Get Carter

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A quintessentially British gangster film.

The British film industry has always excelled at producing gritty films that portray the darker side of society, a world away from the postcard Britain of thatched cottages and village greens. Long Good Friday, Scum and Quadrophenia, to name just a few, fall into this category of films that have achieved cult status, while being largely ignored by a media for being too hard-hitting and political. And unlike many American films, there’s no feel-good message that shines through. Get Carter, released in 1971 falls into this bracket, and as films go, they don’t get much bleaker and grittier.

Get Carter was directed by Mike Hodges, a screenwriter whose careers work stretched from 1968 children’s TV series ‘The Tyrant King’ to 2003 film ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’. The concept of the film was taken from Ted Lewis 1970 novel ‘Jack Returns Home’. The little known ‘Jack Returns Home’ was described as “an uncompromising novel of a brutal half-world of pool halls, massage parlours and teenage prostitution”, and was a significant, though largely unrecognised influence on the noir school of British crime fiction.

The film itself is a complicated tale of revenge, characterised by its bleak cinematography, dark dialogue and its unflinching and often chilling portrayal of its characters. The story focuses on the cold merciless Jack Carter, a gangland enforcer in the employ of London Crime bosses, Sid and Terence Fletcher, who returns to Newcastle to attend the funeral of his brother Frank. Frank, the victim of a drink driving accident with a strong hint off foul play. The story evolves into a complex web of treachery and corruption. Carters charismatic exchanges with small-time villains Albert Swift and Eric Paice lead him to Cyril Kinnear, an urbane and sophisticated crime boss attempting to take over rival Cliff Brumby’s gambling empire. Carter begins to suspect that his brother was murdered after discovering that his niece, Doreen, had been taking part in pornographic films linked with the local mob.

Newcastle, of course, had its own criminal fraternity with names every bit as colourful as their London counterparts. Kenny Panda Anderson, John Mario Cunningham and Ted Machine Gun Kelly, to name but a few, have cemented a place in Tyneside’s criminal folklore. The traditional Newcastle underworld with its one-armed bandits, smoky pubs, seedy nightspots, bookies and racecourses, the stomping ground of suited and booted hardmen and weaselly small-time villains. Newcastle, like most big cities, has its ubiquitous story of the Kray Twins trying to muscle in on the local underworld before being sent packing by the local hard men.

Newcastle Late 1960s

To give the film a strong dose of realism, Hodges researched Newcastle’s criminal underworld, an underworld that would often make national headlines. During the 1960’s East End born Vincent Landa moved to the North East to take control of the supply of one-armed bandits, becoming a very wealthy man in the process. His luck, however, wasn’t to last, and in 1967 his brother, Michael Luvaglio and confidante, Dennis Stafford was convicted of the gangland execution of Angus Sibbett, a gambling machine collector who had allegedly been skimming some of the takings. Newcastle councillor Dan T Smith would also make headline notoriety, with rumours of corrupt business practices in relation to the city’s urban regeneration projects and would eventually a six-year prison sentence.

Get Carter was produced by American owned MGM, and this was to be their last British feature film, as their European branch closed, another kick in the teeth to Britain’s film industry. At one stage, Telly Savalas (of Kojak fame) was muted as playing the part of Jack Carter, a suggestion fiercely resisted by Hodges, who rightfully believed the role should have been portrayed by a homegrown actor. The part was eventually given to the up and coming Michael Caine, who had already secured his status as one Britain leading actors, gaining deserved plaudits for his role in Alfie, The Ipcress File and The Italian Job. In Alfie, Michael Caine plays a London wideboy living a life of working the fiddle, womanising and avoiding domestic respectability. His morals, however loose, give him at least some redeeming features that the viewer can warm to. Contrast this to Caine’s portrayal of the cold-hearted and pitiless Jack Carter, the violence dished out to adversaries short, business-like and brutal. Caine, who’d been raised in South London’s tough Elephant and Castle, was well acquainted with gang violence and criminality, a knowledge which certainly gave depth to the role.

