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Before The Godfather revived the traditional period-set gangster film, the genre was becoming a little confused. Hollywood hadn't yet processed the epochal Bonnie & Clyde and was turning out crime stories half-heartedly addressing 'shocking new' issues like police corruption. The biggest event picture was probably 1971's Dirty Harry, a political can of worms that blamed society's ills on permissiveness and lobbied for the security of a police state. English crime films were in a slump as well. Although they are now frequently revived, the 'spiv' & black market postwar crime pictures had been discouraged by the Brit censors. Although interesting exceptions came along (such as Peter Yates' Robbery), most '60s Brit crime films had become comic in nature. In his commentary on this disc Michael Caine says that gangsters tended to be funny and stupid people. Caine had just played a funny, clumsy crook in his 1969 hit The Italian Job. 1
Michael Caine was a producer on 1971's Get Carter, a phenomenally impressive gangster classic that's long been rediscovered, yet not that widely seen. It's uncommonly unsentimental, even by the standards of crime pictures. Star Michael Caine plays the leading part in complete hard-case mode, doing almost completely without his customary coy mannerisms and winning charm. The movie's gritty naturalism changed the look of British crime pictures, and its unblinking glimpses of adult content can make it rough going for some viewers. It's a winner all the way.
Cockney Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is an immaculate dresser who works as a killer for London gangsters. He plans to run away with Anna (Britt Eklund), the wife of his boss Gerald Fletcher (Terence Rigby). Against advice Jack goes to Newcastle to find out what killed his brother Frank. He comes up against resistance at every turn. His niece Doreen (Petra Markham) doesn't yield much information. Frank's girlfriend Margaret (Dorothy White) avoids conversation. Only the young bartender Keith Lacey (Alun Armstrong) offers to lend Jack assistance. Jack very quickly digs into the doings of the local mob, offending his old buddy Eric Paice (Ian Hendry) and a former liaison, Albert Swift (Glynn Edwards). When these men avoid him he crashes into the homes of gang leaders Cliff Brumby and Cyril Kinnear (Bryan Mosley & John Osborne). Mob thugs try to put Jack on a train or rough him up, but he consistently beats them at their own game. The ones to suffer are Keith, and Edna Garfoot (Rosemarie Dunham), a landlady who takes a liking to Jack. The story of what became of Frank eventually comes out when Jack leans on Margaret, and Kinnear's mistress Glenda (Geraldine Moffat). The truth is so terrible that Jack sets his mind on cold-blooded revenge.
Michael Caine's Jack Carter is such a vibrant character that we're not put off by the sordid ugliness of this crime tale, in which a group of thoroughly reprehensible criminals and their parasites pursue all the usual vices. For most of the movie Carter walks tall among this human vermin, which includes a number of corrupt, greedy and compromised women. Caine's Carter proceeds like a detective, except in this case he can't even get straight answers from what remains of his estranged family. He's not in the least bothered by the fact that he's putting his innocent new acquaintances Keith and Edna in harm's way. The guilty reason we like Carter is that he embodies the criminal code expressed in more than one crime epic: hit them first, hit them hard, and keep on hitting them.
Get Carter scores big on every level. Caine's presence is even more arresting than usual, and he's surrounded by an impressive array of UK talent. Favorite Ian Hendry gets second billing, and although star Britt Eklund only appears in a couple of scenes, they're choice cuts. The scene where Carter and Anna conduct telephone sex while Edna listens must have set some kind of precedent; other cultural shockers of 1971 (The Devils, A Clockwork Orange) were so intent on big outrages that Carter's focus on this intimate detail now seems brilliant in its frankness. Elsewhere in the film, a porn slide show reveals glimpses of X-rated imagery that most audiences of 1971 might not have recognized. The John Osborne who plays the depraved mob boss is none other than the famous playwright, the father of the 'Angry Young Man' trend that helped launch the English New Wave of the '60s.
