Our look at the 1970s films of Michael Caine lands on a stone-cold classic: it’s time for Get Carter.
Spoilers for Get Carter lie ahead. Big ones.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for Get Carter lie ahead…
Directed by: Mike Hodges (Pulp, Flash Gordon, Morons From Outer Space, Croupier)
Tagline: Caine is Carter
Other Featured Geezers: Ian Hendry as Eric Paice, John Osborne as Cyril Kinnear, Britt Ekland as Anna, Bryan Mosley as Cliff Brumby, George Sewell as Con McCarty, Tony Beckley as Peter the Dutchman, Alun Armstrong as Keith.
What’s it all about Alfie?:
Based on the novel Jack’s Return Home by crime author Ted Lewis. London based gangster, Jack Carter (Michael Caine), returns to his hometown of Newcastle after the suspicious death of his brother, wherein he uncovers a complicated web of betrayals and secrets, and ultimately unleashes his brutal retribution on those who have wronged his family.
Notwithstanding the obviously substantial contributions of the talented director (amazingly this was his feature film debut) and the book’s author, this is arguably the first time since Alfie that a film truly feels like it’s Caine’s through and through, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine it without him (although if you really must, you can watch the Sylvester Stallone-headlined awful 2000 remake). The original release poster even lead with the tagline Caine is Carter. Caine is in nearly every scene from the very first shot of the camera zooming in on him moodily peering out at us through a window, to the sombre last shot of him dead on the beach, and he commands the screen throughout with a cool yet sinister charm.
He’d played crooks before, most notably Charlie Croker in The Italian Job and his bumbling cat burglar in Gambit, but they had been mostly lovable, and effectively harmless, cheeky chappies. In his previously released film, The Last Valley, he’d played a morally complex villain/anti-hero prone to violence but there was something restrained and unknowable about his character which left you unsure exactly to what extent he was truly the bad guy.
There’s no such grey area here; Jack Carter is a real nasty piece of work, and Caine feels truly dangerous in this. Carter has no qualms about hitting you round the mush with a big stick, taking people’s glasses off without asking (he does this to two separate characters) or walking around in the nude with a shotgun making elderly neighbours drop their milk.
He’s such a bad boy that he mentions to Edna, after their one-night stand, “I never eat breakfast”, which is a clear rejection of the accepted maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Carter doesn’t play by society’s rules.
Carter gets progressively less sympathetic as the film goes on and as his violent retribution becomes more extreme (stabbing men in alleyways outside the loo, lobbing local businessmen off multi storey car parks and shoving women in car boots) and we see how truly callous he can be such as when he meets Keith after he’s been brutally beaten up, all because of Carter, and he sarcastically, and unsympathetically, offers him some money for “karate lessons”.
Carter knows full well that he’s the bad guy, but doesn’t care, exclaiming late in the film; “I’m the villain in the family, remember?”.
Caine, speaking about the role, said; “One of the reasons I wanted to make [it] was my background. In English movies, gangsters were either stupid or funny. I wanted to show that they’re neither. Gangsters are not stupid, and they’re certainly not very funny […] Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood. I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.”.
Caine based his portrayal on real East End criminals that he had once known, and made changes to the script to make Carter even more brutal.
However, to his credit and against all odds, Caine still somehow manages to make Carter likeable. I, like most viewers, wanted him to get his revenge, and was sad that he died, even though he is an unquestionably awful human being.
Carter has plenty of moments of genuine charm, which I believe is down to Caine’s inherent like-ability, such as when he’s affably chatting with Keith in the pub, and he can even be simultaneously frightening and charming within the same scene such as when he confronts Brumby at his house. When things are about to kick off, he just says calmly “You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape” and casually slaps him down to the floor, then calmly walks out saying “Goodnight Mrs Brumby”.
Carter never feels like some unknowable inhuman monster, we even see him cry (side note; Caine’s emotionally affecting on-screen crying is one of his most underrated actorly skills, Muppet’s Christmas Carol gets me every time) and we get plenty of humanising insights in to his sometimes drab and mundane existence. One great example is his stilted conversation with his estranged niece/possible daughter, Doreen, that demonstrates that brutal gangsters are sometimes socially awkward just like us! Here is their exchange…
Carter: “What you doing now?”
Doreen: “Working at Woolworths”
Carter: “That must be very interesting”
(Also, it should be said that lacklustre product placement such as this is arguably why we no longer have Woolworths. If only Doreen had shown a little more enthusiasm, then we might still have high-street pick and mix.)
One last note, on Caine accent watch, he’s meant to be a Geordie but thankfully doesn’t attempt an accent and instead just sounds like his usual self. This is excusable from a character point of view as Carter had been living and working in London for a long while (so I’ll let Caine off).
Tony Beckley played Camp Freddy alongside Caine in The Italian Job, here he plays Peter the Dutchman, a similarly flamboyant criminal.
Glynn Edwards plays Albert Swift and also appeared alongside Caine in Zulu and The Ipcress File
The fourth time that Caine has played a career criminal (The Italian Job, Gambit, Deadfall).
