Monday, April 28, 2014

The Great Silence

The Great Silence, directed by Sergio Corbucci (who also made Django), was released in 1968. It contains four elements that must have made it quite shocking at the time: its setting, its main character, its romance, and its ending. If you want to be surprised by the movie, read no further because I'm going deep into spoiler territory. I don't think I can discuss the film without going into greater detail, so you have been warned.

In the snowy mountains of 1898 Utah, bounty hunters ruthless enforce the law, gunning several so-called outlaws (Wikipedia says they're ostracized because they're Mormans, but I must have missed that when watching. Another article says it's because they've been forced to steal because of the harsh winter, which we see in evidence when they steal the sheriff's horse to eat it, but they were already outlaws by then.) in cold blood, men who were most likely starving and often in front of their families.  The widow of one of the dead men (Vonetta McGee) wants revenge against the man who killed him, Loco (Klaus Kinski), an especially dangerous and cunning bounty hunter. To this end, she engages the services of gunslinger known only as Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a man with a dislike of bounty hunters who provokes them into drawing first so he can kill them in self-defense. However, Loco, perhaps the smartest villain of any Western ever, refuses to take the bait.

This is not a romantic portrayal of the Old West. The Great Silence is a Spaghetti Western, that is to say an Italian-produced Western, and like many Spaghetti Westerns, the film has a raw grittiness that is counter to most examples of the genre Hollywood churned out at the time. It's also quite violent at times (Silence tends to shoot off men's thumbs to keep them from ever using a gun again). Unlike most Westerns, Italian or otherwise, The Great Silence is not set in the wide open plains or open-air desert; it's set in a cold, dank wintery mountain top. Roads are buried under feet of snow, and horses struggle to trot through. Corbucci includes a number of striking images that show just how desolate and miserable this place is, the snow often used for white-out effect as these dark men in black clothing are the only things visible in the frame. At times, it's rather beautiful.

Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, a similar type of character in Sergio Leone's work, was famously a man of few words. Silence takes this archetype to its logical conclusion; he's mute, unable to speak as a result of a cut throat when he lifts up his scarf to show the scar. It's a risky move, but it pays off. The fact Silence never speaks adds to mystique and presence, forcing others around to do all the talking. This is a man who won't be reasoned with, who won't back down, and who doesn't feel the need to explain himself to anybody. Wherever he goes, we hear, he leaves behind only the silence of death.

Eventually, Silence and the woman who hires him, Pauline, hit it off and have a love scene. What makes this especially interesting for its time is the fact that Silence is white and Pauline is black. Certainly, in the forty-plus years since this movie came out, the idea of an interracial couple is no longer as taboo as it once was, but for 1968, that's a fairly progressive and bold development, so kudos to the filmmakers for including it.

The fourth shocking element I referred to is the ending. Last chance to stop reading if you don't want to know before watching. As can be expected by anyone who has seen other Westerns, The Great Silence comes to head with a final showdown between Silence and Loco. Silence, injured and weakened, heads out to confront Loco at a saloon, where Loco has tied up the outlaws and threatened to kill them all if Silence doesn't show up. The two enemies square off, and at the moment of truth, Loco wins. Silence is gunned down. Pauline grabs his gun to avenge the second man she's loved, and she's killed, too. Then, Loco and his other bounty hunters execute the prisoners and leave town, intending to return later to collect the reward. The end.

Holy Hell! I can't think of any Western where the villain has so convincingly won and with such finality. Sure the heroes may have been killed, but they took the villains down with them or achieved some measure of moral victory or paved the way for their eventual defeats. Here, Loco wins and gets away with it. I couldn't believe it when I saw it. I was stunned. It's so bleak, so dark, but also logical; with how it's set up and all the other factors in play, Loco had to win. I can only imagine what the audiences raised on John Wayne thought when they first saw it.

The King of Comedy

Sometimes, when watching a desperate, pathetic person try and fail, you don't know whether to laugh, cry, or be afraid.

