Real works of art create their own worlds, entirely self-contained into which the reader is invited to follow. Thus Robert Louis Stevenson gave us Pirates and Francis Ford Coppola the Sicilian Mafia.Astute readers will recall many more. These worlds may to a greater or lesser extent be hokum: yet each is a world with its own rules and recognisable characters,delimited by the storyteller and destined to endure for all time.
Such was the achievement of Mike Hodges Get Carter (1971). It concerns the adventures of a sociopathic anti hero Jack Carter (Michael Caine) who travels from London, where he is a career criminal, to his roots in Newcastle, ostensibly to avenge the death of his brother. He enters a world of crooks, whores and heavies where no character, least of all Caine’s, has any redeeming features whatsoever. Apart from the fact that his cockney accent makes him stand out like a sidewinder at Fortnum amd Masons tea rooms, Caine’s merciless, transactional perfomance is a relentless exercise in contained menace. His supporting actors cast give an impeccable collection of characters who will do anything except a day’s work in the declining shipyards and coal mines of the once mighty North East. Watch for a special performance by John Osborne, whose relaxed, almost epicene chief villain is far more threatening than the stereotyped psychopaths of later gangster epics.
Above all it is the landscape which captivates, lingeringly shot by Hodges and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky. Here are the remnants of a once formidable industrial powerhouse, now hopelessly decayed. Docks, shipyards, cast iron and endless industrial terraces back every scene. Once these people exported technology to the whole world. Now the only new is represented by brutalist seventies carparks and blocks of flats, all paid for by taxpayers elsewhere, Perhaps Osborne is the link to all this: the spectre of Archie Rice tells us that these children are not the men their grandfathers were. And this world is at the very end, not the beginning, of something. Still entirely white, heterosexual and male dominated, the nineteen seventies are about to overwhelm it. The film itself was delayed by a strike of the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, a small harbinger of much, much bigger things to come as Britain’s grimy smokestacks collapsed into irrelevance, Meanwhile an ambitious new Minister called Margaret Thatcher was already starting to make her name at the Department of Education. The collectivist,methodist, almost socialist Britain which had endured since 1940 was coming to a rapid end.
To visit Get Carter is at once a trip in a time machine, an exercise in film noir at its very best, and a recognition of human nature at its worst. As long as people enjoy guilty pleasures, there will always be a legion of the bad to pander to them. And that both death and vengeance are motives enough for any day.
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