Michael Caine was at the peak of his post-“Alfie” stardom when he took on one of the darkest anti-heroes of his career in “Get Carter,” a hardboiled 1971 “hunt down the blokes who killed me brother” thriller that launched the big screen career of writer-director Mike Hodges.
Fifty years later, it’s still one of the definitive gangland films — a grim, violent and gritty tale of “dark ages” 1970s Britain.
I first encountered “Carter” prepping for an interview with Hodges in an early 2000s edition of the Toronto Film Festival. He’d gone on to make “Flash Gordon” (he did lots of Queen music videos), “A Prayer for the Dying” and “Black Rainbow,” but had burst back into the limelight for discovering and “making” Clive Owen in “The Croupier” and a lesser thriller which he was promoting in Toronto, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”
“Last Night in Soho” whetted the appetite for this milieu for me, so when “Carter” popped up on the telly, of course I was in.
“Get Carter,” which Hodges later remade with Sly Stallone (not awful, just inferior) pops off the screen with its blunt lol depiction of a society in decay, still clinging to vestiges of grandeur at the pinnacle of civilization, but with the gloom and rot showing everywhere you cared to look.
Aged infrastructure, open corruption, an out of date police force, architecture that was old when “the war” was over and guns were still rare enough that when Jack travels, he shows up with a double-barreled (hunting) shotgun. And even that’s enough to earn “call the cops” threats from the ageing hooker/landlady (Rosemarie Dunham) of his bed-sit.
Jack Carter has done well enough for himself in London as an English version of the “made man.” But he’s come back to his hometown (Newcastle-on-Tyne) to pay his respects to his late brother. Carter establishes his bonafides with the ease with which he lifts a latchlock on the room where his brother’s body was prepped for burial.
But the story of sibling Frank’s demise “don’t add up.” Drunk driving, car ended up in the water?
“Frank was too careful to die like that.”
Jack’s questions are methodical, his march up the hierarchy of his old stomping grounds haphazard but unbothered, confident. It’s as if he’s got some sort of immunity from the London mob. And he’s ruthless about displaying his toughness.
“You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job. Now behave yourself.”
There are seductions, young and old, as the dapper Carter works his way from horse races to discotheques to mob mansions and through “birds” who may know something, be of use in some way or simply be unfinished business from his earlier days.
The way he treats men — tough guys or otherwise — will make you flinch. The way he treats women — his mercurial temper explodes into violence — will make you cringe.
Hodges, fresh from British TV, immerses us in this world and showcases it with the usual “I’ve got the time and money to do arresting camera angles, crane shots” flash of a good, experienced filmmaker finally getting the chance to make a feature film.
He sends our hero fleeing two mugs in an uglier-than-ugly Fiat (they’re chasing him in a then ten-year-old Jaguar Mark II), plowing through laundry hung on lines out behind seedy townhouses. Hodges arranges a “rescue” by one of the many “birds” Carter attracts, hurtling around an overcast, half-ruined coal town in a top-down Sunbeam Alpine convertible, “drunk” driving in the days before seatbelts and pretty erotic by the standards of the time.
That was cool, then.
The supporting cast crackles with authenticity. Most of the acting money must have gone to Caine, so the mugs are an impressive gathering of crusty bit players and a very young Britt Eklund.
And Caine, in dark suits and ties, often with a black trench coat, sometimes nude, shimmers with menace — Cool Caine before “Cool Britainnia” caught up with him.
The situations Hodges puts him in are fraught, but Carter is unflappable. The settings he has to revisit are both familiar and distasteful to a bloke who’s living larger in Carnaby Street/”Soho” London. But he does what he has to do.
“Clever sod, you are.”
“Get Carter” is a movie of its time, with a lot of dated attitudes and crime film tropes. But I was startled at how it still pops, how the time capsule Cockney, visuals and vibe still play fifty years on. With Caine giving hints that he’s “retired” (and then denying them), it’s worth looking back on all he was when he was that.
Rating: R, graphic violence, sex, nudity
Cast: Michael Caine, Britt Eklund, Ian Hendry, Alun Armstrong, Rosemarie Dunham, Geraldine Moffat
Credits: Scripted and directed by Mike Hodges, based on a Ted Lewis novel.
Running time: 1:52