Michael Caine As Jack Carter

Like any successful film, Get Carter had a strong cast, largely of homegrown actors. Glynn Edwards, better known for his role of barman Dave in Minder, was cast as small-time villain Albert Swift, whilst Ian Hendry played the part of gang boss Cyril Kinnear’s chauffeur. The exchanges between Carter and Paice bristle with loathing and animosity. At Newcastle Racecourse, Carter removes Paice’s dark glasses and utters the immortal “I almost forgot what your eyes look like, there still the same, piss holes in the snow”. Hendry and Caine by all accounts shared a mutual dislike of each other off-screen too. Hendry, whose career was in decline and beset by alcohol addiction, had a bitter jealousy of Caine’s success.

The fact that some of the cast had real-life familiarity with the underworld added an extra dose of authenticity to Get Carter. John Bindon, who played London gang boss Sid Fletcher, was rumoured to have connections to The Krays and Richardsons' and was tried for the 1979 murder of London gangster John Darke, though was later acquitted. George Sewell, who played gangster Con McCarthy, though no gangster himself, counted Charlie Kray as a close friend.

The casting of Newcastle gang boss Cyril Kinnear was given to the erudite playwright and actor John Osbourne. Not an obvious choice for the role of a hardened villain, but Osbourne, with his urbane and sophisticated demeanour, excellently portrayed the life of a wealthy crime boss, with a palatial country home, a world away from the grimy city streets of his illicit empire. His business rival, Cliff Brumsby, was portrayed by Bryan Mosely, more famous for his role in the cosier soap opera world Coronation Street. Mosely, a devout catholic worried about the film’s violence and sex, consulted with his priest before eventually taking the part.

John Bindon

The location chosen for the filming of Get Carter wasn’t London’s East End, with its guvnors, manors and celebrity gangsters, but the North East port of Newcastle. The Newcastle of Get Carter is a city in transition, as remnants of the old industrial north, terraced streets and coal mines, begrudgingly make way for the brutalist architecture and concrete landscape of tower blocks, multi-storey car parks and grey utilitarian shopping centres. The Trinity Square multi-storey car park, used in one of the films most iconic scenes between Caine and Moseley, was demolished in 2009, despite opposition from those who viewed it as being a unique part of the city’s heritage. In a twist of authenticity, Dryderdale Hall, home of fictional gang boss Cyril Kinnear, was also the former home of one-armed bandit kingpin Vincent Landa.

The film was released in October 1971, with respectable box office sales, despite a mixed reception from critics, in part due to its explicit scenes of sex and violence. This was the time in which the liberalisation of censorship laws created moral outrage by establishment figures, and social activist Mary Whitehouse declared war on the permissive society. Get Carter, of course, has aged like fine wine and is now widely considered a cult movie that paved the way for gritty and violent British films, from Long Good Friday to Shane Meadows' Dead Man’s Shoes.

Like all great cinema, Get Carter is characterised by a strong cast, iconic dialogue and stylish production. But more than that, Get Carter is of its time, and perfectly reflects the era in which it was made. It documents a changing society, a society in which the innocent and optimistic free love of the 1960s gave way to the darker elements of sexual exploitation. The film's setting, in a de-industrialising Newcastle, perfectly encapsulates the death throes of traditional industry and its communities, the feel-good economic prosperity of the swinging sixties fading into a Britain soon to be dogged by the economic crisis. Get Carter captures a time in which organised crime had become increasingly violent, and the real-life exploits of gangsters became front-page news, the Krays and Richardson’s becoming as big part of the nation’s consciousness as Al Capone and John Dillinger across the pond. The film ultimately set the tone for the crime genre of British filmmaking, the traditional villain whose criminality was largely underpinned by a sense of fair play and decency, replaced by the harsh realities of gangsterism; brutal, violent and devoid of humour or humanity.


Read 1252 times Last modified on Tuesday, 27 August 2019 18:14
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