Get Carter (1971)
Vengeance is Mine says Jack Carter
Frank wasn't like that. I'm the villain in the family, remember? - Jack
"Get Carter" is held in high esteem, it's been over 40 years since it was released, in fact it was released a year before I was born, and yet this British gangster movie still garners praise as being one of the best British movies ever made. But here is the thing the movie industry has changed in those 40 years and watching it now for the first time is a different experience. The brutality of it is less shocking as is the coldness of the anti-hero Jack Carter as he looks for revenge for the murder of his brother and as such whilst I am sure for those who experienced it in the 70s and maybe 80s still remember the impact of watching it, experiencing it now for the first time is not such a revelation. Having said that it is impossible not to be impressed by the movie, the gritty coldness of it and a performance from Michael Caine which allows us to champion a man who in truth is evil.
Following the shock death of his brother, supposedly in a drunken car accident, London heavy Jack Carter (Michael Caine - Battle of Britain) heads to Newcastle to bury him but also discover the truth. Met with less than surprising animosity by the criminal underworld who don't take kindly to his prying Jack slowly unravels what really happened and sets about getting revenge even if it means a few innocent people end up collateral damage.
So here is the thing, the basic storyline of a brother returning home, yes we are informed Jack grew up in Newcastle, to seek revenge for a family death is by no means a new one, it has been used in westerns and thrillers and still provides the basis of many a movie. As such from a basic storyline point of view "Get Carter" plays out in a predictable way, people try to scare Jack off as he slowly discovers what happened before finally going after those who he discovers played a part in his brother's death. And if that was all there was to "Get Carter" it would have ended up a run of the mill revenge movie.
But the first thing which grabs you is that this is a slow, cold and brutal movie where people get hurt and not just those who are bad. In various scenes we witness Jack using people, the landlady of the B&B he stays in not only gets attacked but Jack also callously sleeps with her and even before that he tries to play with her mind by having phone sex with a lover in front of her. Then there is the barman who ends up beaten to a pulp because he helped Jack out and Jack callously throws money at him, unsympathetic that he is in agony and messed up. The cold brutality of it which sees women hit and used is one of the elements which whilst I am sure had a greater impact in the 70s has lost some of the shock factor thanks to the changing landscape of cinema.
But this brutality leads us to the character of Jack Carter and Michael Caine's performance as the unrelenting anti-hero. Now Carter is a typical anti-hero, we know he is a heavy for a couple of London mobsters and we discover he is prone to dishing out beatings be it towards men or women yet we still champion him. For such a relentless cold user and thug it feels so wrong to be on his side yet somehow we are and some of that is down to the fact that it is Michael Caine playing the role. But this is where Caine's brilliant performance takes over because not once does he give us a reason to like Carter, there is no kindness or generosity just a man devoid of emotion and only looking out for himself. In many ways it is brave of Caine to play such a heartless man but he pulls it off and whilst there are other recognizable faces such as Britt Ekland, Alun Armstrong and Bryan Mosley it is Caine's performance which commands your attention.
The other thing which commands your attention is the coldness which director Mike Hodges delivers through his use of Newcastle. I don't remember seeing a single sunny scene making it a bleak place, a concrete jungle of cold buildings. Throw in some nice camera angles especially those which feature Jack Carter with rifle in hand and it is all very memorable.
What this all boils down to is that I can appreciate why "Get Carter" is held in such high esteem because it would have had a greater impact when released back in 1971. But with cinema having changed in the past 40 years watching it now softens some of the shock and brutality which helped make it a classic.
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