That brings us to Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), the main character of Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982) With his tacky suits, hair, and mustache, Rupert, an aspiring standup comic, looks very silly indeed. He's also quite delusional and obsessive, a jovial cross between Travis Bickle and Bill Dauterive. Sometimes, his earnest but wrong-headed tactics are funny in a socially awkward way. Other times, his actions are sad, a desperate plea from a wounded soul for some recognition. But then are times when his behavior is quite clearly dangerous, to himself and others. Regardless, he's not someone whose attention you want.

More than anything else, Rupert wants to appear on the hit late night show of his idol, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). He even has a mockup of the show set up in his basement, where he fantasizes about being a guest of honor; meanwhile, his never-seen mother yells at him to keep it down. When given the run-around by various people at Jerry's office and finally rejected by Jerry himself, Rupert, along with another crazy fan (Sandra Bernhard), hatches a scheme to kidnap Jerry and force his way on the show.

The King of Comedy shows both ends of the success spectrum in show business. On one end, there's Rupert who, to put it bluntly, is a loser. He lives with mother (although a certain joke during his monologue at the end will make you wonder about that) and dreams about making it to the big time. We see him in his basement acting out his fantasies, and Scorsese crosscuts between the razzle dazzle glamor and accolades of what Rupert believes he'll get and the mundane reality that he is interacting with cardboard cutouts of Liza Minnelli in dark, gloomy basement.  Until he can get to the real thing, Rupert will have to make do with pretend.

At the other end of the spectrum is Jerry, quite clearly modeled after Johnny Carson. He's sharp, funny, and charming, at least on his show. Away from the show, walking from his apartment to the studio, he is badgered, tired, frustrated, and private. Everywhere he goes in public, people hound him, calling out his name as if he should know them personally and insulted when he doesn't acquiesce to their every demand. One lady tells him she hopes he gets cancer after he tells he's running late and doesn't have time to stop and talk on the pay phone with her nephew. Worst of all, he's got to put up with people like Rupert who expect him to be the friend who will advance their career. Like Rupert, he is fairly isolated, but while Rupert's isolation is in the cramped, dark basement, Jerry is often show alone in the city streets, framed often as one person against the backdrop of buildings and crowds. If Rupert is a hidden nobody, Jerry is an exposed icon, constantly exposed to scrutiny.

Fantasy versus reality is a big theme of the movie. Rupert is someone who clearly can't tell the difference, and at times, even the viewer can't tell. After his first meeting with Jerry, Rupert, blissfully unaware Jerry has brushed him off, thinks he's on his way to the top and reunites with Rita (Diahnne Abbot), a woman from his past. He goes on about how he's friends with the great Jerry Langford, and to prove it, he'll take her to Jerry's place for the weekend. Later, we see them going on a train there, and at first, I thought this was another fantasy sequence. But then, they arrive, and it becomes quite clear awkwardness is about to occur. And like Taxi Driver, the movie seems to end with Rupert getting all the fame and adoration he so long desired, but it's impossible to say whether that's the case or if it's just another fantasy.

At various times, The King of Comedy is funny. At other times, it's tense. Sometimes, it's both. It's a very peculiar balance, and it can be a little unsettling. When Jerry is kidnapped for example, that's serious business; Rupert has committed a very serious crime, and he forces his idol to read cards over the phone outlining his plans for the show's producers, but the seriousness is undercut because Rupert keeps fumbling with the cards, holding them upside down, or showing a blank one by mistake. Other times, Scorsese gets laughs from hilarious reaction shots to Rupert's antics, particularly from Jerry, who has one of the best I-am-not-amused expressions ever, and a secretary at Jerry's office who recognizes rather quickly Rupert is not someone who should be hanging around.

