Whew! Get Carter–director Mike Hodges’ cinematic film debut and undisputed king of the British gangster movie–is complicated. That’s just one of the many things I love about it.
It’s a righteous flick. It checks out.
Intricate plot twists, lots of dialogue and low volume sequences where you have to listen ever so carefully, or at least rewind it five or six times? √
Realistic action scenes with memorable but not over the top violence? √
A handsome gangster with narrow eyes and a razors edge streak of good? √√ & √
See what I mean? Righteous.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. The complicated plot.
Early in the film we see Michael Caine as lead character Jack Carter. He’s on a train bound from London to his hometown of Newcastle. Carter’s mob boss has warned him not to ruffle any feathers over his brother Frank’s untimely death. Stay in London where you belong, he’s been told. It was an accident. But Jack doesn’t believe it. Frank wasn’t the careless type. And besides that, he was a good bloke. Relatively straight, all things considered. Not like Carter at all.
On the train, Carter attempts to read the Raymond Chandler novel Farewell My Lovely. This detail is both amusing and key. Amusing because as time lapses on the train, Carter remains only ten or so pages into the book. (Obviously it’s too highbrow and complicated for him.) Key because the plot lines of Chandler’s novel traverse a similar twisting and turning trek as Carter’s journey, although you don’t have to be familiar with the book to understand the movie (but it doesn’t hurt.)
What is relative here is that we understand that Get Carter is your standard–though amazingly crafted–detective/mystery movie, albeit with a glaring twist: Carter, a London mob hit man, is the detective investigating the murder.
The are other classic plot devices too, such as the fish out of water mechanism. Like a lot of suit wearing criminals, Carter thinks of himself as a cosmopolitan rouge. He looks down his nose at his hometown and thinks that he’s better than the blue collar gangsters he’s forced to rub shoulders with. Case in point: upon ordering a beer, he demands that it be served to him in a thin glass. Makes a big show of it. This attitude hardly wins him any friends and the one young man who might be counted on as loyal, he readily and royally screws over.
Such ruthlessness is a reoccurring theme in Get Carter. Carter screws just about everybody over.
He does have a soft spot for his deceased brother, though. The scene where he carefully unscrews the lid of Frank’s coffin so that he can view his body is touching and unexpectedly tender.
Anyway, back to Farewell My Lovely. In it the plot involves a politically connected physician who is also a drug dealer. In Get Carter the plot hinges upon a vending machine supplier and the commodity in question is pornography. Keep in mind that pornography was illegal in the UK during the seventies and the laws regulating it are still much stricter than similar laws in the US.
The movie opens with Carter and his London mob associates sitting around a projector in a posh high-rise watching what was called a stag film back in the day. The mob boss runs his hand lasciviously up the thigh of young blonde woman who exchanges uncomfortable glances with Carter. This is where Carter is warned not to get involved with the Newcastle mob. The sound of rustling wind blowing through the hollows is present. It is an ominous, lonely sound. Where does it come from? The high-rise is as tight as a drum.
Later, in his hometown, Carter is in bed with the Newcastle mob boss’ woman. That’s just one of his peccadilloes–he doesn’t know his place and won’t take orders. He respects no boundaries. Predictably, Carter insults the woman and she storms off to the bathroom. There is a film projector on the nightstand. Carter lights a cigarette and turns on the projector. The film begins to roll. Once again there is the sound of wind blowing, seemingly, from nowhere.
This is just one of Mike Hodges’ many subtle, sophisticated flourishes that makes the intensely dark subject matter more palliative. And that’s a good thing considering nihilisms tendency to make short shrift of its welcome and the almost two hour duration of the film.
On the surface it is tempting to over romanticize Hodges’ cinematic directorial debut when, in fact, he was a well known veteran of British television where he wrote, directed and produced two gritty, celebrated small screen thrillers, 1969’s Suspect and 1970’s Rumour. It was the success of those TV movies and his reputation for making arresting documentaries that earned him the right to write and direct Get Carter; that and the fact that the European branch of MGM was closing up shop and the studio heads wanted to shoot Get Carter on the cheap. Most of the funds went to Michael Caine who had only recently become a bona fide star. So MGM rolled the dice with Hodges’, but he was no gonzo breakout director like Queintin Tarantino was with Reservoir Dogs.
Get Carter is a terrific movie, but it’s not perfect. As I have made clear before, the 70s are my favorite cinematic time period. There are, however, excesses of the period that diminish the power of the art form. The overemphasis of on screen sexuality is one of those excesses that bloats Hodges’ otherwise lean and mean machine. There’s just too much screen time dedicated to Carter gettin’ busy. I’ve heard it said that the phone sex scene where Carter titillates his fiance and his slutty land lady simultaneously is revolutionary. To me it’s an unnecessary ploy to cram as much sex into a mainstream film as possible. But hey, it was the 70s. Endurance was key.
All things considered, Get Carter is a must-see for gangster movie aficionados in particular and anyone else who enjoys a sound, well built movie. If that doesn’t do it for you, watch it for Michael Caine’s performance. It’s wicked.