Get Carter review: a clinical, cynical film noir for 1970s Britain

Upon its 1971 release, our critic compared Mike Hodges’s feature debut to 1940s American thrillers, with Michael Caine a more ruthless Bogart.

26 May 2022

By Tom Milne

Get Carter (1971)
Sight and Sound

The mysterious fascination of evil, so key an ingredient in the American thriller of the 40s, seems to have become a thing of the past – perhaps because in the dry, cynical 70s, where there isn’t much fascination to be had from Mao, pollution or the prospect of a nuclear war, we have simply learned to live with it. Although Get Carter doesn’t exactly sit up and beg for comparison with the Bogart-Marlowe ethos in the manner of Harper or Warning Shot, it does invite a similar involvement (and suspension of the moral faculty) with its tale of a man who invades gangland to settle a personal score by avenging his brother’s murder and leaves a trail of corpses, discarded women and battered friends and foes.

The English setting is brilliantly exploited, with Jack Carter (Michael Caine) whisked out of a glassily impersonal London flat (where his associates try to persuade him not to interfere with syndicate business) and deposited by an equally impersonal express train in Newcastle’s seedy wonderland of pubs, back streets and sleazy lodging-houses.

Coolly and clinically, in his first feature, Mike Hodges screws his direction up tight against his hero, clamping him in a bright, shiny vice of sex and sadism, and (apart from a couple of appallingly vulgar montages) looking a likely bet for better things to come. With everything working for it, though – Carter erupting into the gang boss’s lair to find a civilised card-game in progress with floozies and gunmen hovering in attendance; the meeting on a deserted bridge with a solitary car nosing casually in; the enigmatic beauty who roars out of nowhere in a gleaming sports car just in time to save Carter from a fate worse than death – the film obstinately remains the sum of its parts. Some good scenes, some excellent performances (John Osborne as the purring AI Capone, Ian Hendry as the black clad and hearted gunman), but no whiff of the aura of legend that accompanied Bogart in his adventures down dark alleys and turned them into crusades, no matter what he was up to.

Get Carter (1971)
© Warner Bros Pictures

The fact that the Bogart of the 40s normally played a private eye or an uncommitted good-baddie, while Michael Caine is unequivocally a thug like the men he is up against, is neither here nor there. Bogart had a natural charisma, but Caine has to be supplied with it.

Accordingly, there are perfectly reasonable plot explanations about the inoffensiveness of the brother, accompanied by hints that Caine may in fact be the father of his teenage ‘niece’, offering a neat guilt motif to explain his ruthlessness in avenging the murder – a ruthlessness noticeably increased when he discovers that the niece-daughter has been used by the gang as a blue movie star. Nothing wrong with this, except that it somehow comes out as contrived and sentimental.

Either Jack Carter is an authentic post-permissive hero, revelling in the casual sadism with which he stabs one implicated man in the stomach, heaves another off a high building, shoots his arch-enemy at point-blank range, and doesn’t give a damn when people foolish enough to help him out of the goodness of their hearts subsequently get beaten up for their pains; or he becomes, as the film pussy-footingly begins to see him, an avenging conscience. In which case one begins to ask awkward questions about character and motives.

Not to mention the awkward questions one could ask about the convenient coincidences: why none of the crew seem to be present during the shoot-out on a ferry which has just docked, for instance, or who is operating the mechanical dredger on the empty beach which allows Caine to dump Ian Hendry’s body in the sea with such satisfying mise en scene?

In the film noir of the 40s, a dark alley was there – and deserted – expressly for the hero to chase or be chased down. In Get Carter, largely because the Carter character is Bogart played without Bogart’s character, the locations are artificial in the wrong sense. There is, as a matter of fact, a scene where Michael Caine does land in a deserted alleyway, but the iconography is wrong: its depressing blue-grey wash of smoke and poverty, instead of keying one to menace and violence, makes one think of slum clearance, social conscience and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. One would be inclined to blame colour for the false emphasis, here and in the glossy tones assumed by both sex and violence… except that Melville has proved once and for all with Le Samouraï that film noir and colour are not the contradiction in terms they seemed.

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