The relaxed content policing of the late 1960s gave crime thrillers a lot of new room to explore the seedier sides of life as well as the murky ethics of those who live outside the bounds of mainstream morality, and UK filmmakers in particular seemed to take specific glee in making their criminal protagonists as mean as possible (see also Sitting Target (1972)). Mike Hodges' Get Carter is a flagship of the era's hard-ass British thriller, complete with pornography, wanton murder, and the curious honor code of a dead-eyed Michael Caine at its heartless heart.
Caine stars as John Carter, a high-end London mob hit-man who travels north to working class Newcastle to look into the untimely death of his brother. Carter's unyielding sense of purpose in this matter pleases neither the London nor Newcastle crime syndicates. Despite their resistance, however, as Carter calmly pursues new leads it looks likely that he may be suspecting foul play where there is none. His brother, after all, was clean and a nobody as far as the gangs were concerned.
There's a lot on the surface to like about Get Carter: its lean premise requires very little context or exposition to get underway, and Carter is a man-of-action who doesn't bother with elaborate subterfuges. Like the most patient bull, he somewhat slowly destroys everything in his path. But he's also not particularly methodical or clever; his default use of provocation and/or force doesn't always get useful results, and the collateral damage is substantial. He has a singular focus, and doesn't really care about consequences. This carelessness allows other nefarious forces to suspect that they may be able to co-opt Carter's desire for vengeance for their own dirty purposes.
I was initially cold on Get Carter. Hodges' approach to the material is curious: for the most part, it goes against the grain of its era, eschewing heavy style for a straightforward drive that matches the myopia of its protagonist. But Hodges can't resist throwing in a few mod-flavored quick-cut montages that are jarring, clumsy and add no utility. Thankfully, those are few and far between. There's also some odd sound design choices (such as rain that sounds like a babbling brook), and some bizarrely inept action editing that borders on comical, which isn't abnormal for the early 1970s. Although used sparingly, Roy Budd's jazz score adds a neat era-specific texture. A lot of mainstream films from this period have the slightly experimental feel of newcomers sloppily trying to figure out the form, and Get Carter is no exception.
Also a bit of a damper, Caine's initially passionless performance makes for an awkward engine for a violent thriller. Caine plays Carter so emotionlessly that he's nearly lifeless. While this makes thematic sense, it also saps energy from the narrative. This, combined with the haphazard results of Carter's attempts to shake out the truth, makes Get Carter feel unproductive for most of the first hour. Aside from equally subdued but slightly colorful appearances by Ian Hendry (with a great northern drawl) and Alun Armstrong, all of the characters in Get Carter look like they need to be shaken awake from their northern slumber. Perhaps this was meant as a jab at drab unfashionable Newcastle, but it also acts as a weight around the entire movie's ankles — at least until the third act when a positive (and coincidental) turn injects some needed life into the last half-hour, and a revved up Caine gets some striking moments that aren't easily forgotten.
But after Get Carter was over, and I ran through the movie again in my head, an interesting thread of poetic irony became more apparent. Carter is a cipher, lurking in the murky gaps between conscious, intentional violence and animal instinct, and the code of honor he seems to be following — avenging his family — may be something else altogether less noble, like an assertion of territorial rights with no more moral justification than those who claim dominion over him. Carter's devotion to his family is just like his other ethics of criminality: convenient means to justify violence in the here and now, with hypocrisy both one-step back and one-step forward. His one true devotion is to killing. As slow and cool as Get Carter burns, it's the human equivalent of predatory fish cannibalizing each other, all starting in the same place, following the same base instincts, and ending up together in a bloody mess; and the winner is just one bigger fish away from getting eaten.
Get Carter is an enjoyable, if overlong, thriller with some memorable moments, and even though its brakes may be on too tight for most of the journey, and Hodges isn't always quite sure how to steer it once it gets up to speed, there's more thought behind it than behind most its genre bedfellows.
And now for the question everyone's wondering about: During the entire final act of Get Carter it became quite obvious that this must be the Caine movie which features the oft-mimicked line "She was only 16 years old!" (as heard repeatedly in Steve Coogan's Trip series). But it's not. That dialog would fit in perfectly (though it would also humanize Carter too much), but Caine never says it. I watched the last act twice just to make sure.