Seattle Courant

Get Carter? Good luck.

Get Carter starring Michael Caine (1971)
By Jason McBride
May 10, 2009 02:05PM

Caine plays Jack Carter, a London mobster who journeys north to his hometown of Newcastle to get to the bottom of his brother’s mysterious death. Carter doesn’t believe a word of the official story, suspecting the local mob murdered his brother and made it look like an accident. Allying himself with a bartender and a cougar/boarding house owner, Carter, a killer whose honor has been treaded upon, paints the town with the blood of his enemies. In the process, he mixes it up with a crooked penny arcade mogul, the local porn kingpin (who – to his peril – uses Carter’s underage niece in his films) and a drunk-driving goomah.

“Get Carter” wins my favor because of Carter’s fury and cunning. At the time of its release, some found Mike Hodges’ film excessively violent, but most of the brutality is found in Caine’s demeanor. When he arrives at his brother’s house and picks up the family hunting rifle, you know there’s going to be trouble.

Shortly after his arrival, a car full of goons pulls up to the boarding house, and a guy in the back offers Carter a ticket out of town and ride to the train station. Carter, primly dressed in a three-piece suit, looks at the ticket and says, “That’s very kind of somebody. Who do I have to thank?”

Not surprisingly, he tears up the ticket, and they try to kill him. One of the thugs gets out the car, and Carter kicks the door back, smashing the guy’s face in. They drive off in a panic, dragging a guy in the back who catches his foot on his seat belt.

Caine, a working class cockney who left school at the age of 15, grew up around the underworld.

“I was of a family that you didn’t threaten too much,” Caine once recalled. “They threatened me until they found out who I was. It wasn’t because of my power, but they [knew], ’better leave him alone.’”

As in “The Sopranos,” where New Jersey is as much of a character as Tony or Silvio, the Newcastle landscape sculpts the trajectory of “Get Carter.” It’s a coal-mining town, with gray shipyards, smokestacks, horse racing tracks, pubs where bar-fights are just waiting to happen, and the saddest dancehall I’ve ever seen.

Hodges rejected storyboarding and sets and improvised scenes around Newcastle’s daily life. During the shoot, a girls marching band was passing by. There’s a scene where Carter, naked, chases two thugs out of the house with his rifle. Hodges shoots the naked (from the waist up, anyway) Caine through the passing band, in one of the film’s great comic moments.

Humor is important in the film, helping to defuse its violence and cynicism. Hodges, who hated the awkwardness of shooting sex scenes, chose to make them funny. He plays off the sexual tension between Carter and Edna, the boarding house matron (Rosemarie Dunham), by having Edna sit in rocking chair as Carter talks dirty to his girlfriend in London over the phone. Edna, in the foreground, rocks faster and faster as Carter, sitting in the background, brings his writhing girlfriend closer to climax.

So there you have it. Before he took up residence at Wayne Mansion to tend Christian Bale’s wounds, Michael Caine was himself a player and deliverer-of-beatdowns. And he didn’t have to put on mask and a fake growl to do it.

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Get Carter starring Michael Caine (1971)
Get Carter starring Michael Caine (1971)