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EMPIRE ESSAY: Get Carter Review

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When his brother dies under mysterious circumstances in a car accident, London gangster Jack Carter travels to Newcastle to investigate.

★★★★★

Oh, where to start. The line? No, no, too obvious. Its influence? Done to death. Caine's seminal performance, then? Too much. For while all three are key to Get Carter's much-acclaimed success, what we should really begin with is its mood. A revolt against the hazy 60s, Mike Hodges' brutal, bleak, unapologetic probe under the fragile patina of a new decade positively oozes with it. In the words of one reviewer at the time, "It was like drinking a bottle of gin before breakfast."

Arguably the best British gangster movie ever made —indeed, today it is rated by the BFI as 16th out of the top 100 British movies ever made — the unflinching tale of one man doomed by his quest for revenge never lets up. We know the end from square one. What's more, deep down so does Jack Carter. He just no longer cares.

Based on the Ted Lewis novel Jack Returns, the plot sees the Raymond Chandler-reading, cool-as-you-like, East End gangster Carter — a character with whom Caine, having grown up in punch-drunk Elephant & Castle, could readily associate — travel to Newcastle to avenge the death of his brother. In doing so, he uncovers an underworld of organised crime, backstreet porn and unwieldy drinking receptacles: "A pint of bitter," Carter snaps, in a Cockney dialect later partially dubbed for the US release, "in a thin glass!"

Today, presumably as pestered by, "You're a big man..." quotes (from fans as those of the, "My name is..." variety, Caine's estimation that Get Carter, "Looks like Mary Poppins now" actually couldn't be further from the truth. Although uniformly calm right until the savage climax (and how much more effective the final expurgation of rage is for it), Carter is a nasty-yet-smoothly sexy machine, fuelled by a sense of skewed morality actually rather hard to fault. Forget his acts of ruthless violence. Ignore the lack of sympathy he allows for his (albeit briefly employed) cohorts. What is most notable is his sexual indiscrimination — killing unisex enemies without even a flicker of remorse. (Although there is an argument that the studio's forcing of "star name" Britt Ekland onto Hodges' project before it would give a final greenlight may have upset some of the gender balance).

Whatever the motivations, Mike Hodges, a man who had not long before endured a mentally gruelling stint in the navy, in the hellhole of the mine sweeping division ("I'd seen a lot of dead bodies "), had never set out to paint an easy picture, enlisting a second unit crew of documentary-makers to achieve a feel of unsettling realism. A feel, as it happens, that he has only just rediscovered with the criminally neglected Croupier (1998), starring surprising man-of-the-moment Clive Owen.

Get Carter, however, is not without its moments of comedy. To wit: an extra, admittedly stumbled upon by accident, with six fingers (spot him in the Newcastle pub scene), Zulu shields and assorted paraphernalia (a much re-used in-joke about Caine's first screen success) and a coitus interrupted Carter, naked, pointing a shotgun at two heavies. McCarty: "Come on Jack, put it away. You know you're not going to use it." Peter: "The gun, he means."

Nevertheless, it is a film that has retained a timelessness far more thanks to its unblinking portrayal of a man taken over by — and thus ultimately lacking — emotion, than the presence of a slimmer version of Coronation Street's Alf Roberts. Now something of a national institution — Loaded magazine has serialised it, Guy Ritchie and Paul McGuigan (Gangster No.1) have borrowed from it well and a never-ending stream of others considerably less so in a year plagued with poor imitations — there are two sad facts still to be considered. Both were probably inevitable. Both nonetheless tragic. So, in descending order of dismay: 1) the Sylvester Stallone remake (Caine cameos and video porn becomes — wait for it — internet porn) will arrive on these shores early next year. "I couldn't stop them remaking it and I don't know why they did. For all the money they spent they could have made plenty of original films," commented an unimpressed Hodges. And: 2) the Gateshead car park where the majority of the action was filmed is soon to be demolished by the council, with chunks all set to be auctioned off for charity. "They're supposed to be sending me a piece," confirms the recently-knighted Sir Maurice Micklewhite. "But it hasn't arrived yet."

Those left bemoaning that nothing remains sacred should, however, ponder one final consideration — and one that shall always bear repeating. "You're a big man. But you're out of shape. With me it's a full time job." There, said it now.

When British gangster films were cool the first time around.