“You know, I’d almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow.”
Once you know this is one of Michael Caine’s signature lines in Mike Hodges’ classic gangster film Get Carter, it’s almost impossible not to re-read the line in Caine’s hallmark tone of voice. A voice ubiquitous with British class and swagger, it’s easy to forget that the typically well-mannered actor was once known for characters who would now get a slap on the wrist and berated on social media. Jack Carter is just one of those characters, known not for his class, but perhaps for his swagger.
Selling the ‘Great Britain’ familiar to residents of the country, but a far cry from Richard Curtis’ flowery portrait of Britannia, Get Carter welcomed you to the dreary, unendurable sight of Newcastle and the dogged persistence of Jack Carter, a suited Michael Caine returning to his hometown to find his brothers killer. Travelling across the barren landscape of the northern town, Caine is far away from his criminal position as a London gangster, he is a lone man seeking justice, these streets don’t run by his rules.
Adapted from Ted Lewis’ English crime noir novel ‘Jack’s Return Home’, Get Carter’s Newcastle setting is incredibly effective, a northern town foreign to Caine’s townie sensibilities. Carter’s presence, and the presence of the audience, is less unwelcome and more uncomfortable, not least thanks to the naturalistic setting and background extras. Your eyes are drawn to the background of the scene, to faces so unique they could only be real inhabiting the bar at the pub and the seats at the betting shop, each a genuine local bystander as part of Mike Hodges and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky’s specific decision.
This unglamorous northern reality highlights the bizarre presence of Michael Caine’s nasty, cockney geezer, making his character decidedly more distasteful than he should be. Though despite this, he’s a rock to cling to thanks to Caine’s marvellously enjoyable portrayal as a man with a smart, suited facade and a slowly cracking psychotic core, dormant, but ready to burst. His mentality is unstable, fuelled by the constant imbalance of alcohol, pills, and unidentified powder, accentuated by an excellent underlying score largely composed by Roy Budd which flicks erratically from high-tempo classical music to dark atmospheric noise.
Audibly illustrating Jack’s fluctuating mental state, the stirring, creeping soundtrack helps Caine to formulate a broken, realistic character. In an interview following the release of the film, Caine said: “In that time people thought that gangsters were either funny or stupid, and I wanted to show that gangsters were not funny, they were not stupid, they were economical with violence, it was just a means to an end, it was to silence you, and that’s where you get that coolness that carter had, it was very edgy, you never get these people saying ‘if you say that again I’ll smash your face in, no they just smash your face in’.”
As Carter one-punches his way through the majority of Newcastle’s underground crime scene, this speech from Caine is certainly true with scenes of violence often short and to-the-point. The same can be said for his undoubtedly outdated attitude towards women, where he prefers less small talk and more direct action.
Ranked 16th in the BFI’s ‘Top 100 British films of the 20th Century list, and cited by Quentin Tarantino as his favourite ever British film, Mike Hodges’ Get Carter is one of the most iconic British gangster films in the country’s rich cinematic history. Without its direct, brutal tone, pitch-black humour and unashamed English roots, we may have never been graced with John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, or particularly Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes. Its legacy is untouchable but won’t bring any tourists to Newcastle anytime soon.