50 years of Get Carter: a new interview with director Mike Hodges

Half a century after the release of perhaps the greatest of all British gangster films, we caught up with director Mike Hodges to sift through his memories of the shoot and ask whether Get Carter could be made the same way today.

10 March 2021

By Lou Thomas

Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter has cast a long shadow over British cinema. Released in the UK on 12 March 1971, director Mike Hodges’ feature debut follows London gangster Jack Carter (Michael Caine) over a weekend in which he returns to his hometown of Newcastle to attend his brother’s funeral. On Tyneside, Carter reacquaints himself with his niece Doreen (Petra Markham) and nefarious locals such as urbane local crime boss Cyril Kinnear, played with quiet menace by playwright John Osborne. Events take several sinister turns as Carter investigates his brother’s death, dealing with corrupt businessman Cliff Brumby (Coronation Street veteran Bryan Mosley) and hoodlums sent from London by his boss, whose girlfriend (Britt Ekland) is having an affair with Carter.

Decades later, Get Carter is justly considered to be among the greatest crime films Britain has ever produced. It has a masterful, pacy blend of the sex, violence and style that simultaneously repels and attracts crime film connoisseurs, yet offers much more. Almost every scene has tightrope tension, a fiendish corkscrew twist or a shock that lingers long in the mind. The dialogue, written by Hodges and adapted from the novel Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis, is often coarse and always lean. Strong performances across the board tell broken tales of guilt, complicity and heartbreak, with Caine offering arguably his finest work in the title role. 

Caine was red-hot after a late 1960s run that included The Ipcress File (1965), Alfie (1966) and The Italian Job (1969), so audiences must have been surprised to see him play such a cold, ruthless villain. Having sent his apologies for not being available for an interview for this piece, Caine emailed to say: “I was lucky that I got to work with the brilliant director Mike Hodges in the cult classic British thriller Get Carter. I was aided by a top notch supporting cast for this iconic film, which even now remains a classic.”

Roy Budd’s unforgettably supple theme and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky’s sharply composed shots of locations in the north-east of England that are mostly gone or changed beyond recognition round off a sparkling feature. 

Remarkably, the film went from novel to cinema release in just eight months, with 40 days needed for the shoot. Hodges got the directing job after his TV film Rumour (1970) impressed producer Michael Klinger. In a leisurely phone call from his farm in Dorset, Hodges looked back on the making of the film to consider its themes, star and the links between criminals and cinema.

Get Carter (1971)

What was it about Rumour that provoked Michael Klinger to sign you up for the film?

It was experimental filmmaking, in many ways, by the standards at the time. And yet it still was understandable in terms of the story. Malcolm McDowell was working with Stanley Kubrick, and Stanley saw it and came in the next morning when they were shooting – I think it was Clockwork Orange. He said to Malcolm that he’d just seen this film and he was very impressed by it. I think Klinger would have been as well. You have to be rather arrogant to think like this, but Malcolm told me that Stanley really thought it was a great film.

Is it true that you adapted the book with Ian Hendry in mind as the lead, but Klinger had already got Michael Caine in?

Carter is such a psychotic. It was my first feature film and I just didn’t think that any major star would take it on. And Ian was a terrific actor, in my opinion. It just never, ever occurred to me that someone of Michael Caine’s stature would play it. But I don’t think Michael was attached to it, initially. I think he may have intimated to Klinger that he would be interested, but he wanted to see the script first, because I didn’t know anything about it until I finished the script, that Caine was involved at all.

Caine once said he based his depiction of Carter on a real-life criminal of his acquaintance from his south London upbringing. Was that something you ever discussed with him?

No. I don’t think it’s the same now, but in those days, quite a lot of heavy-duty criminals were associated. They’d just sort of mix in with filmmakers. It’s a bit like the Kray brothers being photographed by David Bailey. They had a sort of cachet with certain people, certain film styles. And I had [John] Bindon in the opening scene, who was a criminal, so there was cross-fertilisation between criminals and the film industry in those days. 

What did Caine bring to the role?

Oh, he’s incredible in it. I think that Carter, as I just said, is a psychopath, and to make a psychopath empathetic in a purist kind of way is what Michael brought to it. You felt for him and the emotions that he brought when he discovered that his niece – [who is] possibly his daughter – 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. If anybody ends up in jail, I think they call them nonces, and they’re very severely treated by serious criminals.

Is there anything you remember about the shoot that stands out?

