Monday, March 4, 2013

Coals to Newcastle

Film: Get Carter
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

A few years ago when Stallone remade Get Carter I was vaguely aware that it was a remake but knew nothing about it or about the original. In my mind for some reason I conflated it with Cop Land despite the films being three years apart. Anyway, I knew nothing about Get Carter going in and really wasn’t prepared for the film that I watched. That’s not a complaint; it’s just a statement of fact.

Get Carter is a sort of a British take on post-noir noir and an early prototype of what the British gangster/crime film would become in later years. Gone with this are the days of polite Limey crime like The Lavender Hill Mob. No, Get Carter is sex and violence, so much so that it was originally given an X rating. The film it most reminds me of is Point Blank, and while it shares a sense and a kinetic sense with the earlier film, it’s also not quite as taut, substituting complexity, nudity, and violence for style.

Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is a hired killer sleeping with the girlfriend of his boss. He returns to his hometown of Newcastle when he learns that his brother Frank has died. The official report is that Frank got completely plastered on whiskey and drove his car into the ocean. Jack Carter doesn’t buy this because Frank didn’t drink whiskey. No, someone murdered Frank Carter, and Jack’s only thought is to find out who is responsible and take them down with extreme prejudice.

This journey to find his brother’s killer leads him into a very complicated web of lies and false trails, and frankly it’s frequently difficult to keep all of the names and faces straight. This is not at all helped by the fact that Jack evidently has a desperate need to kill everyone who has ever met his brother at all. Many, many conversations end with someone stabbed, clubbed, injected with an overdose, or shoved into the trunk of a car.

As mentioned, there’s a ton of violence here. Much of it would seem tame by today’s standards, and quite a lot of it would even feel at home on primetime television. There’s also a great deal of nudity and sex, and this runs the gamut. We get, for instance, a scene of Carter and his girlfriend Anna (Britt Ekland) having phone sex, which is undoubtedly intended to be titillating. But the film opens with Carter, Anna, and his bosses looking at a pornographic slideshow, parts of which are only vaguely hidden, and these are just dirty. There’s more like this since pornography ends up being an important plot point eventually. This is not intended to be titillating, and it isn’t; it’s seedy, which is the mood it’s going for.

All of this is what it is. The biggest issue here is the total lack of remorse expressed by Carter for anything that he does throughout the film. At one point, for instance, he forces a woman into the trunk of his car thanks to her participation in a pornographic film involving Carter’s underaged niece Doreen (Petra Markham). Shortly thereafter, when confronted by a few enemies, Carter watches impassively as the car (still containing the woman) is pushed off a dock and into the ocean, where it sinks. He kills without conscience and without remorse, something that the censors undoubtedly noticed and weren’t too happy about.

So we get that the film is morally grey (at best), contains some unpleasant (in places) nudity and a rash of killings that come out of nowhere. But is it any good? It’s difficult to say, really. On the one hand, I respect a lot of what this film does and tried to do. It’s looking to create something much grittier than people had experienced up to this point, to add a level of realism and harshness to the crime genre. It succeeds at this beautifully. Get Carter exudes a grim perspective with no effort at lightening the mood. It is a film in which nothing really good happens to much of anybody. No, everyone is doomed from the start, forced into paying penance for their previous and current sins. Most won’t have future sins because of Jack Carter’s penchant for throwing people off roofs or stabbing them once they are no longer useful.

It’s a hard film to judge. I respect what it does, but it does seem somehow inappropriate to root for…anyone…in this film. It feels like a grimy James Bond with its series of sad, mutilated bodies left mostly unmourned. There’s a real darkness here that’s difficult to identify, an aggressive ugliness part and parcel with the world it depicts. I respect that. But I’d still probably rather rewatch Point Blank.

Why to watch Get Carter: It takes crime films in a gritty new direction.
Why not to watch: It's pretty unpleasant.


  1. I think I liked this more than you, but then I have the national pride to think about. The script is great too, with all of Caine's quips and put-downs, and there was some interesting shot composition - seeing the video in the mirror when he is watching the porn.

    I have to ask though, is the Stallone remake any good? I've yet to find anyone who has actually seen it.

    1. Your search continues, because I've never seen it, either.

      I didn't dislike Get Carter, but I didn't really like it, either. I liked it more at the beginning, and as it got seamier, I liked it less.

  2. Y'know, I really like this one. A lot. Which is weird, because as you point out, as it gets seamier and seamier, I just thought it was more and more thrilling - which is the opposite reaction I had to "Touch of Evil." And opposite to your reaction as well. I don't know. I don't understand that (why in one movie I think it's great and in another it turns me off). I need to watch "Get Carter" again. That scene with the trunk - that completely shocked me. I was not expecting that at all. Holy s*$@, that just happened.

    And to preempt Jay's question from above, I haven't seen the Stallone remake either.

    It's been AWHILE since I've seen either Point Blank or Get Carter, but they are definitely of the same cloth. I honestly can't remember which I liked more. I loved 'em both.

    1. Yeah, that is interesting, because I did have exactly the opposite reaction to Touch of Evil, which is one of my absolute favorite movies of the 1950s, and it follows a path similar to this one (although it never goes as far as this one does).

      For me, it might be the complete lack of remorse. It might also be that there doesn't seem to be a character trajectory for me. In Touch of Evil, Hank Quinlan slowly becomes more and more degraded as the film goes on. Here, Jack Carter starts out there.

  3. You opening paragraph pretty much describes where I stood, too. (And I haven't seen the remake.)

    I saw this thanks to Siobhan, who loaned it to me with some other films. I just checked my rating on Netflix and it was three stars, so that means I liked it just a little more than you did. It must have been influential, though, because I recently saw a 2004 British crime drama that had a "Get Carter ending" to it. I won't name it since that would spoil it for you if you haven't see it. (It's not on the 1,001 list.)

  4. Three stars is just about right for me--maybe 2 1/2. It's a film I think is well made and worth respecting, but not one I'd often consider throwing in and watching.

  5. Curiously I liked it more and more as the movie progressed, mostly I think, because the characters only gradually slide into focus. In the beginning I did not even understand what sort of character Jack Carter was supposed to be, but through his actions we get there.
    I compared it with Pulp Fiction, with the significant difference that Tarantino glory in the violence. In Get Carter the violence is simply there, matter of factly.
    The woman in the trunk scene is pretty shocking. I waited for some reaction from Carter, but his face was just passive and felt more shocking than anything.

    1. Perhaps I should re-evaluate this one. I've certainly changed my mind on movies before, and a lot of people seem to like this one.