Get Carter(1971), written & directed by Mike Hodges, and starring Michael Caine as the amoral titular gangster, is a gritty & nihilistic British crime Drama. It was not well received upon its release, but it’s now revered as one of the greatest British films ever made.
“Pint of Bitter….. in a thin glass”
One of the most famous lines from the 1971 Crime drama, “Get Carter,” adapted for the screen and directed by Mike Hodges from Ted Lewis’ novel, “Jack’s Return Home“; the words are spoken by the film’s titular hero, Jack Carter, played by Michael Caine. Carter is a mob enforcer, working for the ‘Fletchers’ in London. He has just now returned to his hometown of Newcastle to attend the funeral of his brother, who passed away recently – allegedly in a drunken accident. Carter has just stepped off the train at the Newcastle station, and before he visits his brother’s house he stops over at a bar and orders a drink. In a truly iconic moment, Carter first orders a ‘pint of bitter’ and then, as the bartender is walking away, he snaps his fingers and points towards the camera and adds “in a thin glass.” I believe that the line became so popular with the masses that barmen in Newcastle got sick of being asked for drinks “In a thin glass!”. The line can also be considered a summation of the film itself: like the strongly fermented beer that Caine\Carter is drinking, this gangster\crime\neo-Noir is very unlikeable & bitter-tasting but extremely potent & addictive.
The film is filled with sleazy\depraved characters, squalid locations and a truly acidic turn from Caine in the lead role of an amoral, dastardly anti-hero who goes on a ‘raging rampage of revenge’- no wonder this is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films. Carter suspects that his brother was murdered and, after reaching Newcastle, he starts to investigate his brother’s death by diving into the city’s underworld. His brother leaves behind his daughter Doreen Carter and mistress Margaret, from whom he is not able to extract much information. He offers to take Doreen with him, when he and his girlfriend leaves for South America (He’s having an affair with his boss Gerald’s girlfriend, Anna, and hopes to getaway with her soon, after making a clean break with the mob), but Doreen refuses, though she does take the money he offers her. Carter tracks down crime boss Cyril Kinnear, but Kinnear, an even more cold-blooded fellow than Carter, doesn’t seem to be much interested in Carter’s affairs; there he also meets Kinnear’s sultry moll, Glenda, who flirts with him in a drunken state. Meanwhile, his boss Fletchers back in London sends henchmen to Newcastle to ‘Get Carter’ back, but Carter manages to evade them; finding his brother’s murderer has become an obsession with Carter and he’s not returning until he has settled scores, even if it damages the relations between the London and Newcastle cartels. Carter is given businessman Cliff Brumby’s name as a possible suspect, but Brumby points the finger at Kinnear. Carter does not believe this at first, but then he discovers a porno-film at Glenda’s place in which Doreen is being sexually abused by Albert Swift – an old acquaintance of Carter; The porno racket is run by Kinnear, and it was Kinnear’s chauffeur, Eric Pace, who coerced Doreen to take part in the pornographic film. Carter’s brother found out about it and was ready to call the police; that’s when he was murdered- by Eric at the behest of Kinnear. Having solved the mystery, a distraught Carter (it is alleged that he might be Doreen’s real father as well; he was such a ‘sh*t’ that he even slept with his brother’s wife) becomes truly maniacal. The beast inside him is unleashed, and he goes on a killing spree; everyone responsible for his brother’s death and his niece\daughter’s sexual abuse meets a violent death. But there’s no happy ending for a vicious killer like Carter, and he is also doomed to go down along with his victims, who maybe no worse than he is.
