I picked up a couple of Michael Caine films on DVD a while ago: Get Carter (1971) and The Italian Job (1969). I tried watching the latter a while ago, but got bored and gave up after half an hour. British film classic, yeah, sure, but I didn't care about what was on the screen. Nevertheless I hadn't actually thrown out the discs and so... Get Carter.
Yes, it's a good film. It's not short (112 min) but it positively flies past. I never noticed the time. This film is always completely clear where it's headed. Like a shark, it never stops moving. It's as utterly single-minded as its lead character. Nevertheless I can't argue with what the critics said back in 1971. "Soulless and nastily erotic... virtuoso viciousness", "sado-masochistic fantasy", and "one would rather wash one's mouth out with soap than recommend it". Pauline Kael liked it, but only in as much as she saw its "calculated soullessness" as a positive quality.
The setting is an important part of that. This film paints a vivid portrait of a 1970s North England industrial shithole. Going to the races. Working men's clubs. The most rubbish dance floor ever. Gangsters talk about fleeing across the Atlantic to live somewhere hot and exotic, which from the evidence before us looks like a splendid idea. This is a world where fat women have bitch fights in bars and even the good-looking ones couldn't tempt you to stay. There's an unpleasantly seedy sexuality that's very much of the period, in which marriage is a joke and despite his busy revenge schedule, Michael Caine has time for phone sex and casual shagging. Pornography is woven into the plot. There's plenty of nudity, but it's shot in that intense rough-edged 1970s style which has no time for eroticism. Britt Ekland taking off her bra is shot in the same dead-eyed dispassionate way that they show a defenceless man getting knifed to death. The seventies is my favourite decade for film and television for its sense of rawness and danger, but because of this I sometimes find its greatest films ugly and hard to watch.
Mind you, I had to laugh at one girl's minidress. "Get in there and get dressed," Caine tells her, then in the next shot she's outside in an outfit that looks as if she forgot her skirt. No, dear, he said to get dressed.
While I'm on the subject of visuals, incidentally, Caine gets one great line that's undermined by the casting. If it says in the script that a character has eyes like pissholes in the snow, then why not choose an actor who matches that description? It's colourful, yes, but surely they could have found someone.
The cast is unpleasantly convincing. Michael Caine creates a chilly Jack Carter, although there are scenes where he lets a little of the charm through. He's also good at the violence and very funny in the scene with, ahem, two weapons. You'll know what I mean. There's also Ian Hendry, whom I'd never seen in anything but knew as the top-billed star of the first season of The Avengers, above Patrick Macnee. Apparently Hendry resented Caine for getting the lead role in this instead of him, resulting in on-set friction which is visible (in a good way) in their scenes together. Oh, and as a Doctor Who fan I was going mad trying to identify the actor playing Con. He's one George Sewell, apparently. I've since done a search on the internet and discovered that he also played Radcliffe in Remembrance of the Daleks.
I like the way we're not spoon-fed. It's as if someone went through and cut out all the exposition. We have to piece together even the most basic information, which is good. I like having to pay attention. Mind you, I ended up not entirely sure of the full details of who'd done or shown what to whom. I don't mean the events of the film itself, but the backstory that led to the tragedy that Caine's investigating. However when you're seeing someone getting punched repeatedly and then thrown to their death off a multi-storey car park, that doesn't seem quite so important. I was satisfied. I'd seen the important thing that kicked everything off, after which the details hardly mattered. Caine's certainly not interested in subtle gradations in guilt, having a more Manichean view of things. If you're innocent, you'll live. Seems fair, doesn't it?
It has the correct ending. I chose that word precisely. It's utterly uncompromising in its portrayal of its chosen world and neither flinches away from the inevitable violence nor glamorises it.
This film has been remade a couple of times. The more famous one is Sylvester Stallone's 2000 remake
, about which the only good thing I've heard is the casting of Michael Caine himself as Cliff Brumby. It was originally going to be only a cameo, but test audiences liked him so much that he got given more to do. There's also a 1972 blaxploitation film called Hit Man starring Bernie Casey and Pam Grier that's a scene-for-scene remake. So there you have it. A great film? Maybe. Oh, I suppose so. Impressive? Undoubtedly. Did I like it? Well, it depends what you mean by "like".