Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Get Carter, the film

Get Carter (1971) is the film adaptation of Ted Lewis' noir gangster thriller, Jack's Return Home and is #16 on the British Film Institute's list of the 100 best British films of the 20th century. It is available through Amazon (UK and US) and Netflix.

Works referenced:
Chibnall Steve. British Crime Cinema. Florence, KY, USA: Rutledge, 1999.
Chibnall, Steve. Get Carter : A British Film Guide 6. London, GBR: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited, 2003.

Warning, there are spoilers.

Get Carter is number 16 on the British Film Institute's Top 100 British films of the 20th century.

Plot Summary: Jack Carter, an enforcer for a couple of London mobsters, returns to his home town (Newcastle) to bury his brother Frank who apparently died in an alcohol fueled automobile accident. Frank left behind a daughter, Darleen, his wife having left him some years back. Jack doesn't believe the official account and wants to find out who did his brother. No one wants Jack in town, not the local mobsters, not his own London bosses. His investigation is bad for business all around. "Sorry for your loss mate but let it go, it's not like you really cared anyway" is the sentiment of everyone but Jack. His investigation is pure hardboiled -- pain and intimidation -- and gets results but his actions have made him a liability. He is alone against powerful enemies.

Chibnall says that Ted Lewis wanted to help write the script but that director Mike Hodges
...wanted to write his own adaptation. He claims that his script 'ultimately bore very little relation to the book' despite the fact that all the major characters and most of the dialogue comes from Lewis' novel.
Having read the book and seen the film, I find it an odd claim to make. It is true that there are notable differences between the two works but Hodges is true to Lewis' gritty, noir, revenge thriller. In several instances he adds to our understanding of Jack's character though additional scenes.

Michael Caine is brilliant as Jack Carter. Really brilliant. When we first see him, his bosses are watching a porno film but Jack, in his sharp grey suit and tasteful cuff links, is aloof. Later, on a train, he could be a business executive, reading (Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely), fussily polishing the silverware in the dining car. But this is just a skin. Underneath, Jack is cold, violent, devoid of feeling toward others, and implacable in his focus to take out those who killed his brother: owner of the boarding house needs placating, sleep with her; need to find out who's looking for him, set up Frank's friend to get a beating and see who it flushes out; porn actress might have information, sleep with her; find out that the porn actress was in a movie with your niece, drag her out of the bath and stuff her in the trunk of her car; the car with the porn actress in the trunk gets pushed into the harbor, watch it sink without expression; want to set up one of the local gang bosses, inject a woman with heroin and dump her in a pond to drown. Several of Jack's more cold-blooded actions are not in the book but they develop our understanding of the kind of man he is.

Jack does show a bit of concern for his niece Darleen but it rather perfunctory -- want to go with me when I leave, no, OK, here's some money. It's pretty obvious the kind of life Darleen is destined for but Jack is indifferent.

The film would have been strengthened and made more coherent for those who hadn't read the book had some back story been provided in flashbacks. From the film we don't see why Jack and Frank were alienated: Jack didn't respect Frank because he wouldn't stand up to a local thug who pushed him around; Jack had sex with Frank's fiancee just before the wedding and Darleen might be his daughter and not his niece. The film shows that there is a history between Jack and Eric Paice but not its cause which is that Jack forced Eric to back down and let his girlfriend be tortured. Perhaps Hodges wanted to keep the film moving forward and flashbacks would have interrupted that flow.

There is violence in the film but by today's standards it is rather mild and often occurs off-stage. The female characters (except Darleen) don't fare well in the film and all are on the receiving end of much the violence which gives the film a misogynistic tone.

In his film guide to Get Carter, Chibnall says:
Get Carter (1971) is the finest British crime film ever made. Hold on: some truths take longer than others to become self-evident. It took almost twenty-five years for the critical orthodoxy to accept that the cult followers of Mike Hodges’ dark and downbeat tale of fear and loathing in Newcastle had some justification for their reverence. Clearly, the film had not changed, but something in the culture of its reception most certainly had.
It is at the top of my list of crime films. I recommend it highly to students of film noir and gangster films. You do have to have a high tolerance for a depiction of a dark and degraded life with no way out.

Get Carter was remade in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone in the role of Jack Carter, this time a Las Vegas thug. It is one of the worst remakes of all time and should be avoided. Stallone spends most of the movie with the corners of his goateed mouth turned down so tightly he can barely speak. Instead of a gritty industrial town the action is moved to Seattle, Washington, completely destroying the atmosphere of the original. Think fern bars. It even gets an upbeat ending: Stallone shaves off his goatee, takes off his tie and jacket, and drives off in a convertible. Ghastly.