Great British Crime Films #1: Get Carter

 ‘Here's my question to you: if Get Carter is forty years old, how come it still looks so young?’

 Mark Kermode

Let's not beat about the bush: Get Carter, released in 1971, is hands-down the best post-war British film of its kind, and possibly the best ever. In fact, it was the first of its specific kind, being the prototype of the kind of gritty, hard-boiled, dark and uncompromising 'Brit Noir' subsequently taken up in the likes of The Sweeney and The Long Good Friday.

Everything about this classic - which is basically an archetypal mystery-revenge story - is spot-on to the point of perfection, from protagonist Jack Carter's northward train journey in the opening credits to the desolate, tragic beauty of the final scenes on Blackhall Colliery beach on the Durham coast. Director Mike Hodges (who also wrote the screenplay) and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky drew on their backgrounds in documentary film, giving Get Carter a powerful naturalistic feel, especially in its depiction of a long-vanished northern working-class world - the pub scenes, in particular, are unforgettable.

Still, at the end of the day, this is Michael Caine's film. Drawing deeply on his south-east London background, he gives the most convincing and intense performance of his career, a portrayal of hard, clipped, understated British gangsterism that has never been equalled.

Caine and Hodges wanted to produce a more gritty and realistic portrayal of on-screen violence and criminal behaviour than had previously been seen in a British film. The key element in this was Caine's incorporation of his knowledge of real criminal acquaintances into his characterisation of Carter:

‘Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood; I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.’

But enough with the description and analysis. If you're a Brit Grit fan and know the film its pleasures and satisfactions are obvious. If you haven't seen it, you'd be well advised to do so. One of the things you'll notice is the snappiness and dry wit of the dialogue, especially the gems given to Caine, some of which have passed into general parlance and became part of British cinema folklore, from someone's eyes being like ‘pissholes in the snow' to the all-time classic:

'You're a big man, but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full-time job. Now behave yourself.'

Which brings us to Ted Lewis, one of those very influential but largely unknown writers whose style shapes much of what comes after them. Behind the story of Get Carter is that of Lewis, author of the novel Jack's Return Home, on which the film was based. Since its initial publication the book has actually been made into a motion picture three times: the Caine-Hodge masterpiece; the 1972 “Blaxsploitation” film Hit Man, starring Pam Grier and Bernie Casey; and Warner Brothers’ 2000 unfortunate remake starring Sylvester Stallone, Alan Cumming, and Mickey Rourke, about which the less said the better. Of Lewis’s other novels, the twisted and brilliantly plotted blackmail story Plender (1971) was also adapted for the big screen, in this case the French film Le Serpent (2006)

But Lewis' impact on the development of Brit Noir is even more fundamental than this might suggest. In the much loved 1970s TV series The Sweeney, the two featured detectives are not accidentally named Jack Regan and George Carter. Lewis never saw a penny from that most ground-breaking and influential show despite the long shadow he cast over it, a sad fact which is of a piece with his own story, which is itself usually told as a sort of tragedy.

Further Reading 

Ted Lewis, Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir

Ted Lewis, Jack’s Return Home

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