US Release Date: 03-18-1971
Directed by: Mike Hodges
- Michael Caine, as
- Jack Carter
- Britt Ekland, as
- Ian Hendry, as
- Eric Paice
- John Osborne, as
- Cyril Kinnear
- Bryan Mosley, as
- Cliff Brumby
- Dorothy White, as
- Petra Markham, as
- Doreen Carter
- Geraldine Moffat, as
- Tony Beckley, as
- George Sewell, as
- Con McCarty
- Alun Armstrong as
Michael Caine in Get Carter.
Rarely in the history of cinema has the protagonist of a film been as much of a bastard as Jack Carter is in this film. Apart from being good at his job he has no redeeming features. He's a cold blooded, icy hearted killer who is out for revenge following the murder of his brother. While revenge as a plot is fairly common, never has it been carried out quite so ruthlessly. In almost any other film, Carter would be the villain, but here he's the "good" guy simply by virtue of being not as bad as the really bad guys.
Released in 1971, this is one of those transitional films from an era when more adult content was starting to be included, such as the nudity and violence on display here, but before the fully polished modern look was perfected. The blood and violence isn't quite realistic and the nudity on display is more natural, shall we say, than you would expect to see nowadays.
The plot is fairly simple. Jack Carter is a gangster living in London who returns to his hometown in the North of England to attend the funeral of his brother who has died under mysterious circumstances. It doesn't take long for Carter to figure out it was murder, although exactly who did it and why takes a bit longer, and soon he is killing everyone involved, only taking time out long enough to sleep with a couple of women and even engage in what must be the first example of explicit phone sex ever put in a movie with a topless Britt Eckland.
What makes this movie really work is Michael Caine. He brings some humor and most importantly some humanity to the part. In some ways this makes Carter worse though, because he's not a machine, he just acts like one sometimes. A few times we see through his cracks to the man beneath, but that only serves to emphasize his actions when he kills or when he, in one scene, calmly stands by and watches a car that he knows has a woman in the trunk, get pushed into the water.
Caine delivers his lines with panache and that distinctive voice of his. He wrings humor out of lines like, "You're a big man, but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full time job.", which doesn't sound like much written, but is memorable when he says it.
The 1970s was a time of unrest in England, with civil strife amongst the unions and rising inflation and unemployment, particularly in the industrial North where this movie was set. The infamous Kray twins, England's most notorious mobsters, were convicted to life sentences just two years prior to this movie's release. It's easy to see this movie as a reflection of the time period. Although knowledge of the era isn't necessary for enjoyment of it, I think it helps the appreciation of it.
Get Carter regularly appears near the top of greatest British movies lists. As recently as 2004, Total Film magazine named it the greatest British movie in any genre. That's overstating it, but you can see its influence in British Gangster films even today. It's obvious Guy Ritchie is a fan and Quentin Tarantino has called it his favorite British film.
Both dated and ahead of its time, Get Carter may not be the greatest British movie of any genre, but it's certainly one of the best of its type, thanks in no small part to Michael Caine.
Michael Caine has a big gun in Get Carter.
Get Carter was Mike Hodges debut feature as a director. He brings a bit of creativity and panache to the proceedings. In one sequence Carter breaks into a mansion where a poker game is going on. He hits one guard in the head with a large stick before out-running several other guards to get inside the house. It's a fairly intriguing and original sequence.
But once Carter is inside where said poker game is being played the director gets a bit too cute. He shoots nearly the entire scene from behind one character with most of the screen being filled with a blurry image of the back of their head, while the character actually doing the talking is only partially visible in the corner of the screen. It's quite distracting to say the least, and calls too much attention to the shot itself.
In my review for The Ipcress File I complained that Michael Caine was unsuited for playing action roles, even going so far as making fun of how he looked when running. In the intervening years between that movie and this he improved greatly as a believable tough guy. Hell even his running looks more natural and less awkward here. Carter engages in plenty of fisticuffs and Caine pulls it all off beautifully.
He's tough as nails. In one scene he manhandles a naked woman in a shower and almost seems to be channeling James Cagney. Like Cagney often did, he brings experiences from his working class upbringing to the part. In a word, he's superb.
The dialogue is also quite memorable. When Carter tracks down a former colleague at the tracks, he tells the man to remove his sunglasses, then offhandedly comments, “You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow.” To another man who is pleading for his life by telling Carter (about Carter's murdered brother), “I didn't kill him!” Carter replies, “I know you didn't kill him! I know!” And then proceeds to stab the guy to death without a glimmer of remorse or hesitation.
Get Carter is fast-paced with lots of action and sex (it was originally given an X rating, which was later downgraded to R). As Scott said its influence on directors like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie are quite obvious. Stephen Soderbergh's 1999 movie The Limey is a direct homage to Get Carter.
The action and tension don't let up until the final shot. The last 10-15 minutes are brilliantly executed. Like Scott, I'm not sure this is the greatest British film of all time but it is certainly a classic with a terrific central performance from Michael Caine.
Britt Ekland doing an X-rated scene for 1971.
Get Carter, like The Godfather released the following year, contains a lead character that is a bold faced dangerous criminal but the audience is intended to root for them anyway. Both stories utilize family as the method by which we are supposed to sympathize with a murderer. The entire theme of The Godfather is that family comes first and they protect it at all costs. Here, Carter is a murdering hood out to revenge the death of his brother. Like most of the cast of The Godfather, Carter should be behind bars or on death row, but we find ourselves caught up in his investigation and revenge for his brother's death none-the-less.
As good as the film is at getting us to side with a cold blooded murderer, I never really cared if he killed anyone or not. Get Carter missteps a few times. The plot is sometimes a bit unclear with all the different men and their goons seeming to blend together at times. After a while I stopped guessing who was who and just accepted that anyone Carter killed must have deserved it.
I agree with Patrick that the direction is sometimes intrusive. It was as if the director was often trying to be cute for cute sake. The scene where the editor cuts back and forth from the hot brunette driving, to her and Carter having sex is needless. We have already seen her flirt insistently with Carter, do we really need the revving up his engine metaphor? Near the end, when Carter is chasing someone, I have no clue who, the camera switches from them running to a bunch of people standing still and back again.
Add in the God awful fake blood and the more humorous than erotic cameo by Britt Ekland and I honestly do not get how this film is considered so great. It is worth a single look, but I have no intention of ever watching it again. The Godfather is a far superior film.
Photos © Copyright MGM (1971)