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Get Carter   A-

MGM Pictures

Year Released: 1971
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mike Hodges
Writer: Mike Hodges
Cast: Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, John Osborne, Britt Ekland, Alun Armstrong.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

There's a stylish opening credits sequence. The cold-blooded, amoral gangster Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is riding a crowded train to Newcastle, en route to his brother's funeral. There's some melancholy funk music as composer Roy Budd plays three keyboards accompanied by a snappy cello and drum beat. The train moves in and out of tunnels as we catch some seedy views of factory towns. Somehow, we can just tell that Get Carter will be a crime story set within the gritty British underworld.

We observe Carter as he idly flips through the pages of a book, snorts some coke in the john, has a quick bowl of soup and takes a few pills. All the while, his mannerisms are assured and precise. In these seemingly minute details, we learn almost everything we need to know about the man. He's dapper, confident and perhaps has some small screw loose, judging from that cold look he flashes out the window.

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What is it about films made during the '70s which seems to be missing in today's mundane cinematic climate? The camera seemed much more curious about exploring the texture of character, environment, detail -- those zooms which slowly isolate individuals from their location actually meant something, as did the small punctuations of opening or closing a scene with some indication of life outside the story.

Get Carter is willing to take a quick breath on the morning after Carter has slept with some broad, indulging in a seemingly random shot of a high school marching band crossing the street outside. Then there's the small moment, earlier in the film, of Carter snapping his fingers at the bartender and ordering his drink in a tall glass, followed by an insert shot of a six fingered local taking a long sip of beer.

Odd to see such minor flourishes -- only Steven Soderbergh seems to be paying attention to them in noir films such as The Limey, Traffic and Out of Sight. Fans of Soderbergh's irreverent, experimental approach to storytelling through cumulative layers of character detail will find much to enjoy throughout Get Carter.

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While the threat of physical violence is ever palpable, particularly in Carter's unpitying approach to everyone else throughout, there is surprisingly little bloodletting (until the final half hour, which features as many unfair killings as you want). The very way Michael Caine speaks to women, for example, as though ready to give them a good poke if they don't take their clothes off, creates a threat.

After arriving in the grim iron-ore town of Newcastle, Carter becomes suspicious that his brother's death wasn't suicide. Not mucking about, he quickly makes the moves on a number of local thugs, sticking his nose in places it doesn't belong. With just a few well-placed words, he has his enemies shaking in their boots. (Best line: "You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow!")

Whether grinning through pub conversations, making thinly veiled threats on the racetrack or sneaking into the estate of a small time gangster, Carter makes his presence known. The energy and thrust of the film is contained in Michael Caine's magnetic performance, the way he sets his steely eyes on others. It's also in his cavalier mannerisms, his ability to project that he will smash your bloody face in and smile about it, because he just doesn't give a stiff fuck.

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It all builds to a staggeringly violent finale, not because Carter blows away a warehouse filled with goons but because he tracks down his handful of enemies like a hungry wolf. He singles out one corrupt individual in particular (underappreciated Ian Hendry, who was jealous of Caine's fame) and makes him suffer humiliation under a cold, grey sky. The remorselessness of Carter's world is especially prevalent here (and director Mike Hodges specified that it must be shot on an overcast, cloudy morning, making this event all the more bleak).

Talk about payoff in sadism, Get Carter has it in spades. Not even a particularly long scene, it's undeniably memorable. Michael Caine, in a black suit, double-barreled shotgun in his hands, walking through gravel as his enemy flees. After a fleeting bit of torture, there's a shocking and abrupt final shot which slams the book shut. Justice in Carter's world is swift, vigilant and, most shocking of all, routine. All in a day's work -- no flowers on the grave or musical fanfare.

If death makes a cameo at the end, there are hints neatly placed throughout the film. Check out the way Hodges shoots the way screws are twisted into the coffin of Carter's brother, or that absurd line of hearses riding down the street as Carter drives through a gate. It's ironic, standing as yet another indication that death is ever present, unforgiving and ridiculous.

A final note on why Get Carter is so cool: Michael Caine accepted the role because British gangsters had often been presented as either comical, stupid, slovenly bums or charming gentlemen. Jack Carter is none of these things -- he's a dandified hooligan, not unlike the Brothers Kray. He's also no gentleman.

It's refreshing to see a bad, bad Cockney take center stage. Oddly enough, Carter inspired an entire rogue's gallery in the British underworld. Suddenly, they all started dressing up in fancy clothes, but for all that polish it never erased the thuggery of wanting to slash up their enemies' faces with straight razor blades. Some things never change.

Review published 01.12.2001.

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