In Get Carter (1971), Michael Caine plays Jack Carter, London mobster poking his nose into circumstances surrounding his brother Frank’s death. The story is that Frank drunkenly drove his car into the river, and police have sewn the case up, but Jack suspects murder. Frank’s girl Margaret (Dorothy White) doesn’t meet Jack when he arrives, and stumbles in late to the funeral service. Frank’s daughter Doreen (Petra Markham) is depressed and adrift. Picking up the thread from Frank’s friends, Jack unravels a complex tapestry of lies involving criminals and corrupt sorts: local mob boss Kinnear (John Osborne), Kinnear’s girl Glenda (Geraldine Moffatt), creepy chauffeur Eric (Ian Hendry), connected “customer” Albert (Glynn Edwards), and arcades owner and “demon king” Brumby (Bryan Mosley). Jack’s London reputation precedes him and his own brother told people Jack was no good, but their reactions to his presence and his inquiries also reveal their guilt.
Once Jack finds the reason for Frank’s death in a porno film featuring young Doreen, his quest becomes one of pure vengeance. Jack was already nasty, relentless and ruthless when driven by curiosity; he’s unstoppable and terrifying with a personal motive. “I know you didn’t kill him,” Jack says to Albert, stabbing him with each word. Specific guilt no longer matters and Jack makes his way through everyone involved, using them to implicate each other and leaving the most guilty person for last. That character is stalked along rails and shoreline in a bleak and exciting sequence, nicely cut together with images of the police raiding and searching Kinnear’s mansion, “The Heights.”
Jack reads Raymond Chandler on his way back home to Newcastle, signaling his intention as detective, and his character’s affiliation to hard boiled fiction, as a loner and amoral outsider seeking personal justice. But Get Carter was a new kind of hard boiled, with graphic sex, grime and nudity, a vivid picture of working class Newcastle contrasted with its newer buildings and offices, and criminals recognizing the changing times and aspiring to classier ventures.
For this world, Jack doesn’t need to be a knight and he certainly isn’t one: “I’m the villain in the family, remember?” He’s first seen in the film as part of a group looking at pornography, and later looks upon young girls with some guilt. As Jack gets closer to the truth, he’s threatened and given false leads meant to involve him as a pawn. He’s even warned by his own bosses back in London because they don’t approve of his rogue action. But he’s too determined, and always too smart to fall for anything, suspecting all gifts and warm welcomes, using the women to get closer to men and information, and trusting nobody. Jack’s exactly the character to navigate this maze of seediness, and Caine the actor to make such a man likable. A man like Jack deserves a better drink in a thin glass, retains the cruel sense of humour from his youth, takes off people’s glasses to search for truth in their eyes, and surprises opponents with the viciousness that explodes from his calm, assured exterior. “Nosy is not always a healthy way to be,” is an ominous prophecy that comes true after Jack’s done taking out the trash.
Much was made of the film’s violence, which shocked in 1971 and includes Jack tossing Brumby off a high balcony to crash on a passing car. With the size of shotgun Jack carries there’s bound to be blood, and there are faces mangled in fights, but it’s tame by today’s standards. The lasting shock value comes from the film’s grim but stylish realism, which puts its violence and sleazy activities far above the cartoonish theatrics and too-clever twisty construction that spoil so many copycat crime films. The suspense works because of steady pacing, and though Jack’s intensity makes revenge inevitable, there’s still an unpredictability in the way characters behave, the way answers arise and where they lead. Get Carter was based on Ted Lewis’ novel “Jack Returns,” and directed by Mike Hodges.