Get Carter is a movie with a big reputation, but I’ve avoided it until now because it’s a gangster movie. I do not, by and large, like gangster films. If they’re from the 30s and 40s, or if they’re Japanese yakuza movies, that’s a different matter. But if they’re American or British gangster movies made since about 1970 then they constitute one of my least favourite genres.
I fell asleep during all three Godfather movies. I detest the macho posturing of the gangster epics of Scorcese and Tarantino. Get Carter is a gritty realistic and very cynical British gangster flick, and gritty realistic and very cynical are qualities I’ve grown rather tired of. But as I said, it has a big reputation so I felt compelled to give it a go.
Michael Caine is Jack Carter, a London gangster. He was originally from the north of England, from Newcastle, and he’s just heard the news that his brother has been killed in somewhat mysterious circumstances. He crashed his car while drunk, which is odd because he wasn’t a drinker. So Jack returns to Newcastle to find out what really happened. By doing this he puts himself on the wrong side of his London gangster employer, and of the entire criminal underworld in the North.
His investigations uncover a web of underworld plots and counter-plots, and a large-scale pornography racket, all of which his brother had unwittingly stumbled into. He reacquaints with what’s left of his family, which is basically his teenage niece Doreen and his brother’s girlfriend Margaret (who is married to another gangster). He also meets up with some old friends, or perhaps they’re more like old enemies. Jack doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends. The plot is fiendishly complicated, but slowly Jack uncovers the truth.
There are many actors who can be relied upon to give good performances even in terrible movies. Michael Caine is not one of those actors. Put him in crap and he’ll give a crap performance. But give him a challenging role in a good movie and it’s like watching an entirely different actor. This is a pretty good role, and Caine is unquestionably superb.
There are lots of classic Michael Caine cynical tough guy moments. Writer-director Mike Hodges gives him some great lines which he delivers with style. The rest of the cast is composed mostly of reliable British character actors like George Sewell and Ian Hendry and they’re uniformly very solid. Britt Eckland also makes a brief appearance, just long enough for us to see her in her underwear and for her to have phone sex with Michael Caine.
The cynicism and pessimism is fairly unrelenting, although Caine does provide some wry humour. The grimy and incredibly depressing working-class neighbourhoods of Newcastle look very grimy and very depressing indeed. I suppose there’s some sort of point being made here, a contrast with the perceived glamour of movie gangsters.
Rather less successful is the portrayal of Carter as some kind of basically old-fashioned moral gangster battling the evils of the Permissive Society of the 70s. He might be a cold-blooded killer but at least he’s not some sicko pervert getting mixed up with sex and drugs seems to be the message here. Although in fact he does seem to en up in bed with rather a lot of women, but that’s OK because he’s a Tough Guy Hero. I found all that to be just a tad tedious.
The movie also tries to have it both ways, trying to be sexy and also to take the high moral ground. That’s mildly annoying, although I must admit the scene intercutting Caine in the sports car with one of the gangster’s girlfriends and Caine in bed with her was done with a great deal of flair.
If you like gangster movies then this is a very well-made one, although its underlying misogyny and morally conservative tone is troubling. If you don’t like gangster movies it’s possibly still worth seeing just to see Michael Caine at the top of his game, and as a reminder of just how good an actor he can be when he’s not just doing rubbish films for the money.