Sunday, November 19, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #17: Get Carter (1971)

Cast: Michael Caine (Jack Carter), Ian Hendry (Eric), Britt Ekland (Anna), John Osborne (Kinnear), Tony Beckley (Peter), George Sewell (Con), Geraldine Moffat (Glenda), Dorothy White (Edna), Petra Markham (Doreen), Alun Armstrong (Keith), Bryan Mosley (Brumby), Glynn Edwards (Albert), Bernard Hepton (Thorpe), Terence Rigby (Gerald Fletcher), John Bindon (Sid Fletcher), Godfrey Quigley (Eddie).

Crew: Mike Hodges (director), Michael Klinger (producer), Mike Hodges (writer), Roy Budd (music), Wolfgang Suschitzky (cinematography), John Trumper (editor), Assheton Gorton (production designer).

Synopsis: Professional killer Jack Carter works for two London gangsters, the Fletcher brothers. Jack is having an affair with Gerald Fletcher’s wife, Anna. Jack travels to Newcastle to investigate his brother’s death. Frank drowned after getting drunk and driving a car into a river, but Carter believes it was murder. He tries to get answers from Margaret, who sometimes slept with Frank. Jack is concerned about Frank’s teenage daughter Doreen. Looking for a bookie called Albert Swift, Carter meets an old enemy – Eric Paice. This leads Jack to Kinnear, a Newcastle crime boss. Carter also encounters a rival gangland figure, Cliff Brumby. The Fletchers send two men from London to bring Jack back but he escapes them. Kinnear’s girlfriend Glenda takes Carter to meet Brumby, who offers £5000 if Jack will kill Kinnear. Carter discovers his niece Doreen was used in a porn film made for Kinnear and arranged by Eric. The movie also featured Margaret, Glenda and Albert Swift. After seeing it, Brumby wanted to have sex with Doreen. Jack takes revenge on all those involved, leaving Eric until last. But Kinnear arranges for another assassin to get Carter. Just after he killed Paice, Jack is shot dead…

Ted Lewis’s novel Jack’s Return Home was still awaiting publication when it was optioned as a potential film by producer Michael Klinger. He got Caine interested in playing the lead. The actor saw the film as a way of portraying British criminals more realistically. ‘I was a co-producer,’ Caine told the San Bernadino County Sun in 2002. ‘One of the reasons I wanted to make that picture was my background. In English movies, gangsters were either stupid or funny. I wanted to show that they’re neither. Gangsters are not stupid, and they’re certainly not very funny.’

Mike Hodges was given the job of adapting the book into a film. It was his first cinema feature, having started in TV on documentary journalism series before helming dramas for the small screen. Hodges shared a background in documentaries with his cinematographer, Wolfgang Suschitzky. This proved useful in keeping the look and style of the film realistic. Hodges completed Get Carter in eight months, just 36 weeks elapsing from the day he received the unpublished novel until editing on the film was finished. ‘That was the white heat this film was made in,’ Hodges says on the commentary track of Get Carter’s DVD release. ‘The shoot was only 38, 40 days. That wouldn’t happen now days.’ The movie had a budget of just $750,000.

The bulk of the film was shot in the English city of Newcastle, with Hodges rewriting his script to incorporate new locations as they were found. The director had never worked with a cinema star like Caine before and admits he had trouble adjusting. But Hodges found the actor was not worried about his public image being damaged by the character of Carter: ‘Caine was prepared to be absolutely ugly and horrible. This picture was a career gamble, in my opinion.’

To satisfy American distributors MGM, Hodges cast Britt Ekland as Carter’s lover Anna. This gave the director freedom to fill the other roles with British character actors. The key role of gangland boss Cyril Kinnear went to John Osborne, writer of the landmark play Look Back in Anger. Caine and Osborne had become friends in the 1950s when both were struggling actors in London. One person who did not like the film’s star was Ian Hendry, cast as Eric Paice. ‘He was very jealous of Caine,’ Hodges recalls. Hendry had been a TV star in the early 1960s before drinking hurt his career. The night before shooting a scene where their characters meet for the first time at a race course, the director brought the two men together for a rehearsal. But Hendry was drunk and became abusive to Caine. Hodges says this disaster unwittingly succeeding in giving the filmed performances an extra edge.

Caine talked about the picture in a 1997 interview with the Guardian. ‘There was an extraordinary morality in Get Carter … one of the reasons Carter is prepared to kill everyone is that someone’s put a person with his surname into a pornographic film. And that’s an incredible moral judgement!’ Caine was proud that the film chose to show the reality of violence. ‘What you get these days, to a great extent, is a pornography of violence which is much more dangerous than a pornography of sex. I’d rather see people screwing each other than killing one another. Just one stab in the stomach – that’s all it takes to kill.’