Life can be cruel. Life can be funny. Life can be depressing. The King of Comedy recognizes it can be all of those things, sometimes all at once. Buoyed by some great performances, the movie is an underrated classic from Scorsese.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

I don't know if we'll ever see another movie like the original Conan the Barbarian (1982) ever again. Directed by John Milius, written by Milius and Oliver Stone, and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Barbarian is, to be sure, a violent, pulpy fantasy epic but one made with a lot more care (and a higher budget) than most other ilk of the genre at the time. Since then, while we have gotten bigger and bolder fantasy adventures such as The Lord of the Rings, Conan feels more grounded and lived-in than the CGI blockbusters that dominate Hollywood today.  And it's Rated R; it doesn't shy away from blood, guts, decapitations, dismemberments, sex, and other material you don't normally find in a movie genre dominated by dwarves, elves, and concerns about building a franchise.

Conan the Barbarian opens (as the epic, bombastic orchestral score by Basil Poledouris that carries the movie and I can't say enough good things about plays) with a montage of a sword being built. We see it poured and hammered into shape and form by Conan's father as his mother watches, and this opening really captures what the movie is about: the making of Conan. Just as we see the sword crafted into something strong and rigid, so too do we witness the making of Conan into a powerful, determined warrior.

As a child, shortly after his father crafts that sword and teaches him about their god Crom and the Riddle of Steel, Conan watches as his whole village is wiped out by the marauding horde of Thulsa Doom (a chilling James Earl Jones), the leader of a snake cult. Conan is enslaved, but by the time he's grown, his body has become incredibly strong. Bought and trained as a gladiator, he is freed, falls in with the thief Subotai (Gerry Lopez), and romances the warrior woman Valeria (Sandhal Bergman). All the while, Conan nurtures his desire for revenge agains the snake cult.

Drawing on characters, plots, and other elements from a number of different Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian is a to a degree episodic. Several passages of the film - Conan's days as a pit fighter, the break-in of a snake cult tower, an encounter with a witch - can almost be seen as their own self-contained stories. There is a certain red-blooded, primal, macho aggression in these types of stories, where the heroes must be strong, brutal, and dominant if they are to succeed. Steel clashes against steel, blood is spilled freely, the way is lit by torches, and the weak are cast aside. When asked what is best in life, Conan replies, "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

In some way, the movie can be viewed as a sword-and-sorcery coming of age story. Conan begins as a small child and becomes a slave who spends years pushing a wheel to grind grain and then is forced into the life of a pit fighter, where at first he doesn't so much fight as he struggles to survive, his master having dropped him in with no training or preparation. Then, through a montage, Milius shows how Conan becomes a dominant fighter and then is trained as swordsman and educated. Out on his own as thief, he makes friends and finds love for the first time before finding his purpose and life's mission to avenge his family. By film's end, through brute strength, swordsmanship, and crafty combat strategy, he is able to stand against Doom's men, establishing himself as mighty warrior. Only then is he ready to confront Doom himself.

That is the line running through Conan the Barbarian, and on this line, the movie includes first-rate production design, dark and awe-inspiring special effects, fun performances, and exciting action sequences. Made in the days before CGI, the movie, through practical sets and real locations, looks and feels like a big, fantasy world filled witches who turn into harpies, spectral beings that arrive at night to claim the dead, giant snakes (one of which we see change from human form), underground tombs, massive mountain-side temples, opulent throne rooms, and gorgeous landscapes.  Milius includes several stand-out images: the approaching horde of Doom out at the horizon, Conan crucified to a tree, the large congregation of robed zealots of Doom who carry candles, Conan swinging his sword as he stands at the end of ledge gazing out at the ocean, and more. Nothing about the movie feels hokey or cheap (except for one obviously fake vulture Conan chews to pieces while on the tree). There is some humor, but it's not at the expense of the story.

Arnold has never been considered a "great" actor, but he's perfect for the role of the barbarian warrior who is craftier and more determined than those around him think. He doesn't say much (in fact he says all of five words to Valeria), but he carries a powerful presence. It's one of the few roles of his where I don't see him as Arnold (although he gets a couple of laughs with some of those patented Arnold faces). Without Arnold, this movie doesn't work as well.

