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Blu-ray: Get Carter | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Get Carter

Blu-ray: Get Carter

Super-cool Michael Caine is at his best in Mike Hodges's masterpiece of British cinema

Back up North: Carter (MIchael Caine) the revenge killer, with his weapon of choice BFI

Director Mike Hodges's Get Carter (1971) has been praised as the best British gangster film. I would go even further, and put it up against the best gangster films of all time, on the same level as Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), Melville’s Le deuxième souffle (1966), Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990).

Watching it again after many years, I was struck by how it continues to feel fresh and original Indeed, still ahead of its time, not least because of Wolfgang Suschitzky’s documentary-style location shooting and intimacy with the action and the characters. The engaging closeness is achieved with soft focus in the foreground and surprisingly fluid sequences that zing with the immediacy of frontline news coverage.

Get CarterThere are no gimmicks here, no romancing the violence, just remarkable presence, perfect timing, and plenty of action. Not only does the film nourish the eye, but Hodges and his cinematographer – who had cut his teeth as a social realist photographer and in his work with left-wing documentary director Paul Rotha – paint a grim picture of Newcastle, on the cusp between post-war austerity and the distant provincial echoes of nouveau riche Swinging London.

The nightclubs, the miniskirts, the parties, and the cars (there is a sublime Sunbeam Alpine) are sharply contrasted with the grim melancholy of bingo halls and the defiant yet slightly pathetic marching of the majorettes.

The film tells the story of a hitman, Jack Carter (Michael Caine), originally from Newcastle, working for a London "firm" with tentacles all over the country, as he returns to the Northeast to find out who has killed his brother. He is strongly dissuaded from going by his bosses, a marvellously lugubrious lot, who set the dark tone at the moody start of the film. The Newcastle mob are just as unpleasant, with their smooth-yet-ruthless capo, played to perfection by the playwright John Osborne.

This is a mission close to impossible, and Hodges’s script unpacks the suspense and tragedy that keeps the film going at a breathtaking pace, evoking the fated quality of the story with tremendous skill. He is brilliantly served by Caine (pictured below as Carter is about to throw someone from the top of a tall building) as the heavy-lidded anti-hero dedicated to his quest for revenge. Revenge always stirs the emotions. Whereas in The Big Heat, the avenging angel is a cop, here we have a villain with a heart, even if his killing is as violent and summary as it gets. The film is ethically complex, not just a bloodbath, soaked as it is with the kind of literal violence that was exploding on the screen at the time. Get Carter is of the same vintage as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971). Though Carter is a ruthless killer, there is an appealing vulnerability to him – not least in his relationship with his niece, whose abuse is at the film's heart.

Michael Caine as CarterWhile Hodges went on to make more great British thrillers, including Croupier (1998) and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003) – the latter written by the unsung master of British noir, Trevor Preston – Get Carter was his masterpiece. It packs a terrific punch, with relentless twists and has a fine sense of what the best cinema is all about.

The soundtrack plays a crucial part in maintaining the suspense and working the emotional ups and downs. Jazz pianist Roy Budd improvised the inventive score – sometimes playing electric piano and harpsichord at the same time because of a tiny budget. He played while the film was being run on a screen in the studio – inspired no doubt by Miles Davis’s recording of the classic music for Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958). This kind of live soundtrack recording is not the only way of creating a score, but it is an approach that makes for a film in which all the elements are in synch. Mike Hodges’s genius lay in knowing how to draw all those creative threads together.

This two-disc BFI Blu-ray edition includes a treasure trove of bonuses: documentaries, interviews as well as fascinating audio commentaries from Hodges, Suschitzky and Michael Caine, shedding much light – and a good dose of humour – on the spontaneous way in which the film was shot, with no story-board, just going with the momentary flow. The BFI also include a really well put together book, with great photos and illuminating articles about various aspects of the film and the creative team.

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