Get Carter Review

Get Carter begins with a journey by train from London to Newcastle. But the journey upon which this extraordinary film takes its audience is one into a real heart of darkness, just as savage as anything dreamed up by Joseph Conrad. It's a brutal film, unremittingly cynical and extremely downbeat. It's also one of the best British films ever made, and an acting triumph for Michael Caine that he has never since matched.

Caine plays Jack Carter, an associate of Sid and Gerald Fletcher, two London mobsters vaguely modelled on the Kray twins. Hearing that his brother has died in mysterious circumstances, he travels back to his hometown of Newcastle to discover the truth. It's an old story and at first the film threatens to be just another violent crime movie. After all, shortly before this film premiered, Richard Burton had done the Kray thing in Villain - a film distinguished mostly by the pungent dialogue of Clement and La Frenais - and it's not as if gangsters were a new concept in movies. But, from the first line - "Bollock naked with his socks still on" - we get the feeling that this is slightly off-beat, and the opening credits, backed by some superb location footage of the train journey and the indelible music of Roy Budd, end up in a pitch black Newcastle night as Carter walks into a pub, orders a pint and then clicks his fingers saying the unforgettable words, "In a thin glass".

Caine dominates the film from the first scene, as he stands suggestively by the curtains in the Fletcher's penthouse, waiting for the verdict on his proposed trip back home. It's an extraordinary performance because, although there's obviously a lot of Caine in there, Carter is an anti-hero with the emphasis on anti. He beats up women, he tortures minor villains, he kills innocent people and we still don't hate him. Caine makes him understandable, even likeable on occasions, and suggests that the callous brutality and remove from emotion is the only thing that has allowed Carter to live so long. He also captures a sense of derangement in Carter, madness which ultimately overwhelms him, caught as he is in a world which has become a sick, bitterly ironic joke. He never plays for easy sympathy, he delivers the laughs without softening the character and, above all, serves the film rather than himself. Very few stars would have been prepared to play this total bastard without giving the audience a wink to suggest they don't really mean it - Caine plays it dead straight. If he's the nearest thing in the film to a hero, that's partly because he has some slight pretext for what he does, but mostly because he's got such presence and, for want of a better word, charisma.

Once in Newcastle, Carter discovers that his brother apparently drove his car into the river while senselessly drunk on whiskey. The problem with this explanation is that his brother Frank never drank whiskey. Beginning with an old colleague, the foul Eric Paice (Hendry), he begins to suspect that Frank may have been killed on the say-so of one of the local mobsters. It could have been local crime boss and porn baron Cyril Kinnear (the playwright John Osborne), a man summed up by Carter as "a hairy faced git", or king of the amusement arcades Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley, later Alf Roberts in "Coronation Street") who ordered the killing, but why ? Jack was always "the villain of the family", while Frank was totally straight, so why should anyone want him dead ? The answer is as banal as it is sleazy, and it sends Carter on a self-righteous trail of destruction that leaves half of the North East underworld dead, without providing either redemption or comfort.

Newcastle seems a place consumed by corruption and violence, and the use of the now demolished slums as settings adds to the audience feeling of being peculiarly dislocated. The wrecking balls are coming ever closer, and the climax of the film takes place on a piece of waste ground which is both nowhere and everywhere. Perhaps Carter is, as Mike Hodges suggests on the commentary, descending into hell, but if so then it's a hell in which he fits very neatly. Everything in Newcastle seems decaying - both morally and physically - and it's as though the darkness at the centre of Carter's soul finds embodiment in this city dominated by brute force and greed. There are few innocents in this film - those who try to stay out are pulled in, such as Keith (Alun Armstrong), who ends up beaten half to death for trying to do Carter a favour, and Doreen, Frank's daughter, the corruption of whose innocence proves the final straw for Carter. It seems as if there is no escape from the darkness, and the ending is a masterstroke of callous logic.

Grim as the film may be, it's not really depressing because Hodges packs in lots of vivid, often comic scenes, and writes wonderfully flavoursome dialogue. Carter's first meeting with Eric Paice for example, where he threateningly removes Eric's sunglasses and describes his eyes as "pissholes in the snow", or the delicious scene at Kinnear's poker party which is crashed by Carter. John Osborne is very funny as Kinnear, but also oddly threatening, and gets some fine dialogue, which he speaks in a camp lisp; "You don't offer a man like Jack a drink in one of those piddling little glasses, give him the bloody bottle", and the dismissal of a henchman with the simple words, "Pith off Ray". His encounters with Brumby are also memorable; on the first meeting, when threatened, Carter says the iconic line, "You're a big man but you're in bad shape. With me, it's a full-time job. Now behave yourself"; and, of course, in a subsequent confrontation, Carter expresses his irritation with the self-styled king of the arcades by throwing him off a multi-storey car park. There are loads of moments in this film which live in the memory long after the narrative comes to its decidedly bitter end, and it's this attention to detail which makes it so interesting.

Along with Caine's stunning performance, the cast work very well and they look right with the same red-faced puffiness that you see during the street scenes. The only fake note is struck by Britt Ekland, partly because all her scenes are in London, and partly because her big scene, as she masturbates while on the phone to Jack, is amusing but largely irrelevant. The performers who come out best are Ian Hendry, a fine actor whose chronic alcoholism meant that he never made as much of an impact as he should have done, John Osborne and the familiar faces such as Tony Beckley - with a scary blonde hairdo - and Bernard Hepton, as the cringing Thorpey.

