3 Classic British Crime Films that have Withstood the Test of Time

1. Get Carter starring Michael Caine

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

 Mark Kermode, Fim Critic

It's now fifty years old but 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 long 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 and appalling 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

2: Regan starring John Thaw

'Jack Regan', it says on the IMDb website, 'is a hard-edged detective in the Flying Squad of London's Metropolitan Police (called 'the Sweeney' from the Cockney rhyming slang 'Sweeney Todd' = 'Flying Squad'). He pursues villains by methods which are underhanded and often illegal themselves, frequently violent and more often than not successful'.

If this rings a bell in the minds of London Large readers, it should. Jack Regan was a big influence on the emergence of Harry Hawkins, being one of the two main protagonists (the other his sergeant, George Carter) of the first British TV crime drama to reflect something of the reality of the social world of the era.

Regan, released in 1974, flew straight out of the barrel of the gun fired by Ted Lewis, Mike Hodges and Michael Caine a few years earlier, taking the gritty realism of Get Carter and transferring it to the small screen. As the extended pilot episode for what was going to become The Sweeney, it set the tone perfectly with its hard-core urban locations (especially the then-dilapidated riverside area around Bermondsey Wall East in south London), pub scenes, heavy and controversial violence (for the time) and Carteresque dialogue - as when Regan, pulling a suspect out of bed, makes the kind of arrest that was to become characteristic, and much loved, as the series progressed: ‘Get your trousers on – you’re nicked’.

But the rough-and-tumble, halfway vigilante methods used by Regan were already out of date, and he was a dinosaur - a maverick individualist in what was already becoming a world of team players. Change was afoot, and the Met was reorganising, professionalising, modernising: in Regan we see Jack being pushed to the margins as the first steps are taken on the road to the progressive Common Purpose policing and ideal of an all university-graduate force - or rather 'service' - so enthusiastically embraced by Harry Hawkins’ bosses a few decades later.

Jack Regan was, from the very beginning, a man out of time, an embodiment of the romantic idea of the true, hard-bitten detective as social outcast, with a moral compass that stays put while everything around him changes. And it is there that we must leave them, the detective and his sergeant, frozen forever in time in the film's final scene, in the moment in which Jack delivers to George his vision of policing. They are standing on a grey winter's day at a tea stall (the site has appeared in one or two London Large scenes) in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, and just down the road from New Scotland Yard.

George: 'There you go, guv.' (Passing Jack tea in a styrofoam cup)

Jack: 'Ta.'

George: 'You got away with it again, didn't you?'

Jack: 'Oh don't you start, got away with it - I got the bastard who did it.'

George: 'And here I am, standing in the freezing cold while my wife's at home in bed...I hope.'

Jack: 'Ah, come on George, you're not a nine-to-five man, over there, sitting behind a desk, swigging tea all day and waiting to get home with the roses. You're like me. You're a copper. You belong out here in the cold...'


3. The Long Good Friday starring Bob Hoskins

They don't make 'em like this anymore. No, really, they don't. They can't. 

Whether you think Get Carter is the best post-war British film of its kind, or this is, or that this has to contend with some other movie to take the title, this is one hell of a picture and sits at the very pinnacle of the genre. It's lost little if any of its power since the day it was released, however historically dated the setting may be - the central performances are as compelling as they ever were and the film's many memorable scenes remain...well, memorable.

This is a film very much of its moment. Made in 1979 but released in 1980 it captures perfectly the beginning of the Thatcher era and the economic revolution that completely transformed London, where it is set. The film's protagonist - Harold Shand, played with great force by the late and much lamented Bob Hoskins - is a truly Thatcherite figure, from his obsessive ambition to open up the still largely derelict London riverside to global capital, to his great climactic gangster-entrepreneur patriotic speech about the greatness of Britain and its impending return to glory (with the likes of him leading the way).

Plot: in his mission to build a 'respectable' business empire and regenerate huge swathes of inner London Shand reaches out to mafioso American investors, and spends the long Good Friday wining, dining and persuading them they've done the right thing by getting into bed with him. He controls London through his 'corporation' but is now in league with the really big global boys. But someone has other ideas, and things go badly wrong, roller coaster style, over the course of a long, long day.

The film had a massive impact on its release; it was exceptionally gritty, violent and intense for its time, pre-dating the kind of explosive, in-your-face gangster ranting and violence that were to become commonplace a couple of decades later.

But nobody ever did it like Hoskins. Where Michael Caine is all understatement and cold fury in Get Carter, here Hoskins is a no-holds-barred force of nature, a rampaging East End Mussolini prepared to do anything to realise his ambitions.

There is also plenty of glamour to go along with the grit, emanating from casinos, swank restaurants, yachts, penthouses and, above all, Helen Mirren.

As Harold's woman, and if the truth be known the brains and de facto co-head of the corporation, her character Victoria oozes class, composure, cool intelligence - and toughness. The scene, near the end of the film, in which she slows Hoskins' revenge-hungry raging bull down with a shocking double-slap to the top of the head is an all-time classic. And this of course was only the beginning of Dame Helen's contribution to British crime on screen: a little over ten years later she starred in the ground-breaking TV classic Prime Suspect as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, the first of the uncompromising female Chief Inspectors with whom we have become so familiar since.

(Imagine how thrilled we were when one of the first ever reviews of a London Large book described Harry Hawkins as ‘the love child of Jack Regan and Jane Tennyson’. Whether the reviewer knew it or not he had paid us a compliment that cannot be bettered).

There is one other way in which this great film was ahead of its time, you might even say prescient: in 2012 Canary Wharf, occupying the huge expanse of unexploited land on the Isle of Dogs coveted by Harold Shand, overtook the City of London as the biggest employer of financial workers in Europe. And in the summer of that year the London Olympics was staged nearby – in Stratford, of all places. Almost nobody would have believed this could ever happen if you'd told them prior to the Thatcherite revolution.

Harold's vision had come to pass...but he was not there to enjoy it, having run out of luck in the film's never-to-be-forgotten final scene, which we won't spoli, just in case you haven't seen the film yet. For all these reasons, The Long Good Friday is not only one of the best London gangster films ever made, but also a great British state-of-the-nation movie.

Further Reading:
Strongly recommended: Mike Seaborne’s book to anyone who wants to get a sense of working-class life on the Isle of Dogs in the days before the global money took over:

Mike Seaborne, The Isle of Dogs Before the Big Money 

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