The whole thing was truly extraordinary, because it was done in a kind of white heat. Richard Lester, who was a friend of mine, gave me a tip, which was a very wise one. He said, “Make sure you stay in a different hotel to the crew.” So, I stayed in the different hotel. The first assistant also had a suite there, as well. 

What happens if you’re staying in the same hotel is the crew and the cast eat you alive. You walk into the foyer and they’re on you like piranha fish. I managed to keep myself concentrating just on what was happening in front of the camera, none of the politics of anything that was going on around it. And I just shot it, literally, from the seat of my pants.

I can’t understand how the hell we got it done from the book in eight months. It was an unbelievable feat, but, you see, it was like that in television. The decision has to be made very rapidly, and you would be out there shooting. You write a script, and if it was accepted, in those days, they often didn’t ask you who was in the cast. And so both the [TV] films that I’d made, Suspect (1969) and Rumour, were made in a similar sort of way. Write the script and then you’re out there shooting it within months.

Filming Get Carter (1971)

You explore several big themes in the film: criminality, revenge, guilt – as you said, paedophilia – and corruption. Do you think it would be any harder to get a film made tackling these topics now?

It’s about 10 years since I made a film. The whole industry is just transformed, so I can’t really say whether it could get made now. 

Would you get away with the female characters? Three of them are corrupted, and the fourth one is a young girl who’s got involved, so she’s not really an unsympathetic character, but the women… Once you’ve chosen the milieu that you’re going to make the film in, they are true to character. I’ve met those women. I saw those women when I did two years in the navy on my [national] service, sailing into fishing ports, so I saw the poverty and I saw the degradation the people had to live in. And for these women, sex was probably the only card they had to play.

 So it’s a bit like William Hogarth being asked to not have the woman drinking gin. Once you’ve set the milieu in which you’re making it, then there’s no escape from it. 

Get Carter (1971) poster

Whether nowadays people would understand… We’re talking 50 years ago; they would see that milieu. They would know of it.

 Now I’m not sure they would, any longer. People who vote Tory certainly have forgotten what the Labour party did, for example. They’ve forgotten the National Health Service came in as a result of a rejection of that kind of poverty and that kind of deprivation. But nowadays people forget all of that. History is no longer of interest to most people, I don’t think. 

There’s a lot written about this idea of toxic masculinity. What can we say about masculinity in the film and in Carter himself? Is he an example of toxic masculinity? 

Well, again, that’s the character. Not long before I made the film, the stories came out of the Kray brothers and the Richardsons, and these were not joke criminals. These were sadistic and dangerous people, and Jack Carter is in that class. If you read the book, he’s certainly tackier, because Caine gave it that almost elegance, in terms of the way he is besuited and the way he carried himself. He gave it a slightly different touch than was in the novel. In the novel, Jack is much seedier in many ways than Caine. I’m grateful he did that, because I think it would be unbearable to have watched it if it had gone the other way, which I’d always thought it might do.

The film makes striking use of its north-east locations. Can you tell me about those?

Jack’s brother’s home was about to be flattened, and T. Dan Smith [leader of Newcastle City Council from 1960 to 1965] was ripping up all these perfectly good houses, actually, to build high-rises. But Carter was very interesting in that way, that it really captured a city on the cusp, in between these periods. Newcastle was certainly like that when I was in the navy in the 50s, because I sailed into North Shields where I got to shoot. I’m there now 20 years later and nothing had changed. It’s extraordinary. And now it’s going too bloody fast, in my opinion.

Newcastle and Gateshead look radically different now. 

Absolutely horrendous. They’re so boring now.

The ferry’s gone. The major thing you can’t anticipate were the ships – these huge vessels alongside when it was a port, which I used in the film. But that’s the architecture – that gave North Shields the architecture. So when I went there in the 50s and I went ashore, the area behind the fishing quay was known as ‘the jungle’. It was a very rough area.

I saw horrendous things there. I ended up in a flat. We went out for a drink on a Sunday and met some people. We went back to their basement flat and I said, “Well, I’m going to have a pee.” And they said, “There’s a bucket in the corner.” It was really serious poverty. There was a pram down there, and the woman who owned the flat was knitting baby clothes, and she’d lost the baby a year before, but she’d forgotten. These were very deprived people.

A lot of these locations have completely changed now. Is there anywhere else that you would shoot them now? 

No, because… I can’t answer that. I’m not in the process of re-shooting it, anyway. Maybe you should ask Stallone and see how well they ended up shooting [the remake] in Seattle.

The new 4K digital restoration of Get Carter is in cinemas from 27 May and on 4K UHD and Blu-ray from 25 July 2022

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