Early on in the movie, it is foretold Conan will one day become a king by his own hand. Conan the Barbarian does such a good job establishing Conan's character that it's easy to imagine future movies building on this groundwork as he works to become a king, but alas, neither Milius nor Stone returned for a sequel that was ultimately watered down and dumbed down. But that is another story.

The Deer Hunter

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Deer Hunter (1978) has one of the all-time great jump cuts in the history of cinema. After more than an hour of watching a group of Pennsylvania steel mill workers go from the blast furnace to a wedding to a hunting trip, the film unexpectedly drops us into the middle a hellish Vietnam battlefield. No warning, no buildup, no scenes of the men going to basic training or arriving in Vietnam. One minute they're in a bar, the next they're in the jungle. The camaraderie we've been a part of gives way to a frightening combat zone, explosions, men on fire, women and children blown to pieces, and pigs running through filth.

Why? Why this sudden leap from Pennsylvania to Vietnam in a way that leaves the audience, for lack of a better word, sucker punched? Because, no matter what these men do; no matter what promises they make to each other about how they won't leave each other behind; no matter how patriotic, brave, or tough they think they are, there is nothing that can prepare for the horrors of war they face, and those experiences will leave them shattered physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Directed by Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter follows three friends - Michael (Robert De Niro), Nicky (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) - on their last day of work at the steel mill before they're deployed Vietnam. Steven is also getting married the same day, and there's a big, Orthodox celebration involving more friends who won't be going off to serve as well as Linda (Meryl Streep), Nicky's girlfriend but whom Michael has a thing for. Michael and Nicky go on a hunting trip the next day with more friends. In Vietnam, the men are captured and forced to play Russian roulette, and though they eventually escape, none of them are the same.

The Deer Hunter is more than three hours long. It takes more than one hour to get to the Vietnam sequence, and the sequence involving Russian Roulette at the prisoner-of-war camp is around 15 minutes in length from start to finish. And yet, it's without a doubt the most memorable and intense sequence of the film. It's brutal, random, painful, and horrifying. I can't recall any other movie where the sound of a revolver clicking empty elicited such a reaction from me. Sure, the character survives that round, but he's playing against his friends and the game must continue until one is dead. Cimino uses a lot of discomforting closeups of the men, hot gun barrels pressed against their temples. It builds tension, it's so tightly shot and edited, and it becomes harder and harder to watch until it explodes.

Away from Vietnam, the movie shows us life in a small steel town. The movie was filmed in real locations (including parts of Cleveland), and it never once feels inauthentic. These people are shown to be honest, hardworking, patriotic people who work with their hands, get dirty, and enjoy a good drink at the bar where everyone knows each other. After Vietnam, the town feels different. Michael, who we follow most of the time, feels alienated and out of place once he returns alone. When he sees a party waiting for him at his house, he tells the cab driver to go to a motel. Everyone seems just a little quieter, a little less joyful, uncertain of how to behave.

The Deer Hunter is a very visceral movie. Watching it, you almost feel like you've lived through it and touched everything the characters have, whether the fires of the blast furnace, the cool still of the mountain forest, the rat-infested pit of the prisoner camp, and the chaotic underworld of Saigon as it's about to fall to Communist rule. The atmosphere is palpable.

More than anything else, The Deer Hunter is a sprawling movie. We spend so much time with these characters, before and after the Vietnam sequence, they do come to feel like old friends, and the narrative is constructed in a way that suggests a mirror image of events that illustrates the shattering effect of the war on them. The movie opens with a wedding and ends with a funeral; there are two hunting trip, one in which a deer is killed and another where it is spared; and encounters with friends who did not serve. The cinematography is used to great effect to suggest a wide scope: the hunting trips through the mountains paint a very wide, epic canvas that suggest something grand and poetic is taking place while other scenes, such as when Michael and Steven come across a fleeing crowd of refugees and South Vietnamese soldiers jam packed on a jungle road, illustrate the massive, far-reaching power of the war.

