If The Italian Job (1969) celebrated Britain’s 1960s supremacy in everything from football (soccer to you lot on the left-hand side of the Atlantic) to small-car design through the medium of the crime film, Get Carter was the opposite side of the coin – a signifier that Britain was lurching into the polyester decade of industrial disputes, the Yorkshire Ripper and the ascendancy of the colour brown.
This movie coldly announced that the party was over.
The genius of the film is to switch the setting of Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home from Doncaster and Scunthorpe to Newcastle, which at the time was trapped between its declining industrial heritage and corrupt regeneration schemes.
Abetted by Roy Budd’s sparse, haunting soundtrack, Mike Hodges shoots the city as an alien planet – grey and menacing, populated by hard-faced cows and weaselly, treacherous thugs engaged in futile spirals of loveless sex and sudden, flesh-tearing explosions of violence – Very English, low-tech violence, with fists, boots and the occasional rusty shotgun.
The strange atmosphere of the film is also helped by the casting, with its scattering of future TV stars – Minder‘s chirpy barman Dave (Glynn Edwards) as an amateur porn star, playwright John Osborne as improbably elegant and well-spoken Geordie godfather Cyril Kinnear, and – most famously – Alf Roberts (Bryan Mosley) from Coronation Street as a slot-machine king.
Into this world strides Michael Caine, enigmatic and chilling – an angel of death in a well-cut belted raincoat – as gangland enforcer Jack Carter, up from London to avenge his brother’s murder and possessed by a fury whose source remains ambiguous.
It’s a grim and grimy quest that’s low on jokes, but full of tar-black gallows humour and eminently quotable one-liners. None better than in Caine’s opening exchange with sinister chauffeur Eric (Ian Hendry).
As he takes his leave, Caine pulls Eric’s shades off to remind himself what his eyes look like. “Still the same” he deadpans. “Two piss holes in the snow”.
Later, Carter notes “I know you didn’t kill him” as he plunges his knife into the stomach of a local mobster (Edwards) who merely witnessed his brother’s murder.
Still the perfect antidote to public schoolboy directors glorifying East End villains, it almost anticipates them in another of the film’s best lines; “Clever bastard, eh?” snarls one of Kinnear’s card-playing cronies at Carter. “Only comparatively”, he shoots back.
It is soon obvious that someone doesn’t care to have Carter snooping around about his brother’s death. He is first pressured to return to London and forget Newcastle, and when this approach fails, strong-arm methods are used. But Jack is more than equal to any eventuality.
It’s a big film, and it’s still in exceptionally good shape these days. Even if you do feel like you need a shower after watching it.
The less said about the wrong-minded, budget-bloated American remake (2001) starring Sylvester Stallone, the better. We mention it here merely to warn potential viewers against mistaking that terrible film for the original.