Is there a bigger British movie star than Michael Caine? Nowadays he you can find him in major Hollywood films playing distinguished gentlemen such as Bruce Wayne’s butler in Batman, but over his long career he has played a variety of smooth criminals, spies, soldiers, and hardened gangsters. The most hardened of these gangsters is depicted in Get Carter (1971) a film that was somewhat ahead of its time. Caine’s Jack Carter is a London gangster who doesn’t care who he hurts on his path for revenge, which was seen as too immoral back in the 1970s. Nowadays this character would get his own TV show.
Like many of Caine’s film it has been remade, and like many remakes the original is better. Sylvester Stallone starred in the 2000 version, unseen by me since it looked pretty grim and disposable. Back then I had no idea it was based on an original 1970s movie, but learned about it as my interest in older movies grew. I bought the DVD with one of those cheap three-for-one deals at HMV while interning at Montreal in 2009, allowing me to cross off yet another movie off Empire’s list. Upon first viewing, Carter indeed is an unlikable character, but he looks undeniably cool in a suit.
Having lived in London for years, it is only for his brother’s funeral that Carter goes back to his hometown of Newcastle. His brother Frank died in a drunk driving accident, but not feeling happy with the official version Carter starts his own investigation. In addition to meeting his niece Doreen (Petra Markham) and Frank’s mistress Margaret (Dorothy White), Carter gets on a collision course with a wide assortment of crime bosses, killers, and pornographers.
These are indeed a sordid bunch, despite somewhat amusing British names, from businessman Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley), to crime boss Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne), and henchmen like Peter the Dutchman (Tony Beckley). What becomes clear as the bodies start to pile up is that Carter is just as bad as the rest of them. As he stabs and shoots his way to revenge in a surgically efficient manner, you see Carter is a very dangerous man to be walking the streets.
His weapon of choice is a double-barrelled shotgun, giving the impression he is a hunter on the prowl. It is not conspicuous, but it certainly gets the point across even when he is caught naked in bed. Women are not immune to his violence either, as he nearly drowns one in a bathtub when he discovers her peripheral involvement in the Frank’s murder.
The film’s ending may seem a bit dour considering everything the character has been through, but given the film’s realistic depiction of violence it fits very well while being very plausible. Getting revenge is one thing, getting away with it is something else.
Despite a rough reception when it was first released and a bland remake decades later, Get Carter deserves its place among some of the best British movies ever made. It would make for a great double feature along with Caine’s more recent Harry Brown, which is equally realistic in its violence and showcases one of Caine’s best performances in years.