
Jack’s card was therefore marked, from the moment he bought his ticket…
Overall, the film has aged well, albeit with a few caveats. As I stated earlier, it’s more of a character study than outright action picture. While things move along with a certain brevity, there are aspects which, to a contemporary audience at-least, appear dated, if not jarring. I am of course, referring to its treatment of women. The objectification of both Anna & Glenda for example, has dated badly. As has the dismissive approach employed by Jack towards Doreen’s personal problems. While chequebook diplomacy works up to a point, Jack’s worldview shatters once deeper truths are revealed. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’d like to believe a more contemporary character might behave with more sensitivity, when placed in that situation!
So there’s an hypocrisy at-work here. When someone else’s family is affected by one’s crimes, then it’s at an emotionally-safe distance. But bring it closer-to-home and Jack’s realisation that he’s as much a victim as perpetrator, is too much for him to take.
That said, while some contemporary reviewers have denigrated the film’s attitudes, I think they’re missing the point: Get Carter was made in 1971, in an era that recedes into history with every passing year. And, in-common with so many pictures of the period, it reflects the society from which it sprang. It’s pointless for us to pass judgement on an artistic artefact – e.g. a film – when the original context no longer applies.
Instead, our only obligation is to the artwork itself and when seen in that spirit, we’re left with an eloquently-scripted British gangster picture, that was to set a new standard for its genre. A gritty, forward-thinking film with a hard-boiled sensibility, Get Carter is as pungent today as the day it was released, if not more so. Its violence is brief, unshowy and inglorious. Its well-chosen cast is doing its level-best to work with Hodges’ script, in showing flawed characters beyond redemption.
It’s a vicious, mean-spirited time-capsule of a film that you should watch. Not because it’s great (which it is), but because it’s unexpectedly vicious. And mean-spirited.
And because, after you’re done, you’re left puzzling the biggest question of them all: What happened to Mike Hodges?
Are you coming in, or are you going to piss about all day?