The third time Caine has played a villain of sorts (even though he’s the protagonist in this), the others being Hurry Sundown and The Last Valley.
*I’m only counting connections from Caine’s first starring role in Zulu in 1964
Best Non-Caine Actor:
Caine and Ekland are the only substantial international stars, with the rest of the cast populated by local extras (such as the lounge singer in the great pub brawl scene) and authentic feeling character actors such as a very fresh-faced Alun Armstrong in his screen debut as the affable Keith, The Detectives’ George Sewell as henchman Con McCarty, and Coronation Street’s Bryan Mosley as dodgy businessman Cliff Brumby.
The casting of the supporting characters and extras are spot on, everyone feels like a real person and it’s refreshing how un-cinematic the gangsters look and feel. They don’t have melodramatic speeches or overly theatrical displays of violence. They feel like real people that you could actually bump in to in a pub (and who would then subsequently glass you).
Casting the playwright John Osborne as the Northern mob boss Cyril Kinnear is an interesting choice that pays off. He’s unassuming looking, softly spoken and slightly effete. He’s definitely not your typical gangster, but there’s an air of danger and menace to him exactly because he’s so calm and unassuming.
Ian Hendry as Eric Paice, who was actually Hodges first choice to play Carter but was passed over due to him being not quite as big a star as Caine and also for having a problematic drinking habit, is a great antagonistic foil for Caine. There seems to be some genuine simmering tension between the two (probably because of Hendry losing out on the lead!).
Poor Britt Ekland, who features here as Carter’s boss’ girlfriend (whom Carter is having a not particularly well concealed affair with), has never been treated particularly respectfully as an actress and was mostly used for her sex appeal at the height of her career. In two of her other big 70s films she’s either doing nude pagan dancing (with the help of a body double) in The Wicker Man or accidentally knocking switches with her bum and blowing stuff up in The Man With The Golden Gun. She was actually reluctant to be in this film, not wanting to be typecast or to have to take her clothes off, but was forced to take the role after suffering financial difficulties.
She’s only in a couple of scenes and so doesn’t get to do much here, even though her role was highly touted in the contemporary publicity, other than have awkward phone sex with Carter whilst his landlady listens in. In spite of all this Ekland has gone on to say that she ultimately was glad that she appeared in the film.
My Bleedin’ Thoughts:
Right from those fantastic opening beats of Roy Budd’s minimalist jazz score it’s clear that you’re in for something special with Get Carter, and the film that follows never disappoints.
The location shooting on the grim rainy streets of Newcastle and Durham, and inside drably unglamourous pubs and clubs, give the whole film an air of gritty authenticity. So, when viewing the film in 2021, it works as a fascinating time capsule and an illuminating peek in to a lost past.
The film is well paced, certainly not outstaying its welcome, but it also takes the time for quiet character moments such as showing us Carter’s train journey up to Newcastle during the opening (where we see him reading a Raymond Chandler novel next to a boy reading a comic. Although I was disappointed that they didn’t do the Airplane! joke where their reading materials were swapped).
I loved how intrinsically English the film is such as the scene where Carter asks his landlady Edna to bring him tea. A gangster film that features a tea cosy in the background of a scene where the lead is beating someone up for information could only happen in England. As could a scene with a drunken man stumbling out of a country house party and spewing all over the goldfish.
Although the overall tone is dark and moody, with scenes of violence that still feel shocking today, and the downbeat ending is pretty damn bleak, it does have its fair share of funny moments and it never feels like it is wallowing in its grim subject matter. Although it’s certainly not a light watch, it’s not overwhelmingly depressing, but occasionally quite a fun thrill ride.
These gems are courtesy of IMDB, so perhaps take them with a pinch of salt;
In the first shot in the long bar, the second local man to stare at Carter has five fingers and a thumb. This was a genuine abnormality of the extra and can be seen as he raises his glass.
The following is taken verbatim from IMDB; “The club singer (Denea Wilde) was in reality a larger-than-life character, who made her local estate in Newcastle a great place to live. She apparently used a walking stick, and was renowned for her liberal use of the “f” word, no matter to whom she was talking, or where she was. Everyone knew her simply as “Dene””. Hmm, anonymous IMDB user, I’m sure some of those residents may have slightly different remembrances of her making it a “great place to live”. And what does her using a walking stick have to do with anything!?!
Caine named his dog Carter after this movie and not after President Jimmy Carter (as was sometimes mistakenly assumed).
Overall Thoughts: This is truly excellent, an undeniable classic and one of Caine’s finest performances. It’s a uniquely British gangster movie, that was rightly voted the greatest British film of all time in 2004 by Total Film Magazine, and its influence is still felt to this day in the work of filmmakers such as Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn and even Quentin Tarantino. A must watch for fans of Caine and for fans of cinema.
Rating: 5/5 Underwhelming Conversations About Woolworths
Where You Can Watch This: It’s not currently streaming for free but is available to rent or purchase on most services (and on Blu-ray and DVD).
Up Next: Caine gets up to some historical highland hi-jinks in the Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation Kidnapped
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