When one thinks of gangster dramas, the first ones that comes to mind are the three “Godfather” films made by Francis Ford Coppola; grand operatic epics all of them. Otherwise, the brilliant Martin Scorsese films like “Goodfellas” and “Casino” comes to mind; very entertaining, fast-paced rock operas that spans decades in the life of criminals. Or one can go further back to the flashy Warner Bros. crime dramas of 1930s, starring James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Mike Hodges’ “Get Carter” is like no other gangster film made before or after it. This is the anti-“Godfather” gangster movie- released a year before “The Godfather”; a film which strips away the glitz and glamour one usually associates with the genre to deliver one of the murkiest movies ever. Though the protagonists in both films are mobsters, who put their family above all professional obligations, the reason why the Corleones does it is because they love their family to death and want to protect them at all cost; the reason why Carter does it is because he had damaged the family irreparably and now he’s looking for some salvation; avenging his brother is a way of righting the wrongs he had committed on his own family (and his brother in particular). This film is brutally unsentimental and devoid of all the operatic grandeur of “The Godfather”; it’s a very somber, atmospheric film, shot almost documentary style, in a colorless monochromatic palette by cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who puts the grimy industrial wasteland of north-eastern England to very good use: to reflect the moral corruption of its depraved characters as well as to create a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape where things like law, justice and redemption does not exist; only blind revenge or violent retribution can get things done here. In that regard, it is very similar to the violent Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci- in which Clint Eastwood and Franco Nero played bloodthirsty anti-heroes stalking an old-West wasteland.
That does not mean that the film wasn’t influenced by American cinema. On the contrary, the film draws heavily from the gritty, nihilistic crime\Noir dramas that were coming out of new-Hollywood. Up until this time, British films presented gangsters as rather stupid or funny; Caine himself had starred in “The Italian Job” that was a rip-roaring entertainer. “Get Carter” is influenced by two pathbreaking American Crime\neo-Noir dramas made by British directors: John Boorman’s “Point Blank(1967)” and Peter Yates’ “Bullitt(1968).” Jack Carter’s cold\robotic yet obsessive personality is clearly modelled on Lee Marvin’s avenging-hood, ‘Walker,’ and Steve McQueen’s maverick cop, ‘Frank Bullitt.’ Also, the same year that Carter came out, there were two other seminal American crime dramas released – “The French Connection” and “Dirty Harry” – that portrayed their heroes as amoral anti-heroes who obsessively pursues criminals. As for the excessive sex and violence depicted in the film (thanks mainly to the relaxation of censor laws in the late 60s), and the portrayal of post-swinging-60s Britain as a hub of violent crime, there’s also Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs, which were made around the same time. So, “Get Carter” was a product of its times and its real(Kray Twins‘ convictions) & reel influences. Beyond that, director Mike Hodges was also inspired by the novels of Raymond Chandler (Carter is seen reading a copy of Chandler’s “Farewell My Lovely” on his train ride to Newcastle) as well as B-Film Noirs like “Kiss Me Deadly” in creating this film. One can see Chandler’s influence in the ‘investigation’ part of the film, when Carter becomes a sort of hardboiled detective in his pursuit to uncover the truth about his brother’s death. The B-Noir influences are there in the visual style of the picture – all dark, dirty, damp and foggy; and like those Noirs, this film was shot on a shoe string budget (under a million Dollars) and a tight schedule of Forty days, so the film definitely has that low-budget feel that adds immeasurably to the grimy, grainy nature of the film. The film is stylish, but like that famous line I quoted at the beginning, the style is like a thin glass. It does not have the polish of it’s Hollywood inspirations, the style is very loose, very cinéma-vérité; it’s nothing flashy like the expressionistic style preferred by classic Gangster\film Noirs; it’s a sort of impressionistic\minimalist style that blends in with the narrative.