Truth be told, I probably won't be watching The Deer Hunter again any time soon. The three-hour running time probably could have been pared down because some scenes go on too long, blunting their effectiveness, but also, it's a challenging movie to watch. It's so intense and so emotionally shattering that after watching it, I felt drained.  It's a powerful movie, but it's not easy to watch.

Masters of Horror

Introduction
Masters of Horror

Season 1
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road
Dreams in the Witch House
Dance of the Dead
Jenifer
Chocolate
Homecoming
Deer Woman
Cigarette Burns
The Fair Haired Child
Sick Girl
Pick Me Up
Haeckel's Tale
Imprint

Season 2
The Damned Thing
Family
The V Word
Sounds Like
Pro-Life
Pelts
The Screwfly Solution
Valerie on the Stairs
Right to Die
We All Scream for Ice Cream
The Black Cat
The Washingtonians
Dream Cruise

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Body Heat

A few weeks back, I was watching this video on YouTube that featured a running commentary from legendary video game designer John Romero as he (and an interviewer) played through arguably his most famous game, Doom. At one point, Romero is asked his opinion of Doom 3, which as far as I know, he had nothing to do with. Romero said the game looked good, all the monsters looked impressive, but the gameplay was predictable, and when the gameplay becomes predictable, the game is in trouble. I couldn't help but have similar thoughts while watching the neo-noir, Body Heat (1981).

Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, then riding high on the success of having written the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, Body Heat is certainly well made and acted, and it has a dark, sweat-inducing atmosphere, but the plot takes no chances, and all its twists and turns come right out of the film noir playbook of the 1940s. Sure, it has some modern sensibilities, but if you've seen Double Indemnity, you know how Body Heat plays out.

Ned Racine (William Hurt), a lazy and sleazy small-town Florida lawyer, is instantly attracted when he spots Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) one particularly hot, humid night. It isn't long before they start having an affair, and not long after that, the two decide to murder her rich husband, Edward (Richard Crenna), and make off with the inheritance. But of course, in film noir, nothing ever goes according to plan, and Ned begins to suspect he can't trust Matty.

Why are these stories about women who whatever it takes - whether it's lie, cheat, steal, seduce, or murder- to get what they want so popular? Well, for starters, they might be bad, but they're definitely strong and determined. Especially in these types of thrillers, in which the men are often fools or no better themselves, femme fatales certainly having a way of being the most memorable characters by being the smartest, most ruthless, and toughest. They don't feel sorry for themselves or care what others think of them; they have a goal and go for it without mercy.

All this is certainly true of Matty. Ned is a sap, lazy and easily led about by his ... desires. And while Ned grows panicked, desperate, or paranoid, Matty always remains cool and in control. She not only manipulates him into bumping off her husband, she remains at least two steps ahead of everyone, not only Ned but also the lawyers and cops.

Everyone but those in audience who watch a lot of film noir, where all these plot points are very familiar, and for all the multitude of twists Body Heat packs in, there's not one that isn't predictable. Like I said, if you've seen Double Indemnity, you've seen Body Heat, except for all the added sex scenes. Hurt is a stand in for Fred MacMurray's insurance agent patsy, Turner is a replacement for Barbara Stanwyck's femme fatale, and the business with the wealth and inheritance takes the place of an insurance payout. Instead of Edward G. Robinson's sharp insurance investigator, you have Ted Danson as a good-natured district attorney and J.A. Preston as a suspicious detective. Instead of the murdered man's daughter, we get his sister and niece getting caught up in the post-mortem conflict. The only really new character element is Mickey Rourke as the bomb-making, rock-and-roll-loving arsonist Teddy, who steals both scenes he appears in. Additionally, Body Heat came out the same year as the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, another story of a man and woman teaming up to kill the woman's husband.