‘Get Carter is a Jacobean tragedy,’ Hodges told Pitch Weekly in 2000. ‘It’s a heavy body count, and at its very heart is corruption. It’s the sense of violence. There’s not a lot of blood, and the violence is swift. You don’t wallow in it. It’s atmosphere.’

Roy Budd’s distinctive score added to that atmosphere. In his DVD commentary, Hodges says he was delighted by the music Budd provided to accompany the titles. ‘Imbedded in the theme was this melancholic little sound.’ The director asked Budd to take the handful of notes and use it as a refrain throughout the film. ‘It was so haunting.’
When the film was presented to the BBFC in November 1970, the censors required cuts to the scene where Carter stabs Albert to death. ‘The knife was more evident,’ Hodges told Premiere magazine in 2001. ‘I quite wisely took it out, because the less you see of the knife, the more effective the scene is.’ He had actor Glynn Edwards wear a white top to emphasise the blood, and replaced Albert’s dying breath with a ship’s mournful foghorn.

Get Carter was scorned by many reviewers when it was released across Britain in 1971, rated X. The grim mood, seedy subject matter and downbeat ending all came in for criticism, but it was the film’s depiction of violence that shocked and dismayed many. In America Get Carter was rated R and got buried as the second feature on a double bill with Dirty Dingus McGee (1970), a comedy western starring Frank Sinatra.
Get Carter’s archetypal story has provided fertile ground for other filmmakers. The movie was remade with a black cast in America as Hit Man (1972). Acclaimed US director Steven Soderbergh freely acknowledges the influence Get Carter had on his own revenge thriller The Limey (1999), featuring a former flatmate of Caine, Terence Stamp. A year later Sylvester Stallone starred in a new remake, Get Carter (2000), with Caine making a cameo appearance as the Brumby character.

Hodges’ film did not get released on VHS until 1993, when it was reclassified as an 18. But its re-emergence coincided with a new enthusiasm for British pop culture. A few months after Get Carter reached video rental stores, a new magazine called Loaded was launched. This celebrated teenagers and young men with cash in their pockets and a liking for lager. The magazine published a comic strip serialisation of the film, introducing Get Carter to a new generation. Caine became a British icon and the picture’s potent mix of brutal realism and eminently quotable dialogue marked it out as a classic British film. The movie’s critical reassessment had begun. ‘I used to think Get Carter was underrated,’ Caine told GQ in 1997. ‘But now it’s been rated, now it’s very rated.’

In June 1999 Get Carter was reissued in British cinemas to help publicise a video re-release. Three months later the BFI’s poll of the Top 100 British movies of the twentieth century placed Get Carter as the highest of seven Caine films on the list, voted 16th best overall. A year later a DVD version was issued, with a commentary track by Hodges and Suschitzky, augmented by comments from Caine. The actor rarely provides commentaries for DVDs, a sign of how highly he rates this picture.

Caine discussed Get Carter during an interview with Venice magazine in 2002, saying he based the performance on a professional killer he knew. Years after the film was released, the killer gave Caine his own verdict on it: ‘He said “I didn’t think that Get Carter was good, Michael. No family life. Why do you people in the cinema always ignore this. I’ve got a wife, a mortgage, one of my kids is in hospital. All you guys go around fucking all the woman, flashing all their money. I’m not gonna make any money, fucking convicted killer. In Get Carter you just showed the fancy side.”’

Reviews: ‘At any time this would be a revolting, bestial, horribly violent piece of cinema. It is all the worse for being given a quasi-realistic setting and because Caine (who should really know better than to stoop to this sort of thing) is a horribly effective smiling killer.’ – Evening News
‘So calculatedly cool and soulless and nastily erotic that it seems to belong to a new era of virtuoso viciousness.’ – New Yorker

Verdict: Get Carter is a stunning piece of cinema. More than thirty years after its release, the movie retains the power to shock and surprise, both from the bleakness of its content and how fresh it still looks. The swinging 1960s are well and truly over in this picture, the once industrious North reduced to a festering slag heap of corruption, pornography and violence. Caine gives a masterful performance as Carter, his movements precise and deadly. The moment when he watches his niece (who may be his own daughter) being abused in a porn film is Caine as his best, the horror and tears resolving into murderous implacability. Compared to the clutch of corblimey Cockney crime capers that blighted British cinema in the 1990s, Get Carter just keeps getting better with age.

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