The BFI end their season of films by British director Mike Hodges with a re-release of his feature debut, the seminal gangster thriller Get Carter. A film that proved a defining moment in British cinema – finally the British gangster could be taken seriously again, influencing countless British gangster films, from The Long Good Friday to Gangster No. 1.
In a premise that could equally suited to a film noir or a western, Jack Carter (Michael Caine) returns to his old home town after his brother dies in mysterious circumstances. Determined to discover what happened, Carter is drawn into Newcastle’s sleazy criminal underworld in his hunt for the truth.
Caine is glacially cool – miles away from the cheeky chappy persona of The Italian Job and Alfie. He’s never been more reptilian; coldly staring down his opponents and casually killing baddies without so much as a second glance. He’s unafraid to make Carter deeply unlikeable, removing all softness from his performance, and yet he’s always utterly engaging.
The only time Carter breaks his steely front is when he discovers the final piece of the puzzle – a fateful piece of cine film. His entire demeanour changes as he watches it, and it’s one of the best bits of acting in Caine’s entire film career. Hodges makes excellent use of sound in this scene, cutting between the sound of the cine film and the dreadful silence of the girl in the bath, blissfully unaware of Carter’s simmering rage in the next room.
Hodges’ use of sound is striking throughout. He wisely uses Roy Budd‘s crisp, iconic score sparingly, and it never outstays it’s welcome. The sound of wind also permeates the film. It’s there in the main theme right from the first scene, and again in the final showdown on the beach. It’s an incredibly ominous effect, and adds to the film’s nihilistic, funereal atmosphere.
The locations too are wonderfully evocative – Hodges relocated the story from Hull to Newcastle, taking full advantage of the pre-war terraced housing and old fashioned pubs, contrasted with the newly emerging modern high-rises. It’s a particularly bleak depiction of Newcastle but beautiful in it’s own way. The final showdown takes place on a beach where the water is literally black from the amount of coal waste dumped in it, a handy allegory for the criminal element corrupting the city.
The understated scene between Carter and his old rival Eric (Ian Hendry) is one of my favourites of all time. The two actors hated each other in real life – Hendry was in line for the lead role until Caine got the part – and the barely concealed loathing underneath some brilliantly banal dialogue makes the scene electric. Hendry is a great villain, and the entire film is filled with wonderful supporting characters, from the flamboyant Peter (Tony Beckley, better known as Camp Freddie in The Italian Job) to playwright John Osborne as the brilliantly louche crime boss.
The only element that hasn’t aged well is the film’s misogynistic treatment of women. Britt Eckland is third billed but doesn’t do anything except get naked, while the other female characters don’t fare much better, either getting unceremoniously discarded or killed. However, they are at least given some proper characterisation, from Rosemary Dunham’s shrewd landlady to Geraldine Moffat‘s perpetually drunk moll.
Unlike say, Guy Ritchie‘s films, Hodges never glamorises the gangster lifestyle – it’s ruthless and unforgiving, and corrupts all those it touches. The character played by Alun Armstrong (in his big screen debut) finds this out the hard way, allying himself with Carter only to get himself brutally beaten and chucked aside for his troubles.
Hodges has had a famously eclectic filmography, but none of his other films match the raw intensity of Get Carter. It’s an intensely cool, nihilistic film that unfolds with an elegant economy – as the momentum builds towards the final showdown, the body count rises exponentially, leading to the final, fateful confrontation. It’s a masterpiece of British cinema, and one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Get Carter opens on 27 May 2022 at BFI Southbank, Tyneside Cinema, IFI Dublin, Electric Birmingham, Watershed Bristol and cinemas UK-wide