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Get Carter (1971)
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,Get Carter

Get Carter (1971)

If one seeks to understand the cultural embrace provided in the United Kingdom to Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels [1998], Snatch [2000]) or Matthew Vaughn's Layer Cake (2004), or Mike Hodges's Croupier (1998), or Robert Rodriguez's Sin City (2005), or David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007), or the iconic career of Quentin Tarantino, or, by extension, the entirety of British "lad" culture, with its working-class roots, love of gangster violence, snarky slang and sense of pop sophistication, one should first seek out Get Carter (1971). The premier authentic cult film to several generations of post-Beatles Brit movieheads, Mike Hodges's debut feature is by now much more than a mere movie (or even the best British movie of 1971, which is probably Ken Loach's Family Life or Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange) – it is a touchstone, one of the key experiences in British film, a movie that carries with it now, helplessly, the national cargo of memory, influence and generational cache it has acquired over the years and in the eyes of innumerable English filmgoers. Such a movie can rarely measure up to its own profile for an objective audience, but the task here, as with our own cult films (think of the differential between Easy Rider's [1969] cultural meaning and the film itself), is to embrace the subjective, the entranced, frisson-bedazzled world around the film.

Truly, to hear a British cinema-savvy bloke of certain age (between 18 and 48) talk about Get Carter is to hear the invocation of the blessed. It's easy to see what made an impression when the film was released: philosophically, it is a bracingly nihilistic film, where in true noir style one act of violence begins a cascade of bad fortune and falling bodies. What's more, its simple mobster-revenge scenario was executed realistically, and with a startling degree of mundane viciousness, unceremoniously revealed and therefore all the more disquieting. These were not the urbane, dryly humorous crooks of the older heist films, these were the sociopathic, semi-educated, perfectly mercenary gangsters of the headlines, the kind that screw up and leave corpses in the wrong places and kill rather than lose profit, the kind Martin Scorsese was just beginning to explore on these shores. Michael Caine, already the coolest man in England and the walking-talking template for untold thousands of expressionless Brit tough guys, plays Carter, a London hitman who trains it back to his hometown of Newcastle to bury, and avenge, his brother. Virtually everyone he meets takes him for a city mouse in over his head amid the northern town's criminal element, but Carter is cagey and mission-driven, and soon enough he begins playing one sleazeball off of another, assassinating some, setting up others with the police, all of it executed with the laconic cruelty of a slaughterhouse worker.

Since the film does exemplify the first gurglings of neo-noir, there's a moral outrage rising to the surface here; Carter is a heartless gunman, but he's forced into vengeance for reasons that might belong to an ordinary man, which is why the other mobsters on hand are all caught off guard. His brother's murder agitates him, but Carter is finally moved to homicidal action by the revelation that his young niece – which may actually be his own biological daughter – was forced to participate in a porn loop, under the auspices of the local mob. After that, social norms and decorum are tossed and nobody, not even the relatively guilt-free girlfriends of crooks, is inviolate. Caine's Carter is the classic postmodern man of action, self-possessed but not urbane, attractive but full of untold menace, fearless but destined to die by the sword.

Caine in his prime was closer to the give-nothing-away-then-explode acting thesis of Toshiro Mifune than to an ordinary Englishman; the essence of his early stardom was embodied in his half-lidded reserve. You could read any plot machination or mystery onto him, and he always seemed to be the smartest guy in the room, regardless of his company. (That seemed true even of Sleuth [1972], in which his companion was Laurence Olivier.) And there's no underestimating the north country bleakness around him here, which makes its own statement as surely as Antonioni's garbage dumps or Kubrick's corridors. (In fact, the nightclub that figures so prominently in the story, ironically but genuinely called La Dolce Vita, was the setting for a real crimeland killing a few years before Get Carter was filmed; Hodges incorporated aspects of the news story into the movie, and used several of its locations.)

Hodges rode on the coattails of Get Carter for years, and never reached its simple eloquence again; indeed, the small hubbub over Croupier, over a quarter-century later, was seen by many, rather indulgently, as the director's return to form. (If I had to pick my second-ran Hodges project, it'd be the icy 1974 adaptation of Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man.) But most of all, Get Carter is a product of the 1970s, when cinematography could evoke the smell of a bitter winter wind, when movie stars were more interesting than merely beautiful, when facing a grim and doomed reality was a stirring and marketable truth, not a buzz-killing bummer. When it came time for the inevitable, and inevitably brainless, modern remake in 2000 (there had been a blaxploitation remake in 1972, the George Armitage-directed, Bernie Casey-starring Hit Man), hypercool ADD style supplanted the original's grit, Sylvester Stallone tried to fill Caine's shoes with a fraction of the star power, and what remains an intensely pessimistic noir ending was softened for the cheap seats. Everyone has already forgotten it, while the legend of the Hodges's film continues to grow – 28 years after its release, when it appalled the British censors, a British Film Institute poll on the top 100 best-ever British films saw Get Carter claim slot number 16, far ahead of Chariots of Fire (1981), Dr. Zhivago (1965) and Performance (1970).

Producer: Michael Klinger, Michael Caine
Director: Mike Hodges
Screenplay: Mike Hodges, Ted Lewis (novel)
Cinematography: Wolfgang Suschitzky
Film Editing: John Trumper
Art Direction: Roger King
Music: Roy Budd
Cast: Michael Caine (Jack Carter), Ian Hendry (Eric), Britt Ekland (Anna Fletcher), John Osborne (Cyril Kinnear), Tony Beckley (Peter), George Sewell (Con).
C-112m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Michael Atkinson