British Masterpiece: Get Carter

Get CarterThis week’s selection might seem like an unusual choice for Left Field Cinema, Get Carter is an iconic film, often considered a classic film, and in this episode I will not be tackling the subject from an unusual angle or with a specific analytical intention. The Film: The reason for this decision is because despite most cinephiles being aware of the film at least through its famous poster image of Michael Caine wielding a large and intimidating shot gun a number of my closest friends who all consider themselves film buffs have never actually seen the film. This coupled with the number of votes for the film on IMDb (currently 6,638) when compared with the number of votes for say The Italian Job (9,087) or even the other adaptation of Ted Lewis’s Get Carter from 2000 staring Sylvester Stallone (9,680), signals to me that it is a film which a lot of people think they’ve seen but actually they are only aware of it on an iconic level.

The story follows a London gangster the titular Jack Carter played by Caine, who travels to northern England to discover more about the events leading-up to the supposedly accidental death of his brother. Suspecting foul play he investigates and interrogates getting a feel for the city and its hardened criminal element; with vengeance on his mind the situation frequently explodes into violence and more bodies start falling in the last reel.

For those who’ve never seen the film before it will be a surprising revelation that beneath such superficial aspects like the famous poster and Caine’s trademark and easily mocked speech pattern is a film with truly hidden strengths. The film delves deep into its protagonists closed mind and gives us a human portrayal of a Terminator-like character who kills without mercy and is prone to lightly provoked acts of extreme violence.

Get Carter is uncompromisingly brutal in its portrayal of violence and mayhem. When considering the year of its release, 1971, the films exhausting murderous set-pieces are all the more shocking especially those acts of violence involving women which carry an undercurrent of misogyny and almost an abuse of the patriarchal dominance in the world of this story. A particularly cold and vindictive scene features Carter, making a woman strip almost naked, then whilst straddling her he injects her with a lethal dose of poison. The film is also relatively sexually explicit, Carter talking dirty to his partner over the telephone is another scene that stands out as it uncomfortably cuts between the young woman in the nude riving in pleasure and Carter’s temporary land lady who is obviously in ear shot, who rocks harder and harder in her arm chair, both women being seriously aroused by Carters dulcet tones. Carter has sexual relations with three women in the space of a few days; he is dismissive of most of their feelings and rarely treats them as anything other than objects or another conquest. Yet ultimately what prompts his revenge is the gangsters abuse of his young niece on the set of porn shoot which lends Carter a highly hypocritical character flaw, willing to go all the way to (in part) avenge this transgression with his youthful family member and yet guilty of some of the same behaviour for which he’s so prepared to punish others for. Even the opening scene of the film shows Carter standing by and letting his colleagues in London enjoy a pornographic slide show, this side of his business is find with Carter he is completely accepting of its existence until it gets too close to home. Carter’s hypocrisy gives the protagonist an enjoyably anti-heroic level on which he operates. In this sense Carter is similar to James Bond, another iconic British cinema character who shares a similar level of promiscuity; Carter also represents one of the first tough-guy characters which Caine would be known for in many other films, his role in The Fourth Protocol being another example of a hardened character with a tendency for violent out bursts. Caine is lucky to have avoided typecasting as he is most certainly well suited to the role, and for those of you who’ve never seen him in this type of part it may surprise to see how effective Caine is. Carter is genuinely scary at times and confidently and for most of the film comfortably walks a knife-edge existence as if his righteousness makes him bullet proof.

Get CarterFamous lines and images from the film often override an audience’s memory of Get Carter. Carter’s quick wit when confronting an angry home owner for example “You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape, with me it’s a full time job, now behave yourself.” This is a phenomena common for such classic films, Bullit for example, viewers often recall the famous San Francisco car chase but forget most of the rest of the film – Bullit’s excellent amoral climax being the most neglected section. A similar case to be made for The French Connection as well. The concentration on such elements of Get Carter distracts from the films innovations and its radical presentation, visually the film is a bizarre mixture of claustrophobically close shots and almost panoramic images in places. The films close-ups are often shot from a distance giving the film a voyeuristic feel with more than average activity in the foreground and background of shots; this is then combined with an unusual sound design which has barely any music and often presents a secondary conversation with a louder volume than the primary conversations; this creates an unusual and disorienting effect. The films visual distinction also comes from the many contrasting and cinematically grim locations including an exceptionally tall multi-storey car park, decaying northern pubs, and endless rows of smoke damaged terrace houses.

When compared to the modern popular British gangster films like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch the genre seems to no longer take itself seriously. With only less popular outings such as Layer Cake and Sexy Beast competing with Get Carter’s subtle blend of wit and unflinchingly serious storytelling. Indeed both the Guy Richie’s films mentioned have the feel of parodies rather than new entries in the genre. This is unfortunate as crime in the UK is a massive expanse from which thousands of stories could be derived which don’t always rely on the same jokes about culture clash between the various providences of our diverse nation. Viewers are often very critical of the British gangster sub genre which seems have garnered a reputation of superficiality but back in 1971 there was nothing superficial about Get Carter, yes it might be maligned as a mere revenge movie but its unique visual style and uncompromising violence helps to push it above such narrow categorising. However it is Caine himself who solidifies this as a truly excellent film; throughout most of the first and second act his character is simply an enforcer, an emotionless and intimidating man who cautiously and carefully and occasionally audaciously feels his way around the town; it is his internalised menace and intensity which keeps the film together. He is generally unchallenged up to the third act when the reasons for his brother’s death become clear and Carter finally gets angry, very angry. As I stated earlier Carter is a hypocrite, and as a result it can be argued that the films message is also hypocritical. In terms of moral fibre, this film exhibits very little throughout most of the narrative; Carter kills without remorse and exhibits no forgiveness for the transgressions of his pray, he uses anyone who is possibly useful to him but then leaves them when trouble arrives. He often executes unarmed assailants and occasionally kills those who have nothing directly to do with the death of his brother, but his actions are not entirely without consequence which is lucky as the audience is meant to root for Carter, and we do to a point but also hypocritically our own moral code demands that Carter is also brought to justice for his actions and not allowed to go unpunished.

The film is entertaining from first to last; it breezes by at a dizzy pace and pulls the viewer head first into its distinctive, dark and dangerous world. Is it much more than that? Not really, but it doesn’t need to be; its status is deserved but it is also far greater than its reputation. As a member of the British gangster subgenre, a revenge movie, a character piece, a classic, an icon of 70’s cinema and a British masterpiece It will surprise you on every level.

M.Dawson