And as it is with Noirs (and especially with neo-Noirs), almost every character in the film is repulsive in one way or the other, and the hero of the film is the most disgusting of them all. Michael Caine’s performance in this film is a revelation. I was never a fan of Caine per se, I have found him more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’ in a lot of his performances; he’s also most famous for doing a lot of bad films for just the paycheck. But his performance in this film is very effective. Till then he had played only lovable rascals like Alfie and Harry Palmer. With this film, he got rid of the lovable part, and created a full-on cold-hearted bastard. Jack Carter is a cold, hard-edged killer who is just as violent and amoral as the men he’s pursuing. Right from the opening shot, when the camera zooms in on him as he is looking down through the window from the top of his posh mob-headquarters in London’s East End, we sense something otherworldly about him. He seems detached to the proceedings around him, as if he’s not human; as if he’s already a ghost standing high up there in heaven\hell. We see his gangster pals enjoying themselves by watching some porno slides, but Carter is immune to those pleasures. Carter is told by his bosses not to go to Newcastle and mess up their operations with the gangsters there, but Carter goes anyway, proving that he’s truly a maverick, and a man who can stand on his own without the support of the gang behind him. Carter moves through the film almost like a robot; he is very business-like when it comes to indulging in sex or violence; he has sex with a lot of women through the course of the film, but most of the time he behaves like a ‘sex machine’; he just goes through the motions without taking any pleasure from the experience. The same with his violent actions as well: he stabs, shoots or throws someone from top of a building in a very mechanical way. Moreover, whether visiting an old pal in a hospital – the one who was brutally beaten up because of his carelessness, or facing down a room full of dreaded gangsters, Carter’s demeanor never changes- he remains cold and detached; and his solution for righting every wrong he may have committed\instigated is to hand out a roll of notes to the injured party; and if the injured party is a women he takes them to bed; and, always topping off his nonchalance with some pungent one-liner (or two). The only time his demeanor changes is when something tragic occurs to one of his blood-relations; then he becomes unhinged. So, Carter mainly hits only these two notes throughout the film, either he’s detached or he is unhinged, pretty much like Lee Marvin’s ghostly anti-hero of “Point Blank.” But there, Marvin’s Walker is someone who is coming back from the past to the present\future to right wrongs; here, Carter is going back into the past. Their ‘journey’ is portrayed by very different yet similar ways: Walker is seen walking through a long corridor- and on the soundtrack we hear amplified sounds of his shoes striking the floor; while ‘Carter takes a train’ to Newcastle, and on the soundtrack we get Roy Budd’s one-of-a-kind Jazz score.
Apart from Michael Caine’s iconic take on Jack Carter, the other most striking & famous aspect of this film is Budd’s musical score, especially the ‘Carter takes a train’ main theme. It’s so pulsating and infectious, and so minimalist. It was done in a hurry, for just 450 Pounds sterling. To save time and money Budd did not use overdubs, simultaneously playing a real harpsichord, a Wurlitzer electric piano and a grand piano, while the other two members of his Jazz trio played double bass and percussion respectively. The score- reportedly inspired by Lalo Schifrin’s “Bullitt” theme – incorporated sounds of the train, which brilliantly stands in for the sounds of ocean waves as well, when it was used in the final scene of the film, when we see Carter’s body being washed away. On the train ride we also get to see the hitman (who’s also returning to Newcastle) who takes out Carter at the end; more than emphasizing that the specter of death is following Carter in his journey into his past; it’s a journey from which he’s not going to return. This is more than evident from what Carter discovers when he lands up in his old town; the organized crime racket there is as (or even more) powerful, and the gangsters more amoral & crooked, than what he has left behind in London. The ramshackle Nineteenth century town is on the cusp of being recreated as a modern city, and Carter has no place in this emerging new world. Even in his perfectly tailored-suits and with his big-city gangster attitude, Carter is a man out-of-place and behind-time here. So , it’s no wonder that, despite taking down all his enemies, he does not make out of this town alive. He’s part of the town’s past that has to be destroyed before it can be rebuilt as a modern city. Apart from being a straightforward crime drama, the film also makes some strong social commentary regarding the growth of organized crime & public corruption as well as the economic & class disparity between the north and south of England; while the southern counties had already prospered by this time, with an influx of (illegal) wealth, the north was just beginning to transform, and Hodges places Carter in this transitional phase in history; his ordering the drink in ‘a thin glass’ is a sort of class statement- to distinguish himself, an upper-class ‘London’ ite, from the working class locals surrounding him. The film is mainly set in the working class part of Newcastle, and the character of Brumby is involved in the renewal of the city. Brumby is always seen around the multi-storey car park at Trinity Square in Gateshead, a very Brutalist structure; it’s also there that Carter throws Brumby – from one of the top levels – to his death.
