Get Carter (1971)

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*. This movie was based on a Ted Lewis novel, Jack’s Return Home, which had just been published the previous year. I’ve actually read it, and it’s sitting on a bookshelf somewhere around here, but I don’t remember much aside from the fact that it ends on a more ambiguous note (it’s not clear if Jack is killed or not).
*. Really, however, Lewis’s book and this movie are a return to Richard Stark’s The Hunter, published in 1962 and made into the film Point Blank in 1969. How strange that so much came out of Stark’s (a pseudonym for Donald Westlake) rather simple effort. There would be twenty or so more Parker novels, and a couple of other film versions of The Hunter. And there would be Lewis’s novel, and this movie, and its remake . . .
. All based on what? Just the idea, or even image, of the implacable gangster avenger meting out a kind of rough justice on other gangsters who in some way did him wrong. Why do we find this so compelling? It’s not like we can relate to these disyllabic furies (Parker, Walker, Carter, Wilson, Porter). Is it just that they’re so damn good, so professional about their business?
*. In that vein, here’s Pauline Kael describing this movie as “so calculatedly cool and soulless and nastily erotic that it seems to belong to a new genre of virtuoso viciousness. What makes the movie unusual is the metallic elegance and the single-minded proficiency with which it adheres to its sadism-for-the-connoisseur formula.”

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*. Get Carter is highly regarded today, and for some good reasons. I want to start off, however, by mentioning a couple of things I really didn’t like about the direction (by Mike Hodges, in his debut feature).
*. In the first place, what is it with all the over-the-shoulder shots where the face in focus, as well as most of the rest of the frame, is almost entirely occluded by another head in the foreground that registers only as a dark, blurry shadow? This is especially noticeable during the card game at Kinnear’s country house, but it crops up throughout. Does it serve any purpose? I understand they wanted to make use of long shots throughout, which involved some blockage in the foreground, but this isn’t in play in many of the shots I’m thinking of. They just seem poorly done to me, as though Hodges didn’t know quite what he was doing yet.

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*. The other negative point I have to register is how awful many of the action sequences are. Hodges just couldn’t film a fight scene, at least at this time. In fact, he couldn’t even get a punch right. He tries to disguise this through fast editing but this only makes things worse. For what is ostensibly an action film, this is a major shortcoming.
*. Now, what’s great about it? Primarily the authentic feel it has, which comes mainly from the great use of locations throughout. Realism, at least in terms of a film’s look, isn’t something we normally associate with noir or the gangster genre. Some noir films did make good use of real locations (Henry Hathaway being one director who preferred them) but nothing on this scale, and nothing quite so gritty and sleazy. Of course, filming in Newcastle helped. The urban north of England wasn’t a pretty sight, at least what I remember of it, in 1971. This is a real working class environment, one where all the most spectacular settings shout industry and labour. That doesn’t mean they can’t be beautiful, because they are, but they are beautiful like the cloudy and grey skies the characters are freezing under. We’re not in L.A.

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*. Also, while I think the filming of the fisticuffs is terrible, the shootout on the ferry is terrific. Another great location put to terrific use. And remarkably given the result, Hodges didn’t storyboard. It certainly feels storyboarded, and I mean that in a good way.

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*. The movie also has a nice sense of humour that plays off well against the gloomy squalor and overcast skies. I like the restaurant planners realizing they aren’t likely to get their fees, the phone sex scene that has the landlady rocking back and forth listening in, Jack in the nude turning the tables on the two gunsels, finding Thorpe cowering in the bathroom stall, and the whole bit (which is admittedly stale) of intercutting a sex scene with close-ups of the sports car being put through its paces.

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*. Is the “What would Jesus say?” sign hanging over the bed funny too? It is meant to be ironic? I can’t tell.
*. Now just how the hell did Britt Ekland get third billing here? She’s in the movie for what? A couple of minutes? She looks good in her underwear, going through the motions of masturbation (the interruption of which leads to a great funny line as her husband wonders if she’s having stomach pains), but is she a star?

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*. Michael Caine is also a plus, and very well suited for a part that requires a lot of non-verbal performing. As in the scene where he watches his niece perform in a dirty movie, for example. Caine actually makes an interesting point in the commentary, saying that lines of “dialogue in movies are just nails to hold together the most important pauses.”

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*. This is just as true in an action film, though we don’t often think of it. Men in action are different creatures than men thinking, which is where real acting comes in. But Jack is a thinker as well as a doer, and a man of feeling as well. Though here what really stands out for me is how dominating a physical presence he is. He is a big man, and with his trench coat on he really looks a load. It’s easy to forget, at this distance, that Caine was an action star in these years, appearing in such classic action films as Zulu, The Italian Job, and the three Harry Palmer films.

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*. I’m always amazed at how big the cars were back in the ’70s. Look at the size of the Cadillacs here. You could land a plane on their hood or their trunk.
*. I’ve mentioned before how annoying I find it when a movie character can run forever without seeming to get tired (see, for example, my notes on Run Lola Run). So I really enjoyed seeing Eric collapsing after what must have been a grueling cross-country and uphill slog. It may have helped that Ian Hendry was ill and in bad shape at the time (he was an alcoholic) and was apparently really feeling it. Sad in a way, but it adds to the realism of the scene.

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*. It’s a great ending, and bold. In his commentary, Caine remarks how American actors don’t like to die at the end of movies, in part because they want to keep their character alive in case there’s any chance of a sequel, but also because they just don’t want to die. Then there’s the fact that in the book it isn’t clear what happens to Jack. So Hodges was really making a statement here that comes through loud and clear. Even more than fifty years later it still seems bold. Perhaps even bolder than it did in 1971.
*. This is probably my favourite British gangster film, and a movie I enjoy returning to. It has a remarkably well turned-out plot that, coupled with its sense of place, creates a sense of artistic unity and integrity. It doesn’t feel pat, but everything is nicely rounded off. Even the killer is seen in the opening credits sitting in a train carriage with Jack, giving his reappearance at the end the feeling of a ring being closed. As with Point Blank, the remake would only show how much had been lost.

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