Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Get Carter (1971)
“Frank wasn't like that. I'm the villain in the family, remember?”
Over the last year or two, Michael Caine has rapidly beginning to become my favorite actor. Initially I had only known him as Alfred in the new Batman movies, but recently I have been watching more of his older movies, understanding what he’s done, the movies he’s been involved in, and his influence on the British cinema. This first began when I realized that one of the leading actors in Zulu, a movie which has been for many years a veritable classic to me and indisputably one of my all time favorite movies. Since then, I have seen several others of his films and started to truly gain an appreciation for him. I began to see, and to some extent still do see him as a sort of British Clint Eastwood. Like Eastwood, Caine is a blond-haired actor with a very distinctive, very plebeian accent and manner of delivering lines. Also like Eastwood, Caine plays a lot of roles involving him being an anti-hero of sorts; although he possesses a moral system, he is perfectly willing to break those morals in order to get what he wants. Also like Eastwood, Caine is a complete badass and is exceedingly satisfying to watch on screen, especially when he’s in a position of power. This comparison is especially relevant in the context of the film Get Carter. It has much in common with Eastwood’s film Dirty Harry. They both came out around the same time, they featured similar actors, and covered similar topics: the rising crime of the 70s and vendetta and vigilantism, they are both extremely quotable, they both are a representation of the fears and problems of their time, and they both were significantly influential to the action genres, becoming distinguished demarcations of each nation’s respective action cinema. It should also be noted that they are both great films.
The film opens in a gang headquarters in London. Many gang members are gathered around watching a series of pornographic slides. It is at this point that we see Michael Caine, and he looks very bored. He gets up, and what I presume is the gang leader asks Caine – Carter – if he’s sure that he wants to go north. He says that the Northerners are rough, and won’t take kindly to a London boy poking around up there. Carter brushes the man off, saying that he needs to discover the truth about what happened to his brother, and so is determined to go north, to Newcastle. The credits role as we watch Carter on the train north. Finally, Carter arrives in Newcastle, and gets himself a room in a boarding house. From there, Carter begins reconnecting with his brother Frank’s old friends, and starts, essentially, poking around. Eventually, Carter infiltrates and questions Cyril Kinnear, the major crime kingpin in Newcastle. From Cyril we also learn that Carter is quite the badass himself. Finally, Carter leaves Cyril’s hideout, and soon after receives a number of threats from some of Cyril’s henchmen, demanding that Carter leave town immediately. These threats only further solidify Carter’s belief that Frank’s death – officially he was killed by a drunk driver – was not an accident. After evading, and eventually capturing and interrogating Kinnear’s henchmen, Carter gets a name – Brumby. Brumby, we learn, is a kingpin controller of gaming arcades, Carter says, “Ever been in an arcade there and put a penny in a slot machine? Well, it belongs to Cliff Brumby. Like as not the bloody arcade as well.” Carter soon confronts Brumby, but soon learns that the name was a false lead. Carter returns to find his house and friends attacked. The next day two henchmen try to force Carter to go back to London, but Jack evades them, and soon meets up with Brumby again in a parking complex. Brumby tells Carter that Kinnear killed Frank, and offers him £5000 to kill him. Carter refuses. Soon after, Carter learns that Frank’s child Doreen was involved in an amateur porno filmed in Kinnear’s apartment. Jack concludes that Frank found out about this film, and for that reason was killed. Carter also learns that Brumby was the man who leaked the movie to Frank. Irate, Carter tracks down Brumby, and throws him off a building. The rest of the movie involves Carter systematically killing anyone even remotely tied to the death of Frank, including pinning the murder of a prostitute (who Carter killed) on Kinnear, resulting in the complete dismantling of Kinnear’s empire. The film ends with Carter successfully killing the last man, and is just about to destroy his gun when he is shot – sniped from afar by an unknown gunman who Kinnear hired just prior to being arrested. Tragically, Carter dies, the movie ends with the tides washing his lifeless corpse out to sea.
