Get Carter (1971)

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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19 thoughts on “Get Carter (1971)”

  1. Loved this, Kristina.
    ‘Get Carter’ isn’t really my cup-of-tea these days (if I can’t watch it with my two boys, I generally don’t take the time), but I recall liking it quite a bit.
    But honestly, almost anything with Michael Caine has a pretty decent chance of being good.

    And FWIW: I actually thought the Stallone remake was not nearly as bad as some thought, and the soundtrack was good, too. Worth checking out…

    1. No, no way suitable for youngsters. Marks a big change in the gangster and crime genre, inspired tons of copies. I’m a Caine fan too, he is/was one of the few who could make this type of character as watchable and likable as he is. I saw the Stallone remake when it came out and hardly remember any of it so I should re-check it. Thanks so much for reading 🙂

    1. Thank you! Saw it years ago but felt like a revisit. I suspect there are many politicians suitable for tossing like that 🙂

      1. True, but Christie would make a bigger crater than most.

        My initial reaction on glancing at the still was: Huh? What are Chris Christie and Michael Caine doing in the same movie?

  2. Love it when Michael Caine plays tough. “Bloody Hell!” Kind of liked his old man version of Death Wish in Harry Brown couple years back. I also love that film poster!

    1. I have Harry Brown here and always mean to get to it, now would be a great time, to pair it with this… cool actor 🙂

  3. Excellent review. Of course, now you NEED to see the 1972 film HIT MAN just to check out Bernie Casey and company in a crazy reworking of that story. TCM shows it on occasion (and it’s a stellar print at that!)

  4. A wonderful review Kristina,and I
    loved the Chandleresque/Knight references
    which I must admit have escaped my attention.

    Sorry to rain on everyone’s parade but I’m a huge
    Caine NON-fan. The guy has made more terrible
    films than anyone in film history.
    GET CARTER is possibly the most overrated Brit
    Flick ever! I was in Newcastle in the early Seventies
    and it’s the scariest place I’ve ever been to.
    I don’t think a leery “Sarf” East Londoner would have
    survived ten minutes there.
    I did however enjoy Caine and Hodges’ follow up
    PULP a Caine film that’s actually underrated.
    HARRY BROWN is terrible I might add.

    I’m also a non-fan of Guy Ritchie and am glad
    that he has suffered a serious de-railment with his
    Man From Uncle reboot.
    His forthcoming Knights Of The Round Table flick
    with Jude Law and David Beckham also seems
    unlikely box office material.

    I will try to be not so grumpy on future posts 🙂

    1. Not to worry, all opinions are welcome! Ritchie’s movies I’ve never got to like so I agree on that one, maybe that’s why I liked the realism of this one, when the knockoffs that I’ve seen always seem too “try-hard”. As to Caine alternates, someone like Stanley Baker would’ve been interesting, did you have any dream casting in mind? Never saw Pulp, so that goes on the list, and I’m interested to see what Harry Brown’s like then, with these two different reviews 🙂 cheers and thanks

  5. Stanley Baker….now you are talking.
    In the late Fifties he just followed one great film
    after another: VIOLENT PLAYGROUND,YESTERDAY’s
    ENEMY,BLIND DATE,THE CRIMINAL,HELL DRIVERS,
    HELL IS A CITY,JET STORM.
    As a Caine alternative….James Booth perhaps ?

    1. Yup so many great Baker ones there, a few I need to see. James Booth, now that’s interesting, seen him a few movies, and I could see that. Reminder I should get to Darker Than Amber sometime soon, Booth was there and fits into this 70s crime film theme.

  6. Actually I thought Tom Bell would have been great in GET CARTER,
    sadly this brilliant,edgy now forgotten actor’s career was self
    destructing when GET CARTER was made.

    Thinking about HARRY BROWN got me thinking why us Brits can
    lo longer make great crime thrillers (among other things)
    The problem with HARRY BROWN is that it tries to blend a gritty
    urban thriller with ill advised surreal moments that just don’t
    work.
    Things get laughable when Harry is directed to a terraced house
    where hopped up kids are growing cannabis on an industrial
    scale. Harry hopes these losers can supply him with the gun he needs
    before going on the rampage.
    In the real world,and indeed in Harry’s world he would have easily
    been able to buy a gun from some bloke in his local boozer.
    As bad as HARRY BROWN is,it’s a masterpiece compared to the recent
    THE SWEENEY a updated version of the Seventies classic cult TV series.
    I don’t know what was worse in THE SWEENEY the direction or the
    non-acting from some jerk who calls himself “Plan B”
    Actually the TV show produced a couple of decent big screen
    spin-offs with SWEENEY 2 being outstanding.
    The film-makers knew that they could be far more nastier,uglier
    and violent on the big screen.
    Another thriller from the same era is THE SQUEEZE (1977) which like
    SWEENEY 2 is a great social document from the dawn of the Thatcher era.
    Stacey Keach is most convincing as a Brit I might add.
    Keach plays a shabby burned out alcoholic ex cop.
    His nemesis is nasty gangster Stephen Boyd on a blistering return
    to form.
    THE SQUEEZE is available from Warner Archive and is highly recommended.

    1. The Squeeze sounds great, would love to see Boyd in that! Thanks for that and for thoughts on Harry Brown, interesting and I find a lot of newer crime movies are just trying too hard to reinvent the wheel, or overloading in the style by copying Tarantino or just being silly and cartoonish, rarely finding solid realistic character-driven crime thrillers anymore.

      Tom Bell I know very well, seen him in The Criminal and Payroll, the Prime Suspect series and others, AND The Krays, which is timely to mention since there’s that Tom Hardy Legend version now.
      Thanks!

  7. Kristina, You will love Stephen Boyd in THE SQUEEZE he is
    outstanding-he brings wonderful darkly comic touches to his brutal
    and nasty character.
    WOW! a Tom Bell fan…now I’m VERY impressed.
    Yep! I’m gonna give the Hardy Krays film a go but I’m going in with
    very low expectations.

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