Mike Hodges directs with pace and imagination, using the locations with the eye of the documentarian that he started out as. The cinematography by Wolfgang Suschitzky is perfect, with especially effective use of long lenses - something emphasised in Suschitzky's contributions to the commentary track - and available light. The decision to shoot entirely on location is vindicated by the authenticity of the look of the film. It's the worst possible advert for the Newcastle Tourist Board imaginable, or would be if most of the locations hadn't been demolished in the redevelopment of the city in the seventies. Roy Budd's simple but devastatingly effective music track is a shining example of why less is sometimes more, and the isolated score track on the disc shows off his score to its very best advantage.

Spoilers for the end of the film

The film is hugely entertaining, sometimes horribly violent (although not gratuitously so), and thoroughly engrossing, but it also contains a disturbing sense of despair which will not be to all tastes. Carter gets what he wants, discovers what happened to his brother and extracts revenge by killing those involved. But there's no release of tension or sense of redemption. It's not cathartic; rather, it's troublingly nihilistic, and the feeling at the end is one of total emptiness, capped by a clever, totally logical and thoroughly ruthless final shot when Caine is shot by a hit-man who is just another pawn in some aimless cosmic game. All that Carter has ultimately done is proved his worst instincts about humanity to be true and shown himself to be just as amoral as everybody else. What else is there to do, in such circumstances, other than laugh hysterically and then die ? In retrospect, the end of the film is inevitable, since what else is left for Carter now but death; if not at the hands of the anonymous assassin now, then when he returns to London to face the wrath of Sid Fletcher. The escape to South America mentioned earlier in the film is, as the critic Anne Billson has pointed out, as much of an empty dream as the Mexican idyll so cruelly shattered for Doc and Carol at the end of Jim Thompson's novel (but not the films of) The Getaway, or so near and yet so far for the gang at the climax of The Wild Bunch.

Okay, you can look now

The Disc

This was one of my most-wanted films on DVD, and Warners have not really let me down. If I'm not more enthusiastic, it's because the picture quality is slightly disappointing. This is partly atoned for, however, by the excellent commentary and two splendidly daft trailers.

The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is acceptable but not great. The picture is rather bland and not as crisp as it should be, especially compared to some other recent Warner back catalogue MGM releases such as the stunning North By Northwest. There is a constant texturing to the image which is occasionally obtrusive - the opening scenes particularly suffer - but which improves as the film goes on. Interior scenes are a little bit muddy in places. There are some minor artifacts, but this is not a serious problem. Colours are muted, but that's part of the cinematography as much as a problem with the transfer. Overall, it looks decidedly dated, but is still an improvement on the VHS and TV versions of the film, if not as good as the cinema re-issue of the film last year.

The soundtrack is perfectly adequate, being the original mono track, thankfully transferred as a single channel mono mix. Dialogue is clear, music is impressive and it's about as good as it could have been.

There are two main extras - an audio commentary and a set of three trailers. The commentary is excellent, divided unequally between Mike Hodges - who does most of the talking - Wolfgang Suschitzky and Michael Caine. Caine provides the laid-back anecdotes and astute observations on the craft of film acting, while Suschitzky is a little dry as he concentrates on some of the technical aspects of cinematography. However, Hodges is riveting, whether comparing Newcastle to Dante's Inferno, or discussing the reaction of real life gangsters to the film. I could have happily listened to him for hours, and I hope that when Croupier gets a DVD release, he provides another commentary. The three men were recorded separately, and the tracks were then edited together, meaning that there are no dead spots.

As for the trailers, all I can say is WOW !! This is seventies trailer heaven. The "Michael Caine trailer" is the least interesting, being a brief introduction recorded for the Newcastle premiere of the film which he could not attend. The "International Trailer" is, however, a work of art in itself, mixing metaphors with alacrity and making no sense at all, and I quote:

Michael Caine IS Carter, a man with unbridled hate... when a professional killer hates, he turns animal and there becomes but one law in the underworld jungle - GET CARTER before Carter gets you. Carter, the heated killer, the cool lover, a man of few words but decisive action ... Hate drives the hunter. Fear pursues the hunted. Carter, spreading terror with an uncontrolled trigger. Carter was a killer by profession - now he's a killer by instinct.

Marvellous stuff this, and all too short at 2 minutes. Thankfully, the music trailer provides added pleasure. This turns out to be a film of Roy Budd playing the theme tune while he watches the opening credits. Never has a man shown so much manual dexterity with his organ as in this fine advert for the skills of the professional musician. Exactly what the point this trailer is meant to have is another matter, one too obscure for this present discussion.

The menus are static, but nicely designed, and there are a more than adequate 32 chapter stops. The case has a fabulous picture of Caine on the front, the sort of picture which turns an actor into an icon.

Get Carter needs no more recommendation from me. If you haven't seen it, buy it, and if you have, buy it anyway. The DVD is perhaps not as good technically as it could have been, but is still a very worthwhile purchase.

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Last updated: 15/07/2018 06:48:28

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