Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter

New Yorker critic Pauline Kael stated ”There’s nobody to root for but the smartly dressed sexual athlete and professional killer (Michael Caine) in this English gangland picture, which is so calculatedly cool and soulless and nastily erotic that it seems to belong to a new genre of virtuoso viciousness”. Forty-four years on Get Carter is seen as one of the biggest British cult films of all time and one of Michael Caine’s most iconic roles.

For his first feature film director Mike Hodges uses long lenses shots to create a documentary atmosphere which is especially evident in the crowd scenes. London gangster Carter (Caine) returns to his hometown of Newcastle to investigate the suspicious death of his brother Frank. He reacquints himself with the local crooks and has questions for them. In the opening shot we see Caine look out the large window of his boss’ house in London, the opening bars of Roy Budd’s haunting score appropiately accompany maybe the definivite image of the film. Then the curtains close. Maybe its the ‘soulless’ element that Kael refers to.

When Carter arrives at a local bar in Newcastle, everyone is aware of him. Caine’s performance is amongst his most subtle, his icy stare to his enemies is part of Kael’s definition of Get Carter being a ‘virtuoso viciousness’ genre picture. Roy Budd’s jazzy funk score gives the film its early 70s feel of loss and soon reminds us of Carter’s longing to be free, as he plans to leave for South America after he finishes business. Carter is in nearly every scene, emphasising the thriller element, it is Hitchcockian. In one scene Hodges’ camera stands static at the house of crime boss Cliff Brumby (Brian Moseley) where a party is crashed, Carter just watches. Themes of parenthood are buried in the film’s subconsious, Frank’s daughter Doreen (Petra Markham) and Brumby’s daughter Sandra. They need guidance.

Hodges’ close ups of Caine’s sorrowful face are the essence of the film. Carter is not a family man, his sharp intensity and rage over the death of his brother is enigmaticly portrayed by Caine. The film’s ambiguity of his relationship with his brother is one of its strengths, there are no flashbacks. Carter is very direct, he intimadates most of the men he meets. One of Caine’s major talents is the way he uses very different speech rythmns for the characters that he plays, Carter speaks low and very slowly. Whereas Alfie Elkins in Alfie (directed by Lewis Gilbert, 1966) speaks high pitched and fast. Caine’s ruthlessness throughout the film is so unrelenting. Hodges frames Caine to the left of the shot as a woman, Glenda (Geraldine Moffat) takes a bath. He walks right towards the camera as he puts on his cuff link, he then explodes at Glenda and runs into the bathroom and attacks her. Hodges uses wind on the soundtrack very effectively which emphasises the loneliness of Carter and weariness of the apartment block where Glenda lives.

Hodges’ framing and timing between shots throughout the film is noted. The contrast between Carter and Glenda in the car and in bed afterwards. And cuts between an afterparty and Eric waiting by the docks reminds me how Nicolas Roeg cuts, the action going forward and back. Carter’s head must have had similar thoughts on South America with his boss’ wife Anna (Britt Ekland). He refers to Anna as his fiancee to Doreen and offers her to come with them. I first saw this film over ten years ago and have always wondered about Carter’s getaway to South America, how he could start a whole new life. It is unknown how long he has been away from Newscastle. Playwright John Osborne plays the local crime boss Cyril Kinnear, he is suitably slimy and takes great relish with his lines. Prostitute Margaret (Dorothy White) was close to Frank, her constant anxiety is a reminder of Carter’s risk to deal with his brother’s death alone.

Get Carter is an iconic British cult film, best remembered for Caine’s towering performance and its definitively 70s feel from every edit, music cue and costume. It works well as thriller because we find most things out as Carter does. Its ambuity towards his sense of place in the world as a man and as a gangster are left open. His goal towards clarity and freedom are at the very centre of the film. Carter dreams of a better life even though he is not quiet sure what it would truly mean.

Leave a Reply