Thursday, June 25, 2009

“Get Carter”: A Re-examination

If English writer Derek Raymond exercises an influence in death that’s disproportionate to that which he achieved in life (and I believe he does), then his cinematic counterpoint is certainly director Mike Hodges’ 1971 production of Get Carter, based on the obscure novel Jack’s Return Home, by Ted Lewis.

This film, in fact, was lost to the British public for many years, only resurfacing when--much to Hodges’ chagrin--the magazine Loaded adopted it as the epitome of mid-1990s lads culture. It’s a reading of the film that is either entirely insensible or willfully incorrect. Because Get Carter is a purposefully sour vision of Britain at the dawn of the ’70s, providing as desolate a perspective on the country as post-punk would offer towards that decade’s conclusion.

The narrative itself concerns mobster Jack Carter (Michael Caine), a native of Newcastle, now living in London and working for a local “firm.” As the film opens, we see Carter pour himself a drink, clearly bored with the pornographic movie his bosses are watching. It’s an important beat; we see that Carter is a nowhere man. He’s not with these men, not really; but he’s not apart from them, either. As he sits back down, the camera voyeuristically slides over the supple curves of Anna (Britt Ekland) and we sense the implication: they’re conducting an affair. Momentarily distracted from his porn, Carter’s boss asks Jack not to return home, to let the police handle “it” (the supposed car-crash death of his elder brother, Frank), and we gather that these two are at cross-purposes.

It’s a strong scene, precisely because Hodges imparts so much information through so little effort; it feels naturalistic despite its density. As such, it sends a message to the audience: this is a film you either pay close attention to, or you’ll be left behind. And then we see Carter on board a train, bringing pain, both physical and personal, to everyone involved in the unfolding tragedy. The score, a key part of Get Carter’s artistic success, warrants a mention here. British jazz man Roy Budd brings a propulsive funk to the film that heightens the already intensifying sense of storm clouds gathering.

Carter’s return to Newcastle is ostensibly to attend his estranged brother’s funeral, although it’s not until we visit the family home that we realize this. In a grubby house, with chunks of wallpaper missing from the walls, we find the corpse of Frank Carter. It’s there that one of the core themes of the film is introduced: decline. This house had once been a comfortable abode, where Frank lived with his wife and Doreen (Petra Markham), his daughter. But nobody’s paid attention to the décor in years and, certainly, nobody lives there. Finding it hard to credit his sibling’s passing to accidental circumstances, Carter begins to question the people in his brother’s life: Frank’s daughter, his mistress, his workmates. This exercise, coupled with the fact that Jack Carter was reading a Raymond Chandler paperback novel on the train north, informs us that far from being classified as a gangster film, which it often is, Get Carter can be viewed as a British private eye movie. And, as is commonly true of works in that genre, Get Carter is less about the case and more about the nature of the man working it.

The gangster elements of this 38-year-old film are, in point of fact, fairly conventional: the London firm that employs Carter has interests in Newcastle, and there’s a war brewing between the Newcastle firms, both of which become increasingly nervous about Carter’s presence in their city and try to recruit him through both obvious and covert means. The question of whether brother Frank was involved with those local gangsters, and to what extent they were responsible for his death, is, of course, one of the things driving Carter. As a piece of narrative, this tale is not dissimilar from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929). Unlike Hammett’s novel, however, there are innocents in Get Carter’s world, and the film is careful to take note of when they’re injured--such as when Keith, a local barman who is slightly in awe of Carter, is left to take a beating meant for the visiting gangster. It’s this attitude towards violence, that you simply need to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that really marries the worldviews of Ted Lewis and Derek Raymond and, therefore, positions this film as the cinematic equivalent of one of Raymond’s “black novels.”

Another key theme of the film is escape. This is brought to particular prominence when Carter interrogates Margaret (Dorothy White), his brother’s mistress, on the swing bridge. He explains to her that he’s only returned to this “crap house” to find out what became of his brother, and the viewer is forced to consider that this is a man who fled Newcastle for London only to become a lieutenant in a firm. But he might have taken the same dangerous path had he remained, and now he and Anna are planning to escape to South America: he’s a man who’s never stopped running. “We are what we are, like it or not,” Margaret says. If we didn’t recognize it before, we see it now: Carter has been quietly imploding for some time.

Such hints about Jack Carter unraveling are confirmed in the next major scene, during which we join him and a local gang boss’ “moll,” Glenda (Geraldine Moffat), as they make love under a coverless duvet, our eyes drawn to the mirror at the head of the bed in which their reflections can be seen, intentionally recalling the voyeurism of the pornographic movie running at the start of the film. When Glenda excuses herself from the bedroom, Carter gets up to turn on another projector. In a cinematic tour de force, the camera settles on Caine’s face and we are allowed to observe the action of that film he’s viewing both in the reaction of his features and the reflection of the mirror behind him. It’s another pornographic picture. Only this one, to the horror of the audience as well as Carter, does not feature some anonymous young woman; instead, it stars Doreen, his niece (who, it’s suggested, is actually his daughter). Having a personal connection to the subject matter, Carter can no longer marshal the professional detachment of the P.I. First he crumbles and then, with discernible effort, he exerts control.

As with all noir protagonists, Jack Carter is ultimately doomed. This is grimly and obviously played out across the last third of the film as the audience finds Carter, once an individual informed by his self-imposed control, being informed instead by his directed anger. The film ends with the now feral Carter, who had become a liability to the criminal institution he serves, being executed upon a beach. As nihilistic an ending as could be imagined.