Kasdan brings a steamy, atmospheric style to the proceedings. This is the kind of movie you need to watch with the air conditioning on or a window open; seeing all these characters sweat under the hot sun, stick their faces in the freezer, and stand under fans in the muggy weather is enough to get the perspiration going. Much has been written about the movie's sexual nature and the chemistry between Hurt and Turner, and while that stuff is certainly intense and visceral, it gets overdone after a while. Yes, it establishes how much in thrall of Matty Ned is, but it really slows the movie down, and when you already know where the movie is going, that can be frustrating.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

I have this image of the barbarian warlords of centuries past. They killed anyone who got in their way, had their way with every woman they wanted, took anything they could get their hands on, and indulged in every hedonistic behavior known to man. Of course, those types of barbarians aren't around in modern society, but after watching The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), I'm not convinced their behavior has gone away; instead of wearing suits of armor and carrying battle axes, they now wear business suits and work as presidents of investment firms in the corporate world.

Directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort, the movie charts the spectacularly wild and out-of-control rise and fall of Belfort, played by Leonard DiCaprio. Belfort starts out as a low-level stock broker for a Wall Street firm (headed by Mathew McConaughey in a cameo, who advises him to engage in drugs and sex to survive this career), is laid off after the market crash of 1987, goes to work in a boiler room dealing in penny stocks, and launches his own firm with the help of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), where he uses highly unethical and illegal methods to build a fortune. The firm becomes a den of decadence, drugs, and depravity as the FBI and the SEC begin investigating the firm, and Belfort divorces his first wife to marry Naomi (Margot Robbie), a model. After a while, all the excesses begin taking their toll.

For me, the key moment in the film occurs fairly early on. Shortly after starting his own firm, with the respectable sounding name of Stratton Oakmont, Belfort is interviewed by Forbes magazine, and he is angered when the article dubs him the "Wolf of Wall Street," calling him a "twisted Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band." Belfort thinks he's ruined until he sees all the young financiers who now want to work for him, driven by the promise of making untold amounts of wealth.

Here is Belfort, a scumbag. He rips people off, cheats on his wives, engages in all sorts of hedonistic behavior that would make Keith Richards blush, and does it all in the name of greed. Yet, he's a role model for many people; there's no denying that there are millions of people who see the life he leads, the hurt he causes, and the disgusting behavior he engages in professionally and personally and say, "That's who I want to be."

And that is how Scorsese is able to make The Wolf of Wall Street work. It would have been so easy to make this movie about a deserving bastard who gets what he has coming to him as it piled on the excesses of drugs and women,  but the movie succeeds how by showing just how this guy succeeds. He's not so much a wolf in sheep's clothing as he is a wolf everyone else wants to be. It reminds me of John Steinbeck's line about how socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as exploited workers but as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires." Watching the movie, we don't identify with the clients and customers Belfort rips off; indeed, apart from hearing some voices during sales pitches, we don't see anyone whose life savings have been lost, college funds eliminated, and homes foreclosed upon because they entrusted their investments with Belfort. The movie is told entirely within the world of these crooked stockbrokers who make a lot of money for a long time and live it up. It's a party, and we're invited to witness.

Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, I was reminded of an earlier Scorsese masterpiece, Goodfellas, about the gangster life. Sure, the lifestyle is dangerous and destructive, but man, it's a fun ride while it lasts, to engage in all sorts of illicit activity and flaunt the rules of those who would bring you down. The difference is when Henry Hill gets involved in drugs, he grows paranoid and erratic, but Jordan Belfort needs them to function. The mobsters end up turning against each other, killing each other or turning evidence, but Belfort fosters an us-against-the-world mentality among his cohorts, even using a note to warn Donnie when he's wearing a wire.

Nearly three hours long, The Wolf of Wall Street is never dull. In almost every scene, there's something vulgar, disgusting, or outrageous going on, and from a director who has dabbled in rather dark subject matter and characters before, it's actually really funny at times. There's a running voiceover from DiCaprio that comments on the proceedings, and there's a lot in the film that's funny in a I-can't-believe-they-just-did-that sort of way. Be warned, it is quite crude and graphic, and worst of all, you will see more of Jonah Hill than you ever wanted to.

