Among English movies, 1971's "Get Carter" is always cited as near the top noir/gangster/crime movies ever made. It was based on Ted Lewis's ferocious book Jack's Return Home
, which I understand was based on a true crime; was adapted for the screen and directed by the British Mike Hodges, who's got a gift for this kind of thing. The British best people the cast: Michael Caine in his prime, as Carter; backed by Terence Rigby, George Sewell, Bernard Hepton, Alun Armstrong, and Ian Hendry. Britt Ekland (Mrs. Peter Sellers to you) played the love interest. And well-known English playwright John Osborne plays Kinnear, an important supporting role.
The movie opens as Carter, enforcer/hit man for a London mob, who's carrying on with his boss's girlfriend (Ekland) learns his brother has died back home in Newcastle in circumstances Carter deems suspicious. Against the wishes of his boss (Rigby), he decides to head north to investigate. He travels upcountry on a very smoky train reading the American hard-boiled author Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely" as he goes. Once home, nothing and no one will dissuade him from finding the truth -- fast and furiously -- and then taking a very bloody revenge on all concerned.
"Get Carter" packs a lot in its less than two-hour length. It preserves, more accurately than any other movie known to me, a snapshot of the sour swinging England of the 70's. And it makes inspired use of the aging industrial city Newcastle. The rusted chimneys against the sky, the graffiti, the miles of streets lined with traditional 2-up, 2-down cottages, the tear-down-candidate pubs and betting parlors with primitive toilets out back. Add the constant overcast sky/rain; the grey menacing northern sea. The little touches are also important: a knitted purple tea cosy, and a chamber pot under the bed at the boarding house where Carter stays. The clumsy provincial kids at a dance hall. And then there's the just right jazz score.
But it's Caine's movie, of course, and the theory goes that gangster pictures depend totally on the power and energy of their stars: consider James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft. Caine almost shoots sparks as a sexual predator in his phone sex scene: he achieves a double seduction; Ekland on the phone, his landlady in the room with him. His feral smile at a pub cat fight, and at the end of the picture, as he moves to avenge his brother's death, is bone-chilling. Yet he's able to cry at an important-to-the-plot porn movie.
As an actor, Caine, who was born a London cockney, has played gangsters as coldly menacing as they come, and maybe we're lucky he's strictly an actor. One of the smaller gangster roles here, Sid Fletcher, is played by a man called John Bindon, who was, in fact, a London gangster. British director Ken Loach first used Bindon to play a London villain in his now little-seen Poor Cow [DVD] [1967
](1967). Bindon went on to work in a number of movies and TV shows, always playing a villain, until he decided working as the real thing paid better. After Bindon took part in a bloody Soho shootout, not even his British duchess girlfriend could save him. He died as a guest of Her Majesty: of AIDS in a none-too lovely jail cell. But Sir Michael Caine is still very much with us, no longer a pretty boy, to be sure; but he still adds something to every picture he makes.