Thursday, December 06, 2007

"FRANK WAS A GOOD BLOKE." "HE WAS, THAT." But now Frank's dead and his hitman brother Jack Carter wants to know why. I just rewatched it and, I'll tell you, GET CARTER is one hell of a picture. A lot of people think it's one of the best crime movies ever made; and there's something to be said for that point of view. I notice on imdb that someone named "fatglyn" from Plymouth, England points out "If Shakespeare could have written a gangster movie, 'Get Carter' would surely be the one". This initially made me laugh until I watched it again and, well it actually makes some kind of sense. After all, Michael Caine as Jack Carter is obviously heading single-mindedly down the doomed slope of revenge and seems helpless or unwilling to turn from the path he's set himself. And indeed, like Hamlet, by the end the bodies are piling up as practically every character ends up dead.
Mike Hodges made his directorial debut on (he had previously only made a couple TV movies) as well as wrote the screenplay for Get Carter. Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is a "villain" who hears that his brother had died up north in Newcastle; apparently from drunk driving. However, Carter is certain it was murder and has decided to head up north to find out who did it and why. Now, Carter didn't really like his brother (in fact, he even slept with his brother's wife and there is some question whether his brother's daughter Doreen is actually HIS) but this is family so Carter's not about to let it go unchallenged. The opening shot looks onto the outside of an office building; there is one window illuminated and we see Michael Caine standing there looking out at us as the first strains of Roy Budd's phenomenal score begins to play. The effect is almost like a disembodied room is floating in the darkness. Caine then turns from the window with a drink in his hand as someone draws the curtains closed; symbolically clueing us in that it'll soon be "curtains" for Carter. But before I go on, can I just say a word about Roy Budd's incredible music? Is there, in fact, anything better in the world than Budd's theme music for "Get Carter"?!? The music in the film is used VERY sparingly but, when it does occur, that haunting, even sad sounding music gets right into your brain and never lets go.
After his criminal bosses try to dissuade him from going to Newcastle and sticking his nose in amongst some pretty tough customers, Carter hops a train headed north. I never realized until I listened to Mike Hodge's commentary track that a hired killer we see towards the end of the film is actually in the same train compartment with Carter at the beginning! Once Carter starts poking around, some feathers get ruffled and little acts of strong-arm violence begin to occur almost immediately. The film's relentless grittiness underlines the fact that there aren't really any heroes in this movie and the main character of Jack Carter is in fact a thoroughly nasty sort of person. However, we still find ourselves rooting for him since his quest is in fact a good one. Carter may be bad but the actions of the crooks he's up against seem far worse.
The cast of this movie is excellent from Michael Caine's performance on down. Tons of terrific British character actors turn up from the slightly reptilian Ian Hendry to the (once again unclad) Britt Ekland. George Sewell (who died just this April) and Tony Beckley (The Italian Job's Camp Freddy) make a great couple of thugs who get held at bay by a naked Michael Caine with a shotgun. "Come on, Jack. Put it away!" Sewell tells Caine, "You know you're not going to use it!" A grinning Beckley adds, "The gun he means!" Petra Markham is stunning in her few scenes as the disillusioned, sad-eyed rebellious daughter of Carter's dead brother while Geraldine Moffat (even MORE unclad than Britt Ekland) is perfect as the permanently drunk tart working for the coldly evil John Osborne as one of the criminal big shots. Alun Armstrong looks like nothing less than a young Pete Postelthwaite as naive barman Keith. Dorothy White is also perfectly cast as the twitchy tramp girlfriend of Carter's dead brother who knows much more than she's telling.
The violence in the film is not of the gore variety; it's powerful simply because it's not stylized but depicted in a realistic, sudden way. Very brutal and heartless most of the time; whether perpetrated by any number of thugs or by Carter himself. As a car-full of thugs begins to exit their car to rough him up, Carter kicks the car door back into one thug's face (smashing the window into it). As the car accelerates driverless, another thug's foot is caught in a seatbelt and he is dragged down the street on his back. Another scene finds Carter interrogating a man that knows who killed his brother. After getting the information, Carter pulls a switchblade. The man pleads for his life on his knees saying "It wasn't ME who killed your brother". Carter suddenly stabs him anyway while shouting "I know! I know you didn't!" Even without the gore, the realistic violence is brutal and believeable and because of that the film doesn't date. Newcastle is shown in all it's poverty-stricken bleakness but paradoxically the film is still beautifully shot by veteran DP Wolfgang Suschitsky ("Theatre of Blood"). One particularly breathtaking shot occurs as the hearses for the funeral are lined up alone a street of rowhouses as the mammoth factory with it's demonic smokestacks looms in the distance. The shot can (sorta) be glimpsed in this publicity still that has Michael Caine standing in front of the street; he does no such thing in the movie proper.
One side note: the final scene which occurs in a quarry/coal tip never ceases to remind me of the climax to the old Universal Vincent Price stinker "The Invisible Man Returns" which takes place in a similar setting as Cedric Hardwicke meets his demise. Trust me, that's about the ONLY similarity between those two films. Also, another definite inspiration or "homage" to GET CARTER occurs in the BBC TV mini-series of Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective": the corpse of a naked woman is pulled from the Thames and is shot in exactly the same style and angle as a scene in GET CARTER where a corpse of a naked woman is pulled from a lake. The body is dragged up and placed face down -- then it is flipped over by the corpse's left shoulder so that it lies face up. Both shots are nearly identical and THE SINGING DETECTIVE shot was almost certainly meant to recall this shot in GET CARTER.
Mike Hodge's unblinking direction depicts violence as it actually is: sudden, brutal and often a complete shock. Combine this with masterful photography, perfect casting, a gritty screenplay and a haunting score and GET CARTER is one of the best films of its kind there is. Sadly, GET CARTER has always been practically unknown in the U.S. while in Britain it's something of a national treasure; in fact, the 2000 (terrible, I hear) remake with Sylvester Stallone was greeted with horrified indignation in England as the tarnishing of a British institution . . . while the Americans were merely bewildered why Hollywood chose to make a big remake of a film no one here had ever heard of. The excuse for the failure of the 1971 original to find an audience here has always been that it's too British for Americans to fully grasp but that's a load of nonsense. It has been compared to the vastly inferior TAXI DRIVER in tone. That's perhaps the only similarity between the two. TAXI DRIVER is overpraised while GET CARTER is overlooked. Do yourself a favour. Get a copy of GET CARTER. And look.


Weaverman said...

An absolute classic as you say. I've been to some of those grey Northern towns and the film evokes them beautifully (if beautiful can be applied to, of course, this was remade by you American guys as a Sylvestre Stallone film. ok. I won't embarass you any further - damn it, I remade THE ITALIAN JOB as well! Shame on you.

Cerpts said...

I believe I saw a brief 5 minutes of the remake of The Italian Job and leapt for the remote control to turn it off.

What can I say -- we Yanks have a LOT to answer for.