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Film | Opinion

Hear Me Out: 'Get Carter' is Michael Caine's best performance

In 1971, Michael Caine had a lot to live up to. As far as the trendy industry was concerned, Caine was a pretty boy who was rapidly losing his looks and charm. He was nearing 40, no great age, but he was drifting from the counter-culture he was supposed to represent. To put it bluntly, this wasn’t a young man, but he was definitely in good shape, and he was determined to showcase his talents as an actor in a script that was tailor-made for his talents. 

Get Carter had few zingers, fewer stunts, and there were no Zulus or mad, Italian drivers to best in his wake. Instead, they found a Caine who was harder-edged, and battle-ready, eager to batter the head off any man who dared stand up to him. No wonder the performance left audiences both bewildered and stunned in his wake. 

In the 51 years since its release, it stands as one of the greatest performances in British cinema, pinpointing the way for a grittier form of realism British cinema would take during the decade. Invariably, Caine returned to more sedate roles in later years, leaving Bob Hoskins in the position to claim the role as prime thug during the 1980s, but it’s fair to say that neither The Long Good Friday nor Mona Lisa would have been developed but for the early steps taken by Caine and director Mike Hodges in 1971. 

The script pushed Caine into difficult places, not least when he was forced to threaten members of his class and station. The film was authentic in its depiction of England, highlighting the grey skies, and the interminable Winter that shadows the country through four dismal months of the year. The film was an impossible one to replicate, and by 1980, Hodges had abandoned the hard-bitten crime drama for the more colourful, child-friendly entertainment of Flash Gordon. Unsurprisingly, it was Hodges’s most inspired venture since Get Carter

First things first: Caine has rarely sounded so stereotypically Cainesque. Catch any comedian doing their “my name’s Michael Caine” impression, and you’ll find them playing Jack Carter. Carter lacks the swagger of Alfie, or the element of constant peril of Harry Palmer, but that didn’t matter when the performance held such bravura and danger, especially during the film’s devastating climax. It helps that Michael Caine had a brute strength, making him more imposing than Sean Connery at his most mercenary, or Roger Moore at his most deadly. 

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Arguably the greatest Bond that never was, Caine’s ferocity becomes his greatest strength, especially during the sex scenes, which are tinged with danger, density and vulnerability. None of the Bond actors could do menace very well, despite it being everywhere in Ian Fleming’s books, but whether it’s intentional or not, Caine is genuinely scary at times, especially when it comes to avenging those he loves. He even unleashes bone-crunching thump at one point, which must have hurt him as much as it did his opponent. 

Hodges was surprised that a star of Caine’s stature was willing to get so depraved, especially considering the uncompromisingly grim nature of the plot in question. “You felt for him and the emotions that he brought when he discovered that his niece,” Hodges recalled, “had been perverted in this way, by being involved in pornographic films. People forget that really the film was about paedophilia, in many ways, because she was underage. And that, for heavy-duty criminals, as you well know, is a no-go area.”

Not to bang on about it too much, but the final climax is what makes the film so memorable on first viewing. After cleansing himself of past misgivings, Jack Carter comes face to face with Eric, waiting for him by a beach. He offers him a bottle of whisky, before bashing Eric’s face in with a shotgun. Then, almost immediately afterwards, Carter is killed. He’s shot by a man in the distance. Plunging into the water, Carter lies lifeless, every bit as infallible as the men he has sent to their graves. It’s one of the first endings since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to close a feature on such a sombre note. There are no tears, there are no speeches. There is only silence. 

That’s how the film ends: Caine sprawled out on a beach, with no one to look out for him. It was a brave performance from Caine, and one that stood in his legacy as the years rolled away from him. In Get Carter, he proved he was far more than a pretty face, setting him on a path into more sophisticated and complex territories as an actor. 51 years later, he’s still challenging himself as an artist, and it is definitely artistry that’s on display in Get Carter.

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