The acting in this movie is generally fairly good. Michael Caine naturally is absolutely superb. I really like the way in which he comes off on the surface as an affable, friendly, nice guy, but underneath he is a spiteful, angry, vicious man who will break your face and throw you off a building without even batting an eyelash. The skill with which he is able to blow off or even turn on those who he was once being very friendly to is incredible. I particularly loved his rage after seeing the pornography Doreen participated in. You can tell he is absolutely seething with rage, but he still remains cool, calculating, and emotionless. It is only once he confronts the man who actually pulled the trigger on Frank that all of his anger is unleashed. Even greater is Carter’s joy when he realizes that he finished the job and got away with it. That last moment before he is killed is euphoric, even if you are simultaneously horrified by the viciousness of the acts perpetrated by the protagonist. The rest of the roles in this film are generally nonentities. No one was particularly excellent, but then again, no one needed to be. Petra Markham was decent as Doreen, and I also liked John Osborne as Kinnear. The only truly excellent non-Caine role in this movie I thought was Brumby, who was played by Bryan Mosley. You really got the sense that Brumby was trying his darnedest to act the tough gangster, but it’s very obvious that he’s out of his element. I particularly liked the scene where Brumby tries to hire Carter to kill Kinnear for him. On the one hand is Carter, the cool, calm, and seasoned veteran in these types of affairs, and a man who is genuinely in his element. On the other is Brumby, and bumbling fool clearly out of his element, trying to bargain without any chips. The dichotomy is excellent, and really made by the excellent acting on both sides. Truly though, this is Caine’s film, and he easily exceeds the mark.
The directing and cinematography in this film is rather hit and miss. Truly there are some great shots in this film. One I particularly liked is after the bridge scene, when Caine is evading Kinnear’s men. The scene is shot in a top-down style, showing the chase from overhead. It’s very disorienting, but also very effective, and essentially a demonstration of the style of the whole film: disorienting, but effective. The pacing of the movie is also rather bad. There are some segments, such as the last half hour, where the plot is driving and everything moves quickly. However there are also moments where the movie drags, and plods along. Personally I chalk this up to shoddy writing. I feel the movie at times tries to be too clever, too subtle, to the extent that most of the time it’s very difficult to know what the hell is going on. There were many points during the movie where I was completely lost and didn’t understand why Carter was doing what he was doing. I think the real problem is the movie has nonexistent, or else terrible exposition. Nothing is ever clearly explained, and while I’m a big fan of subtlety, this movie was just way too subtle. Another thing the movie did poorly was explain who characters were, what their relation to Carter is, and their importance. I knew who Brumby was because he actually got a decent bit of exposition, but nearly every other character goes completely unexplained. The movie doesn’t actually tell you what the hell Carter is doing in Newcastle until maybe 45 minutes into the movie. It’s infuriatingly frustrating. I think if I had to give one word to describe this movie from a directorial and writing standpoint it would be muddled. It’s really irritating particularly because I think fundamentally the film’s premise is excellent, and they’re backed by the perfect man for the role, and this damn good movie could have been a great movie if only they had explained what was going on a little better.
So why is this film on the list? For a number of reasons, I’d say. The first reason is the excellent acting of its lead actor. Michael Caine is truly in his element in this film, definitely one of his best performances. The influence this movie had on film is also noteworthy. Like Dirty Harry, this movie is extremely quotable, a fact which is definitely helped by Caine’s distinctive delivery style. Additionally this movie is on the list for its controversy, in a sense. Initially, this movie was reviled, primarily for the pornographic nature of it, and the total remorselessness with which Carter executes his targets. It seems completely pointless and gratuitous, but really that’s what makes this movie great. American film critic Pauline Kael enjoyed the film for its “calculated soullessness”, and I agree with her. Although the story is plodding, and the exposition shoddy, the action scenes in which Caine blows his way through everything and anything standing in his path are riveting and engaging. I didn’t quite understand why he was doing what he was doing, but they’re enjoyable all the same. It’s a reflection of the times the film came out of in the same way that Dirty Harry is. For this it is considered to be one of the greatest British crime movies ever made, and thus has earned its spot on the list.