Sunday, October 19, 2014

Before I Die #521: Get Carter (1971)

Director: Mike Hodges

Great gangster flick, based on a great book.

The basic story is that Jack Carter, a "fixer" for a London-based crime syndicate, has returned to his home town in the north of England. His brother has died in a way that makes Jack very suspicious. Jack quickly begins to start shaking bushes and soon has multiple criminals swirling around, most of whom wish to do him very serious harm. Jack, not a man easily dissuaded, pursues the mystery to its very end, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.

How does one adequately describe this film, or even the book upon which it was adapted? The title character, Jack Carter, is not a nice man. He works for a sleazy and extremely powerful organized crime syndicate based in London. He kills people. He barely hesitates to exploit relatively innocent bystanders in the name of reaching his own goals. So why is it so compelling to follow him?

Jack Carter is, to me, a very dark, very English take on the classic noir protagonist of Hammett and Chandler. Jack is fully immersed in the murky waters of the English criminal underworld of the increasingly cynical post-mod era of the early 1970s. And while he's not the biggest fish in those waters, he is easily one of the deadliest. Like the classic noir "hero," he inhabits every scene, and we follow him through a complex maze of depravity and salaciousness that is frighteningly entrenched in Jack's entire world. But Jack is clearly right at home there, and his confidence is mesmerizing.

It is this confidence, along with his lethal capabilities and knack for the occasional snide one-liner, that carry us along. Don't be fooled, though. This is not Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He's not even the more jaded Tom Reagan from Miller's Crossing. He is a villain, and there are really only two things that keep him from being too repulsive to be interesting. One is that, in this tale, his targets are even more villainous that he is. The other is that he does exhibit the tiniest shred of compassion for his niece (who may actually be his daughter) as he carries out his quest for revenge. Mostly, though, he is out to avenge his brother's death. A viewer gets the sense that Jack is killing his way through adversaries out of is own pride just as much as a sense of vengeance.

Jack and his trusted weapon - the shotgun that he and his
brother saved up their money to buy as boys. Jack and the
gun get more than a little payback.
So the character and story are strong enough, but they are far from the only worthy qualities of the movie. The direction is tight and focused, and the aesthetic is just as gritty as it ought to be. This is not to say that it has a "dark" or "cheap" look based on some misguided attempt to convey some form of reality. A surprising number of scenes take place in broad daylight, where Jack and his opponents' dastardly deeds can be witnessed openly. The editing and framing are wonderfully done, which makes the viewing experience extremely dynamic during the several action sequences. But nothing feels rushed in any way. The first half of the film features many slower, meditative shots when the camera lingers on Jack's face, or the faces of others who are reacting to Jack's words or actions. There is just as much power in these moments as when the bullets are flying and the bodies are falling.

Do I really need to say anything about Michael Caine? Perhaps you are only familiar with his more recent roles, and you may be wondering if he was as strong an actor in his younger days. If so, you can stop wondering. He's incredible. If you've only seen him in roles of genteel, pleasant, and stately chaps, then you will marvel at how well he plays the coolly brutal Jack Carter.

The main caveat for those who don't know the story should be clear. There is no "good guy" here. Get Carter is about a bad man doing bad things to even worse people. But it sure is entertaining, just as any expertly-presented story about a cool customer plying his trade should be entertaining.

...And What About the Book?

I suppose a touch of disclosure is in order here. The reason I read the source novel for this is that a close friend of mine is responsible for having it published for the first time in the U.S. in four decades. I had already planned to watch the film for some time, so its reintroduction onto U.S. bookstore shelves last month was rather fortuitous for me.

Originally titled Jack's Return Home in the U.K., the book is fantastic. And the movie's director, Mike Hodges, stays extremely true to the spirit of the story and the protagonist. As expected, certain artistic license was taken, but it was done respectfully and with amazing adeptness. It is that rare adaptation that does the source novel more than enough justice while utilizing the elements that make cinema a different art form. Author Ted Lewis used terse, sparse language in this narrative. Hodges took that great narrative and translated into a ripping good film story with great camerawork, editing, and a fantastic actor.

If you have any interest in comparing the book to the film, I highly recommend reading the novel first. It's a modest 200 pages, and they turn very quickly. You can order it from a ton of places, but here's the direct link through Syndicate Books.

Movie or book, you really can't go wrong if you're into hard-boiled crime fiction.