Truth and Movies

How Get Carter dispelled the myth of the British gangster

In 1971, Michael Caine recast the cheery cockney crim as a decidedly nasty and unglamorous antihero.

Words

Mark Allison

@clueddownmark

British gangsters were “stupid, silly, or funny.” This was Michael Caine’s impression of crime films from the 1950s and ’60s, and it was a myth he felt keen to dispel. Having grown up among hardened criminals in London’s Elephant and Castle, he knew the reality was more sinister. The problem, Caine felt, was that most domestic gangster pictures were made by “bourgeois” filmmakers with “no idea” what it was like to live with such characters.

It was this desire to set the record straight that attracted Caine to a screenplay by up-and-coming television director Mike Hodges, adapted from Ted Lewis’ pulp noir novel ‘Jack’s Return Home’. This was to be a new breed of British crime film, laying bare the nastiness and moral decay at the root of organised crime. Get Carter, as it was eventually titled, duly came to redefine the British gangster on screen, and 50 years on it remains a thrilling and scandalous exposé of the criminal underworld.

Caine illustrated his belief in the project by signing on as co-producer – a bold move for one of the most bankable stars in the country. Indeed, Get Carter proved to be a watershed in Caine’s career as much as it was for the popular perception of the British gangster. The eponymous Jack Carter, a vicious and irredeemable hoodlum, is entirely divorced from the lovable rogues Caine was best known for playing. Although his slick tailoring and Roy Budd’s eminently hummable theme music might initially suggest a glamorous antihero along the lines of The Italian Job’s Charlie Croker, the grim reality of Carter’s world quickly, and shockingly, disabuses this notion.

The insouciance with which Carter metes out punishment – particularly against women – is a chilling subversion of Caine’s usual affability. A shadow of callous malevolence hangs over his domineering presence and a subtle menace pervades his every action, even a gesture as innocuous as ordering a pint of bitter “in a thin glass”. Although initially defined by a controlled and self-confident facade, Carter’s composure slowly cracks to reveal a psychotic rage beneath, and the body count rises accordingly.

It’s not just the causal brutality of Get Carter which sets it apart, but the seediness of the world it depicts. The plot deals in child sexual abuse, hard drugs and illegal pornography, all of which were subject to a wider moral panic in ’70s Britain. Although not an overtly political film, Get Carter infers a connection between these depraved criminal elements and the poverty of working-class communities from which they emerge. To this end, Hodges said that the deprivation of postwar Newcastle was “integral” to Carter’s character, and even suggested that this vein of social commentary may have contributed to the film’s lukewarm critical reception: “We were showing a side of Britain that people didn’t want.”

The film’s striking use of real locations from across Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and the surrounding area is crucial to its sense of authenticity. A disorganised mix of Victorian and mid-century Brutalist architecture sits alongside industrial decay, providing a singular backdrop which appears to reflect the moral degradation of the contemporary gangster. Many of the landmarks featured have long since been lost to redevelopment and deindustrialisation, leaving some sequences with the melancholic quality of a time capsule.

Hodges’ emphasis on location was influenced by his background in documentary, as was his predilection for shooting with long focal length lenses. Their distinctive magnifying effect imbues Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography with a rich depth, framing the hushed conversations and unspoken threats between Newcastle’s criminal fraternity with a clandestine and somewhat voyeuristic eye. It’s a naturalistic aesthetic which brings to mind the cinéma vérité of continental documentarians – or, perhaps more appropriately, police surveillance footage.

Get Carter wears its foreign influences on its sleeve. The Raymond Chandler novel which Carter reads during the title sequence pays homage to American film noir cinema of the ’40s, while Hodges’ inventive use of montage editing in certain sequences is evocative of the French New Wave. Yet it’s the social realism of the British New Wave to which Get Carter owes its greatest debt – only this time the angry young man wears a three-piece suit and carries a shotgun.

Drawing from a variety of influences and adding a dollop of early ’70s cynicism for good measure, Get Carter was a groundbreaking moment in British cinema. With an unflinchingly cruel gaze, the film recast the familiarly amiable cockney gangster as an unscrupulous villain and tied his wickedness to a deeper societal illness. The gritty British crime film has since become a cinematic staple, from John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday to Guy Ritchie’s various contributions. But all live in the shadow of Jack Carter.

Published 7 Mar 2021

Tags: Get Carter Michael Caine Mike Hodges

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