Thursday, December 2, 2010

Get Carter (1971)


          Years before Charles Bronson went on a rampage in Death Wish (1974), Michael Caine turned vengeance into an art form with his chilling performance in Get Carter. Playing a cold-blooded London gangster investigating the mysterious death of his brother, Caine is like a deadly automaton in this picture, using intimidation, murder, sex, and torture to uncover the truth. Based on a novel by Ted Lewis and written and directed by British journeyman Mike Hodges (who covered similar terrain in the ’90s movie Croupier), Get Carter is a quietly stylish affair, with atmospheric long-lens shots and sharp editing creating a vivid milieu of seedy criminality.
          Much of the picture takes place in the industrial town of Newcastle, and Hodges revels in finding the grimiest locations possible, literally surrounding his morally bankrupt characters with filth and urban decay. Better still, the metaphors implied by the visuals are allowed to percolate below the surface, so Get Carter can be watched as an action picture or, for viewers looking for more, something deeper.
          The movie is way too long and also way too slow getting started, but the second hour is relentless—some of the violence contained therein is genuinely shocking. Again demonstrating the picture’s commitment to disquieting mood over vulgar obviousness is the fact that Hodges mostly eschews gore; the creepiest images in the picture are often Caine’s haunted eyes as he obliterates an opponent. Adding to the film’s insidious potency is a thread of reckless carnality: At one point, Caine has phone sex with a gangland moll (Britt Ekland) while glaring at the horny middle-aged landlady who’s eavesdropping. So in addition to being an avenger, Caine’s character functions as an observer gauging the moral fiber of everyone he encounters, and they all fail the test miserably. 
         Caine is compelling throughout, whether icily delivering lines like “Do you wanna be dead, Albert?” or racing around with frothing-at-the-mouth rage. Like the movie itself, he’s merciless. Not coincidentally, he also delivers a master class in understated performance style, proving that if an actor has the right vibe churning behind his eyes, little more need be done to get the appropriate message across. (Caine recaptured the same vicious intensity for several subsequent pictures, notably the 2009 pensioner-on-a-rampage flick Harry Brown.) Thanks to the effective convergence of the right actor, the right director, and the right material, Get Carter is so consistently cynical that it makes a bleak sort of a statement even though it’s a straight-up revenge flick, elevating pulp to moments of poetry.
         Proving how difficult it was to get things to converge perfectly, however, two remakes of Get Carter came and went with little notice: Bernie Casey starred in a blaxploitation riff called Hit Man (1972), and Sylvester Stallone headlined the flop retread Get Carter (2000), featuring Caine in a supporting role.

Get Carter: GROOVY

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