Unlike the majority of crime cinema works, Get Carter isn’t a celebration of flawed masculinity or triumphant individualism. It’s an interrogation of lives at the margins of human society, margins populated by the increasingly desperate. (It’s significant that director Hodges has a background as a reporter for the old British investigative program World in Action.) The world of Get Carter is one where people simply prey upon one another and in so doing render whatever victories they may achieve pyrrhic.

* * *

Here’s the theatrical trailer to Get Carter, which has been hailed by film critics as the greatest British movie of all time:

And let us add a little bit of news, excerpted from the Comments section of this post. The writer is Maxim Jakubowski, celebrated British editor and former bookstore owner:
You might all be interested to learn that Mike Hodges, who is a good friend, has recently written his first novel. “Watching the Wheels Come Off” is a noir comedy about a day in the life of [a] failed con man when everything goes from bad to worse. It has just appeared in France from Rivages and the English-language edition will appear in March of next year in the UK from my new list, Maximum Crime, from John Blake Publishing.
We’ll undoubtedly have more to say about this later.

READ MORE:A Conversation with Writer/Director Mike Hodges,” by Maxim Jakubowski (Mulholland Books); “Ted Lewis: Noir Maverick,” by Brian Greene (Criminal Element).


MysterLynch said...

Great film that I am going to have to revisit. It has been years since I watched it.

Nice article, thanks for bringing GC back into my mind.

Stuart Neville said...

Excellent piece on an excellent film. Bothe Ted Lewis's novel and the screen adaptation were hugely influential on me. Everyone should see Get Carter.

Paul D Brazill said...

Fantastic piece Gordon. Carter is indeed a fish out of water 'dahn-sath' and in his home town....My only quibble would be that 'Get Carter' was far from lost in the north east of England. I remember my brother telling me about it when I was a kid and the oft quoted lines where as commonly used as 'Make my day!' when I was growing up. I first saw it on BBC2 sometime at the end of the 70's and it was a film that EVERONE talked about at work the next day.

Ed Gorman said...

Thanks for running this excellent piece on one of the finest hard boiled movies I've ever seen. I have it on both VHS and DVD and watch it two or three times a year. For all that I like noir I'm not a big fan of the shoot `em up approach we've become accustomed to- even Walter Hill got into that trap. Johnny Handsome was wasted on bullshit gun bravado. Could have been an interesting film. But Mike Hodges managed to give his bloody story depth by carefully getting the sociology down correctly. These are people not action stereotypes and it's poverty as much as greed that have turned some of them into savages. Hodges has had a troubled career but I like many of his films. The most confounding of his movies is A Prayer For The Dying. He had a perfect tight brutal straightforward story to tell based on a very good Jack Higgins novel but for some reason in the third act he overreached and turned it into opera--comic opera. The last ten minutes are among the loopiest moments in film I've ever seen. But get Carter is his masterpiece.

Ali Karim said...

Did you like the Stallone remake......


Paul D Brazill said...

Just got this link from Nick Quantrill

oh, and I really like 'Pulp'

Gordon Harries said...

Guys, many thanks for the responses (really nice to feel as though I’m not pontificating into the wind.)

Paul: -- Obviously, the film was always regarded as a ‘lost’ classic in Britain, but The Rap Sheet’s audience is broader than what someone from the North-west of blighty can be expected to know.

Ali: --Not only did I KNOW someone was going to make that joke, I thought it might be you! Now, which crime writer of our acquaintance owns a copy or the Stallone version and not the Caine, hmm?

Ed: -- (Cullen Gallagher was just talking about you the other day, oddly enough.) many thanks for stopping by. I’m actually a big fan of Hodges and it’s been fascinating to see him taking some of the directorial ideas he developed in Carter and apply them to more recent fare such as ‘Croupier’ and ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’


Jay Stringer said...

Great article. Makes me wish i still had a copy of the film so i could drop it in right now.

I remember the first time i saw this was on some late night screening on terrestrial television as a teenager. Caught it just as it was starting and decided to give it a go.

The bit that really warped me? Realizing that there was still a woman in the boot of the car. For all i know, she's still there.

jedidiah ayres said...

Solid film. Solid piece... yup.

Unknown said...

You might all be interested to learn that Mike Hodges, who is a good friend, has recently written his first novel. "Watching the Wheels Come Off" is a noir comedy about a day in the life of failed conman when everything goes from bad to worse. It has just appeared in France from Rivages and the English language edition will appear in March of next year in the UK from my new list, Maximum Crime, from John Blake Publishing...

Gordon Harries said...

Maxim, that is EXCELLENT news.. so pleased to hear that it all came together!

Max Allan Collins said...

I saw this when it came out, and loved it. It was regarded by some reviewers -- and by me -- as the British response to POINT BLANK.

Unknown said...

Great analysis and break down, Gordon. It's been years since I've seen it (Michael Caine--along with Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood--were huge favorites around my parents house as a kid, so Get Carter was played two or three times a year.) although I recently re-read Lewis's novel and the impact of Lewis' prose style is huge and I find it surprising that the majority of his novels are no longer in print

RJR said...

One of the best British Noir films, one of the best Noir films, period, and one of Michael Caine's best.


Howard Linskey said...

Terrific article. Makes me want to go off and watch it again....for the more than umpteenth time.

Mike White said...

Fantastic piece!

One note: >>naturalistic despite it’s density. As such<< *its

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Thanks, Mike, for pointing out the "it's" typo. That has now been fixed.