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Get Carter

GET CARTER (1971) is one of those bedrock crime movies I saw a long time ago, and as I forgot its specific details its general vibe stayed strong in my memory. Other movies I loosely associate it with in my mind include POINT BLANK (which came out four years earlier) and THE LIMEY (which came out 28 years later and seems influenced by both). It’s a strong example of an approach that really appeals to me: a straight forward crime/mystery/revenge story written and directed in a serious, realistic manner like we all got together and agreed that pulp is respectable material now, using atmosphere and quiet and stillness more than flash, but in a way that emphasizes rather than gets in the way of its fierce badassness.

Michael Caine (THE LAST WITCH HUNTER), at the time already well known from movies including THE IPCRESS FILE, ALFIE, and THE ITALIAN JOB, plays Jack Carter, a London gangster who returns home to Newcastle for his brother Frank’s funeral. He doesn’t buy that his brother died in a drunk driving accident, as they’re telling him, so during his stay he basically does an investigation, questioning relatives, then old friends, then rivals and strangers, trying to get to the bottom of it. Just a little business to wrap up before running off to South America with his boss’s super hot girlfriend (Britt Ekland, pre-WICKER MAN).

Most of this is not explained up front. He deals with normal funeral arrangement stuff – going to Frank’s apartment, reconnecting with his niece Doreen (Petra Markham, SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY), inviting her to South America, giving her some cash. One thing I didn’t expect – the body is right there in the house before the funeral. And it’s not too spacious. At one point he casually shaves right above it.

After the funeral he and a couple old associates and Doreen go to a pub for a drink in Frank’s honor. This felt familiar to me, this awkward bonding and mourning between people brought together briefly. Doreen is visibly upset by their conversation, until she blows up, throws a drink in a guy’s face and storms out, saying they didn’t know him. It only occurs to me as I’m writing this that when I was young a cousin blew up at me at my grandma’s funeral for not knowing her as well as he did. No drinks were thrown, though.

Jack stays at a little bed & breakfast with a suspicious landlord named Edna (Rosemarie Dunham, CROUPIER). There’s a super-sleazy and unusual scene where he tries to quietly engage in phone sex while Edna is sitting in the room. She sits and plays casual with a look between abject terror and uncontrollable horniness, furiously rocking in her chair, her forehead sweaty by the end of the scene. So it seems believable later when she tries to kick him out for causing trouble and ends up sleeping with him instead.

He’s one of these anti-heroes who everybody underestimates and he just plows through them. I love when he shows up at this guy Kinnear (John Osborne, author of Look Back in Anger)’s mansion, coming through the woods. When he comes across a guy at the edge of the woods – standing guard, taking a piss, who knows – he looks at the ground, spots a big fat stick, walks up and cracks the guy’s skull. Consider that he knew where he was going, and didn’t bring any weapons, confident he’d figure something out.

I thought I picked up on some sort of colonialist/racism theme at Osborne’s place, because there’s a closeup of a Native American design on the wallpaper, an African shield and spear on the wall and the only Black henchman Ray (?) has to come to him like a servant while a bunch of white dudes play cards with him. But nothing comes of that.

Jack can stare a motherfucker into crying, but he also has a way with words. Specifically, he tells old neighborhood friend Eric (Ian Hendry, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED) that his eyes look like “piss holes in the snow.” I love those little bits of personality on this clean skeleton of a story. So many scenes are about conveying a normal piece of information, but something unusual is happening. Like there’s a scene in the pub while a singer (Denea Wilde) is performing, and as part of her act she sings to a guy in the crowd and kisses him on the cheek. Then suddenly the guy’s furious wife or girlfriend runs and jumps on her like a madwoman, and Jack has a little chuckle about the whole spectacle.

Another good one is when he shows up uninvited at the home of crime boss Brumby (Bryan Mosley, CHARLIE BUBBLES). It’s 2 am and Brumby is chasing people out of the house because he’s just come home to discover his daughter throwing a huge party. Carter is able to walk in during the chaos, making the confrontation even more confusing to Mr. Brumby.

So there are undercurrents of dry humor, but the overall feel is bleak. He’s uncovering things worse than he expects, and everybody involved is gonna get the bad ending they deserve. There are lots of quiet stretches, but the songs and occasional score are by British jazz pianist Roy Budd, who had already scored SOLDIER BLUE, but was still in his early twenties. The main theme is a straight up classic, done with his jazz trio on a low budget. They watched the movie and recorded live, no overdubs. Budd played harpsichord, electric piano and grand piano, sometimes at the same time!

The existence of GET CARTER seems to result from a confluence of events in England in the late ‘60s. When the murder trial of twin gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray (see THE KRAYS and LEGEND for cinematic depictions) was dominating headlines, producer Michael Klinger (REPULSION, CUL-DE-SAC) thought it would be a good time for a new type of realistic British gangster movie to compete with the American ones. He bought the rights to a 1970 book called Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis (a former cleanup animator on YELLOW SUBMARINE), so, like POINT BLANK, this is a director trying to do something “elevated” with a popular pulp novel. Maybe that’s why on the train at the beginning Jack is reading Farewell, My Lovely – source novel of one of the movies that kicked off the entire genre of film noir.