Get Carter

I try imagining another actor playing Jack Carter, the anti-hero of Get Carter (1971). Even for a member of the London criminal underground, Carter is a real piece of work, a scummy sleaze bag who uses and casts aside the people who help him when it suits his purpose, brutalizes men and women, sleeps with multiple women (including his boss's girlfriend), and remains obsessively focused on a single-minded goal, even if it means putting himself and others in danger. He's really no better than anyone else in the movie and arguably worse, but, as played by Michael Caine, Carter remains compelling.  He's the anchor that drives the plot forward, and he somehow makes us care that he gets what he's after.

Following his brother's death in what he is told is a case of drunk driving, Carter returns to his hometown of Newcastle for the funeral, but soon, he suspects there was more to his brother's death than what he's been told. He interacts with many people - his niece (Petra Markham) who might actually be his daughter if that tells you how good his brother's marriage was, his brother's girlfriend (Dorothy White), old acquaintances, and members of the city's crime groups. All the while, he's warned by his bosses not to stir up trouble by sticking his nose where it doesn't belong, lest he ruin the relationship between the two groups, but as Carter digs deeper, he not only draws ire from both sides, he finds the truth to be much more shocking than he expected.

I've been to Newcastle three times in my life and will probably go again (my sister lives there), and I can say it's a really nice city, at least the parts I've seen. In Get Carter, Newcastle is a scummy, crime-infested, dirty hellhole, filled with slums, desolate industrial buildings,  and low-rent bars, and the denizens aren't much better: drug dealers, pornographers, corrupt businessmen, career criminals, and hired hoodlums. It's a cold, contaminated place, nothing is romanticized or glamorized. Everything looks grey, worn down, and clammy. The film takes place during day and night, but even during the day, I don't recall seeing any sunlight.

In this cruel world, the only way to survive or get what you want is to be a heartless bastard, and that's why Carter, despite his myriad of flaws, carries the story. He's not in anyway intended to be sympathetic or likable. We can admire and even respect parts of his character because the filmmakers don't doll him up to be cool, hip, or have a heart of gold. He is what he is and goes after what he wants with ruthless efficiency and impeccable skill. Sure, he's got a sense of humor, able to verbally put people down when they try to intimidate or bribe him, but he's at his most basic someone who is good at what he does. He's cool by the very fact he's not trying to be cool; he just is.

Even when he's caught in a bad situation, he finds a way to outsmart his enemies. In one scene, he is surprised by two London thugs who have orders to bring him back, and they interrupt him while he's having sex with the landlady of the bed and breakfast he's staying at; Carter gets out of it by grabbing a rifle and leading the thugs outside while still naked as a parade goes by. It's outrageous and darkly funny, but it also feels very earthy and real, and the scene perfectly sums up the character of Carter: he does not give a crap what anyone thinks of him.

The movie also mines some pathos for Carter. In the scene where he discovers the truth about why his brother was killed, Carter, this vicious, heartless criminal, is driven to silent, bitter tears. He actually looks vulnerable, and it just makes that revelation of the truth that much more wrenching. The truth is one of those things that you might wish had stayed hidden; not only is it devastating, it sets Carter down a path of no return and destroys everything he ever had. It's as Confucius is credited with saying, "Before you embark of a journey of revenge, dig two graves."


Get Carter is worth watching for Caine's performance as Carter. I really can't imagine the movie working without him. Around him, the movie is more mixed. Britt Ekland turns up for a couple of scenes as Carter's girlfriend, and she has a memorable scene where she and Carter have phone sex (made hilarious by the fact that Carter has this conversation in front of his land lady as she sits on a rocking chair), but she vanishes after that scene and is only mentioned briefly; her relationship with Carter plays into his falling out of favor with his London bosses, but it feels forgotten about by the end. There's also a lot of characters and loyalties and factions and gangs, so it can be challenging to keep track of who everyone is and why they're doing what they're doing.

But regardless, at the center of Get Carter is the Carter character and his obsessive, self-destructive search for answers in a hostile city. With one of Caine's best performances propelling the movie, it's well worth the watch.