The movie has remarkably evocative locations in the industrial town of Newcastle, showing the cobbled streets and row houses that (we are told) have been mostly replaced by newer housing. Jack Carter roams the wet sidewalks and grimy back alleys, and has a number of action run-ins with Kinnear's thugs down in the more modern section of town. Brumby is developing a restaurant in a high-rise, which places these mobsters not as vermin hiding out but 'respectable' members of society using their wealth to buy up the future. Cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky makes excellent use of long lenses at a horse race and rough lighting to give flavor and realism to scenes in a mildewed rooming house. One gangster holds weekly drug and sex parties at a gigantic country estate, while another is furious to find his daughter using his house for an anything-goes beer bash.
First-time director Mike Hodges (Pulp, Flash Gordon) must have worked closely with his cameraman, for the direction has a flawless 'you are there' quality under overcast skies and in gloomy rooms. A catfight in a bar between a lady singer and a jealous girlfriend is almost as raucous as the memorable one in Caine's Alfie. Caught naked in bed, Carter escorts two thugs out of his apartment with a shotgun, walking into the street just as a local parade passes. And a shootout on a ferry dock accidentally drags an unlucky woman to an unexpectedly macabre fate.
Outraged by what the mobsters have done to his brother and niece, Jack becomes an utterly pitiless avenger. The thrill of seeing crooks get their just desserts is half the fun of gangster movies like Point Blank. But by the end of Get Carter we're beginning to realize that only the most powerful of these criminals have any freedom in what they do, and everybody else is just trying to survive. Jack Carter is no different -- the moment he ignores his boss's advice and pokes his nose into the affairs up North, he's broken his unwritten contract. Get Carter has a grim finish but not really a nihilistic one. Jack Carter is a charming crook, but if he thinks he deserves better he's fooling himself.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Get Carter is a superb HD encoding of this modern classic. Wolfgang Suschitsky's Panavision camerawork makes Michael Caine look great and Roy Budd's jazzy score is unexpectedly good, adding small touches to quiet scenes as well.
Warners has retained most but not all of the extras from their DVD release of 2000: a music-only track has not been included on this Blu-ray. Caine, director Hodges and cameraman Suschitzsky contribute to an excellent commentary track. Hodges talks about the swift pace of production, which spanned only 36 weeks from inception through scriptwriting to the finished product. He deplores some replacement dubbing that producer Michael Klinger did in Hollywood, to make the dialogue more clear. We can hear this flat replacement dialogue bleeding through on the commentary track, while
Michael Caine offers interesting observations as well. He says that real underworld villains see themselves as ordinary people with ordinary problems. Caine also notes that only actors react broadly to shocking sights -- in real life, people witnessing terrible events tend to not react, but instead stare in dumb shock. Veteran documentary cameraman Suschitzsky tells us that he lit the picture as if it were in B&W, modeling people with light to set them apart from their backgrounds. He also remarks in a very matter of fact way on the difference of filming with a truly photogenic star - Michael Caine commands and energizes the screen. Caine uses less makeup in this role, and when he walks into close-up we can see his freckled face quite clearly.
Some trailers are included. We really appreciate the English subtitles -- unless you're an expert on English local dialects, watching Get Carter risks not understanding all that is said.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Get Carter Blu-ray rates:
1. sidebar note: I just saw a gloriously immaculate wide, wide, widescreen digital projection of the 1969 The Italian Job at the Turner Classic Movie Festival, with stereophonic sound. I hope this means it might appear on Blu-ray this year.
"Unfortunately, the new Blu-ray of Get Carter includes the opening scene in its dubbed-for-American audiences incarnation. The DVD, of course, restored the original, more heavily-accented Cockney audio in that scene. It's not a deal-breaker for me, but it should be noted. -- Jonathan."
So, to be clear, the re-dubbed opening scene is re-dubbed on both the audio commentary and the feature on the Blu-ray itself.... Glenn
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T'was Ever Thus.