Don’t get me wrong – that attitude can be death if done by filmmakers who feel they’re too above the genre to retain what makes it entertaining. But this one knows to deliver the goods.

Writer/director Mike Hodges was a TV director hired on the strength of a 1969 ITV Playhouse episode called Suspect, and his experience on some news shows gave him an eye for documentary realism. I haven’t read the novel, but from what I understand, Hodges took out a bunch of context – flashbacks to Jack and Frank growing up together, backstory between Jack and the other gangsters – which may be important in the book, but the movie works really well without it. You get the idea without specifics, and the lack of them makes the whole thing sharp. Like he chipped off the edges of the story and carved it into a spear.

In a rare turning of the tables, GET CARTER was actually more appreciated by critics in the U.S. than overseas. I don’t know how that happened. But apparently it didn’t get much promotion, maybe because MGM had higher hopes for HIT MAN, the George-Armitage-directed Blaxploitation version of the novel that came out in ’72. That’s interesting, because I noticed how much this had in common with all the ‘70s Black crime films I’ve been watching lately. Amoral tough guy coming back to the hood after the death of a family member, single-handedly taking on the underworld for revenge, irresistible to women along the way, and with a funky theme song – it’s basically a Britsploitation movie. (I’ll be reviewing HIT MAN next.)

Hodges had a weird and interesting career – this was his first theatrical feature, and he ended his career with the similarly-toned Clive Owen crime films CROUPIER (1998) and I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD (2003). But in between he wrote DAMIEN: THE OMEN II, directed FLASH GORDON and also (why not?) MORONS FROM OUTER SPACE. A pretty cool obscure one I’ve seen by him is the 1986 TV movie I found on VHS called FLORIDA STRAITS starring Raul Julia, Fred Ward and Antonio Fargas. But I think he’ll always be mainly known as the guy who did GET CARTER.

P.S. Did you know it was a trilogy? Sequels were published in 1974 and 1977.

P.P.S. Check this shit out:

This entry was posted on Monday, September 28th, 2020 at 9:46 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

26 Responses to “Get Carter”

  1. Man this one is a stone classic, I love it. It’s bleak in a very uncommon way, and the ending absolutely shocked me when I first saw it as a teen. Can you imagine if Stallone’s bloodless remake had ended the same way? Sly’s ‘80s action-star ego would never allow it!

  2. Get Carter is my absolute favorite They Fucked With the Wrong Guy movie (runner up: First Blood). Carter is already a badass for so much of the movie — he wields a shotgun while naked, ffs — that you sort of get lulled into thinking he’s a cool antihero and this is all a fun time at the movies. But then after he discovers the truth a switch flips and it’s terrifying. I love that the movie pushes back on the viewer — around the time the car goes in the water it feels like it’s asking “is this the type of revenge you wanted to see?” and the answer is no but you can’t look away because Carter is increasingly going straight psychopath.

  3. (Cont’d) And it’s that escalation from badass to psychopath that escalates it from a regular They Fucked With the Wrong Guy movie to They Fucked With THE Wrong Guy.

  4. Lemme’ take this moment to put in a recommendation for THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY.

  5. Great movie. And since you didn’t say it, I will comment, regarding the score: Thanks, Budd.

  6. What a great film. I’ve always thought of “she was only sixteen years old” as one of Michael Caine’s most famously quotable lines (as seen in THE TRIP) but on a rewatch of GET CARTER recently I realised it isn’t in the movie at all.

  7. During the scene with Brumby Carter utters perhaps the most famous Caine line ever (along with “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”): “You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job. Now behave yourself.”

    Along with the mentioned THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY and MONA LISA his is British crime movie royalty. I watch all of them at least a couple of times a year.

    Vern, the Zulu shield on the wall during the poker game is almost certainly a nod to Caine’s breakthrough role in ZULU.

  8. I think it’s something of a myth that GET CARTER wasn’t well received in the UK. Critics may not’ve got it, but it was a biggish hit for Caine; Wikipedia has it finishing 6th in the UK box office for the year.

    I had it in mind that Mike Hodges had worked on Z-Cars (that’s Zed Cars, people), the BBC’s long-running police procedural/soap, in the ’60s, but IMDB doesn’t back me up on that. Nevertheless, several of the cast of GET CARTER – Terence Rigby, George Sewell, Dorothy White – had done time on the show. Sewell supposedly knew the Krays; you can certainly find photos of him with them online.

    And yes, that score is a bloody masterpiece. Just try taking a long trip on a British train and not humming that theme at some point.

