Even after 50 years, do we properly get Carter? And understand that his awful destiny is bound up with British shame, envy and the class system? Mike Hodges created a Brit-crime magnum opus with this unforgettably sleazy, slimy, nasty film from 1971 – now on re-release, linked to the director’s retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. It is a violent kitchen-sink pulp with the observational brilliance and dour working-class realism of something by Ken Loach, adapted by Hodges from the novel Jack’s Return Home by the neglected British writer Ted Lewis.
Hodges gave the role of a lifetime to Michael Caine as the dead-eyed, pill-popping gangland enforcer Jack Carter, who is working for London’s mobster porn supremos with their interest in trafficking and exploitation. Carter journeys up from “the smoke” to his Newcastle hometown to investigate the apparent suicide of his brother Frank. But plenty of influential people don’t want that can of worms opened. Caine brought the cool, near-sociopathic self-possession he’d shown as Alfie and Harry Palmer, and cranked it up to a new level of ruthlessness. It is the unmistakable halting sing-song of Caine’s delivery that makes sense of the legendary pre-violence speech: “You’re a big man but you’re in bad shape; with me, it’s a full-time job. Now behave yourself.” (Carter has apparently lost his own north-east accent.) This was a line that Hodges wrote himself; it isn’t in the book.
Get Carter was, appropriately, produced by Michael Klinger, the former strip club and stag film entrepreneur who with imagination and flair got into legitimate production and distribution, and the film features a glorious array of character-actor talent, including Ian Hendry as Eric, the cringing mob factotum in a dove-grey chauffeur’s outfit and dark glasses, Britt Ekland as Jack’s secret girlfriend Anna, supposedly going out with Jack’s boss but planning to get away to South America with Jack soon; Bernard Hepton as the cringing underling Thorpey (to be confronted in the gents’ lavatories, for maximum squalor), and Alun Armstrong as the biddable Keith whom callous Carter exploits. John Osborne contributes a delicious cameo as the slippery gangboss, Mr Kinnear, and Rosemarie Dunham is outstanding as Carter’s unhappy landlady who listens to Carter having phone sex with Ekland and then has sex with Carter herself in a bed over which is a sampler reading: “What Would Jesus Say?” What indeed?
Almost every line Caine utters as Carter has become iconic, simply by virtue of the forthright and distinctive intonation: “In a THIN GLASS,” he says to the Geordie barman, actually snapping his fingers. Londoners shouldn’t try this one, although Carter is happy enough with a half-pint dimple mug at his brother’s wake. And the extraordinary scene in which he arrives at his late brother’s house first, pokes around the empty dismal rooms before having a grisly encounter, is a macabre masterpiece.
The snippiness and nastiness is brilliantly conveyed by the sneering beta male Eric, jealous of Carter. In fact, everyone hates Carter when he shows up and starts sticking his nose in and throwing his weight about, mostly because he’s got above his station. Carter takes care of himself, he wears nice suits and there is an air of exiled glamour about him, as well as contempt for his former associates, which makes his terrible fate all the more stomach-turning. A stone-cold, liquid-nitrogen classic.