Friday, June 12, 2009

Life In A Northern Town

While I have a strong affection for The Long Good Friday and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, there is no doubt in my mind that Get Carter is the “daddy” of British gangster movies. For the avoidance of any confusion, I obviously mean the original 1971 film featuring the iconic Michael Caine, which Total Film magazine rated as the greatest British film of all time, as opposed to the muscle-bound 2000 re-make starring Sylvester Stallone.

Get Carter is a brutally simple tale of revenge, featuring a series of vicious killings, as Jack Carter, a vindictive and amoral gangster, sets out to avenge the death of his brother, who died in suspicious circumstances in Jack’s home town of Newcastle.

The film is the proverbial game of two halves. The first half establishes the movie’s mood, as Carter travels from London to Newcastle for his brother’s funeral. While preparing for the burial, he begins to suspect that the death was not an accident, so seeks out his brother’s friends and acquaintances in the local underworld.

Although it is highly satisfying watching Caine once again proving how well he can play a tough guy, particularly set against the grim background of derelict housing in a run-down Newcastle, the movies really kicks on in the second half after Carter discovers that just about very low-life he’s questioned has been lying to him.

Carter: You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. They're still the same. Pissholes in the snow.

Eric: Still got your sense of humour

Carter: Yes, I retained that, Eric.

Carter’s subsequent vengeance is unrelenting and ruthless, as he dives back into the seedy northern town to take out each of his enemies with no remorse and maximum brutality. Early on Carter is shown reading “Farewell, My Lovely”, which is ironic, as Carter is nothing like a Raymond Chandler hero: he’s a violent thug who shows his victims no sympathy with anger replacing any trace of compassion. He knifes one man in the heart, pushes another off a multi-storey car park, sends a third out to sea in a shale dumper, shoots a fourth in a ferry boat ambush, drowns one girl and gives a leather-skirted prostitute a fatal injection of heroin. This film was evidently not produced by the North East Tourist Board.

This is old-school violence, real fist-in-the-face stuff that you can feel, as we journey towards the downcast ending. Although the likes of Tarantino and Ritchie have clearly seen Get Carter a few times, their violence is of the post-modern, desensitised variety that leaves you unmoved (oh, did the bad men get hurt?)

Hard as nails and as mad as hell, Carter could have been the inspiration for the unstoppable android in Terminator. He strolls through Geordie-land with the detached air of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti westerns, though he sensibly gives the poncho a miss in favour of a sharp suit - except when he appears in his birthday suit, shotgun in hand:

Carter (naked): Out!

Con: Come on Jack, put it away. You know you're not going to use it.

Peter: The gun he means!

The young Michael Caine had built his reputation in the mid-60s with films such as Zulu, The Ipcress File and Alfie, but arguably Get Carter was his career high, where he was very much the epitome of cool. Incredibly, the film was Mike Hodges’ first job as a director. Arguably, he never bettered his debut, though Croupier (with Clive Owen) had its moments.

Other notable performances come from John Osborne as the silky-smooth local crime boss, whose Edwardian beard detracts little from his air of menace. Britt Ekland adds a touch of glamour, featuring in a telephone sex scene, though it’s actually Carter’s landlady who gets the treat. Best of all is Alf from Coronation Street getting slapped around:

You're a big man, but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full time job. Now behave yourself.

The pivotal moment comes when Carter discovers a pornographic film starring his brother’s young daughter. The scene cuts between Carter watching the extremely upsetting film and the woman he’s just slept with smoking a cigarette in the bath. There is no dialogue, just the sound of the projector slowly growing louder every time we see Carter and cutting out when we see the woman. Caine’s tremendous facial acting speaks volumes, as the hard man is for once reduced to tears.

Although bleak and uncompromising, Get Carter is a landmark movie that has inspired many others and not just in the film world. The influential electronic album “Dare” by The Human League featured a version of the title track. Maybe it’s just my vivid imagination, but it’s surely no coincidence that the two main characters in The Sweeney, the television drama focusing on the Flying Squad, share Jack Carter’s name: Jack Regan and George Carter.

However, maybe the film’s greatest legacy is the gritty, humorous dialogue, which remains eminently quotable to this day, nearly 40 years after it was released:

Eric: So, what're you doing then? On your holidays?

Carter: No, I'm visiting relatives.

Eric: Oh, that's nice.

Carter: It would be... if they were still living.

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