Sunday, April 6, 2014

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.

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