Upon its release, the film was met with very mixed reviews. The critics admired the visceral power of the film and its technical virtuosity, but they condemned its amorality and excessive violence. The US critics admired it much better than their UK counterparts, maybe because they were much more used to this form of ultra-violent, hardboiled storytelling, but everyone was unanimous in their praise for Caine. The film’s popularity has grown considerably over the years, and today, the film is considered one of the greatest crime dramas ever made; some even nominating it the best British film ever made- which’s pushing things too far. Though I agree with most of the positive reevaluation of the film, I must admit that film is in no way perfect. This was Mike Hodges first feature film, and his inexperience in staging complex dialogue scenes involving multiple characters is very visible here- especially in the opening scenes, or the scene where Carter barges into Kinnear’s mansion. The first hour of the film is very confusing, particularly on the first watch; there are just too many characters coming in and out of the story. And like most of the ’70s films, it keep things very ambiguous, never spelling out clearly what’s going on. Since it’s a character-driven story, and the lead character himself is a very mysterious and nonchalant kind, we never find out what’s driving him and where he’s going; therefore, things get pretty muddled now and then. There are lot of double crosses and conspiracies afoot in the film, with loyalties shifting constantly; it’s never clear who’s on which side, and what exactly is the story all about. Though the supporting actors in the film – like John Osbourne playing (Gangster Kinnear) and Ian Hendry (playing Eric) – are all perfect for their roles, and they look and feel as if they belong in that milieu, most of them (except for Britt Ekland in a cameo) are not well known outside of Britain. Also, We never get a clear view of the big picture for most of the film, it’s always the vitality of the individual scenes coupled with Michael Caine’s charismatic presence that proves to be the tie that binds the film together.
Caine identified with Carter as a memory of his working-class upbringing, having friends and family members who were involved in crime; he felt Carter represented a path his life might have taken under different circumstances; he said that: “Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood; I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.” It’s no wonder that he was able to embody the character so well. Caine plays the character real straight; just like the film plays the story very straight, there’s no attempts at dark humor or being tongue-in-cheek. Whatever humor the film has (and the character generates) emanates mostly from the punchy dialogues. Other times, Hodges attempts some lurid humor, like in that very popular scene when Carter telephones his mistress in London from Newcastle for some phone sex; The middle-aged (and probably sex-starved) landlady of his boarding house rocks back and forth in her rocking chair as she listens on, with Carter looking straight at her when he’s making the conversation. Another instance is when Carter and the landlady are having sex and few of Fletchers’ goons barges in; a stark naked Carter picks up his shotgun and drives them out of the house, and as he’s doing it, he’s seen in the buff by an old lady in the neighborhood, who shrieks and escapes into her house. Another very funny instance is when Brumby suddenly disappears in the middle of a meeting (he gets killed by Carter) and the police arrive. One of the architects that Brumby had a meeting with notes that they are unlikely to be paid.
Despite the almost robotic nature of Carter, Caine manages to give some humanity to the role; like the way he holds the hands of his dead brother, or the way he relates to Doreen. The most emotional moment in the film is when Carter discovers the ‘smoking gun’ so to speak, the porno film that’s the cause of his brother’s death; he is sitting naked in the bed, as tears stream down his eyes. Hodges uses mirrors in the scene to not only convey the dual nature of Carter- one part killer, one part brother\father\uncle; but also to signify Carter’s own complicity in what happened to his brother and Doreen. In the film’s final scenes, after killing Eric, Carter starts laughing maniacally- the sign of a man who was driven by only revenge, and now that it’s over he has nothing left to live for. Suffice to say that this is Michael Caine’s career-defining performance. The film was badly remade with Sylvester Stallone in 2000, with Seattle standing in for Newcastle; I love Stallone, but he is terribly miscast in the film. I’m not averse to watching an American version of the story, I wish it was done by someone like William Friedkin, Walter Hill or Michael Mann in their heyday, with a true American icon like Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford as Jack Carter, but that never happened. Michael Caine was a very popular actor – well known on both sides of the Atlantic – when he made this movie, but this was the film that made him a British Icon, or rather ‘the’ British Movie Icon.