  9. Michael Caine tend to play down how well his movies were received in interviews. Perhaps he feel he should have been an even bigger star. Apparently that’s one of the reasons Richard Harris hated him.

  10. Among a myriad other topics, one thing I’ve always loved from The Limey commentary track os when they discuss Roy Budd’s “Fear is the Key” score which included actual car sounds during the chase scene. This led me down a rabbit hole to Budd’s Carter score, then in a roundabout way to Carter itself at around the same time I caught Croupier and the Stallone remake.

    I love it when those things happen.

    (Love that track you posted, thanks Vern. Check out Fear is the Key score)

  11. I’ve already gushed about my love of this movie/Hodges in general around here. And while there’s about 578 great things about this movie both overt and subtle, I do want reiterate what Daniel Strange talked about in that there’s plenty of movies that subvert expectations, tropes, etc but very few that actually subvert themselves during the course of the runtime. Even watching it today, close to 50 years after its release, it still feels incredibly ballsy yet correct.

  12. My favorite trivial Michael Caine story comes from when Siskel and Ebert were reviewing (?) Hannah And Her Sisters. They showed a clip of him talking to one of the sisters with his back to the camera. They couldn’t say enough about how much emotion he was able to express without even showing his face. We thought it was absurd, and we made fun of that critique for years — literally, for years. He was just standing there, you know? That’s what we said, anyway. And yet, 35-plus years later? They were probably right.

  13. Just like with The Limey, there’s such good work being done here by the star. Caine and Stamp are effortlessly capable of convincing you they’re genuinelly dangerous, being menacing without ever looking like they’re even trying. There’s a kind of distinctive hardness to those older Brit crime movies.

    In addition to “They fucked with the wrong guy”, shouldn’t there be a “You wanted a simple revenge movie, but shit’s about to turn” category, too?

  14. I always thought Stamp was a strange choice for THE LIMEY. Apart from THE HIT he hasn’t really done many crime or hard man movies. Caine or Bob Hoskins would have been a better fit.

  15. He’s an armed robber in POOR COW, the Ken Loach movie from THE LIMEY’s flashback scenes. But Soderbergh probably just figured Stamp could handle any role they threw at him.

  16. As a Brit of a certain age, seeing this on TV as a kid was genuinely shocking and I still find it a tough watch. As great as everything you have said about it is it is also incredibly evocative of how small and cheap and claustrophobic Britain could feel in the 70’s. Tawdry, filthy, run down, economically burnt out and somehow still always recovering from the war; crap cars, strikes, terrible hair and clothes and this lurid, evil story in the middle. It is awesome. ‘You’re a big man but in bad shape’ is great but my favourite line is Carter ordering a pint *snaps fingers* ‘In a THIN glass!’

  17. Just thought I’d add that ‘Eyes like piss holes in the snow’ is an expression used in Britain to describe someone who’s looking very hungover. Still gets used today.

  18. So it predates the book? I mistook a common idiom for great writing? (The remake changed it to cat piss in the snow.)

  19. Limey, my friend Alec can not watch this movie. The reason? He’s from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Born a few years after the fact (’74). But, he says it’s like a home movie in the worst way imaginable. Or as he puts it “It’s the only movie I can smell”

  20. Looks like “eyes like piss holes in the snow” goes back to at least 1952. I first came across the expression in one of James Herriot’s books (which postdate GET CARTER).

    https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/130115/origin-of-the-saying-eyes-like-pissholes-in-the-snow

  21. Caine said in an interview on TCM some years back that GET CARTER probably would seem tame compared to modern movies. But he was wrong. It’s still hard as nails.

  22. jojo – that’s a brilliant way to put it, and I get what he means, all the grubbiness. I’m Scottish, but a lot of the touchstones with the North-East of England are the same. Maybe it’s just the poverty and the end of industry as Newcastle used to be a big shipbuilding town. STORMY MONDAY is also set there and owes it a big debt.

    I should also mention the sound is great. Pubs and clubs in the UK really sounded like the ones in this movie at least until the late 80’s.

    Vern, I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD is very much a semi-remake of GET CARTER, but it doesn’t have quite the power. I saw the premier with Mike Hodges, where the audience really just wanted to ask him questions about FLASH GORDON.

  23. Sorry, I see you already checked it out.

  24. I love the film, but it’s a hard watch once Carter discovers the truth of what’s been going on. I was lucky to see it on the big-screen during its UK rereleased.

    Ian Hendry, who played Eric, hated Caine. He’d been a rising star in the early 60’s but his film career never took off, which exacerbated his alcoholism. Hodges apparently had originally had him in mind for the lead role, so he wasn’t pleased to be playing second fiddle to Caine – Someone who had made it to Hollywood. The tension between them in the race-track is due to Hendry turning up at the rehearsal very drunk and aggressive.

  25. What a great GREAT movie. You guys and vern made me wanna revisit it.

  26. The Carter books by Ted Lewis books are actually pretty great too.

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