A Degenerate Milieu
One might wonder whether film noir is an American genre (though coined by the French), a west coast world where fevered greed meets California sunshine. You might not always see that much sun in many a forties film noir that was made in black and white, but it was needed as part of the visual effect: the famed chiaroscuro camerawork that allowed bright light to appear through blinds in semi-darkened rooms. Many of the key noirs were set in California (The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Lady from Shanghai) but they didn't have to be even if many of the markers of the genre were west coast. Laura was located in New York; The Killers in New Jersey while Out of the Past starts in LA but covers the country, and ventures into Mexico too.
However, this is still very much covering North America; what about a noir set in Britain? Before Get Carter we had Fallen Idol, Brighton Rock and The Criminal and after it The Long Goodbye, Mona Lisa, The Hit, Gangster No 1, Sexy Beast, The Near Room, Layer Cake and others. But what we find with most British noir films is that they are closer to gangster films even if we will see how in Get Carter the two come together well as director Mike Hodges shows a London gangster, brought up in Newcastle, returning to the north after his brother's death in circumstances Jack (Michael Caine) finds suspicious. But one reason we might believe that Get Carter is a noir as readily as a gangster film is that the story is more concerned with investigation than promotion. If the gangster film often shows a person on the rise, the noir film frequently focuses on someone preoccupied with a case. That the case concerns his brother's death very much concentrates our hero's mind, but he is also a figure who isn't only angry about his brother's demise but also generally a psychotic figure in Hodges' reading of the character. Based on the novel Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis, for Hodges, "Carter is such a psychotic...Caine gave it that almost elegance, in terms of the way he is besuited and the way he carried himself. He gave it a slightly different touch than was in the novel." (BFI)
Here we can think of a couple of theoretical claims made about the detective and about noir. The first is from Tsvetan Todorov who distinguishes earlier detective fiction from later models as he differentiates the whodunnit from the thriller. In the first, the emphasis is very much on deduction and the person investigating the case is usually themselves in little or no danger. In the latter, the person clearly happens to be. It is as if in the former there is little sense of risk or passion, and one author of early detective fiction laid out twenty rules for its practice, including that love has no place in the work, that there is no role for description and psychological analysis, and that banal situations must be avoided. In the latter approach, according to Marcel Duhamel (quoted by Todorov), we find "violence in all its forms, and especially the most shameful beating, killings...immorality is as much at home here as noble feelings...there is also love preferably vile violent passion, implacable hatred." Todorov says that moving into the post-war years a different type of fiction was offered: in the first what was created "can be called curiosity; it proceeds from effect to cause: starting from a certain effect (a corpse and certain clues), we must find its cause (the culprit and his motive). The second form is suspense, and here the movement is from cause to effect: we are first shown the causes, the initial donnees (gangsters preparing a heist) and our interest is sustained by the expectation of what will happen, that is certain effects (corpses, crimes, fights)." ('The Typology of Detective Fiction) In the specifically filmic context, Paul Schrader reckoned film noir could be divided into three broad phases: inter-war, immediately post-war and the years between 49-53, where he sees "psychotic action and suicidal impulses....the noir hero...started to go bananas." (Schrader on Schrader)
Is any of this relevant to Get Carter? Here we have the opposite of a disinterested investigation, with Jack returning to his home town after his brother's death, determined to find out why, and willing to risk his life in the process of finding out how his brother lost his. If Todorov notes that in later crime fiction suspense was at least as evident as enquiry, and if Schrader sees that the psychotic and suicidal impulses became increasingly evident in the films, then Get Carter seems to us to take noir not only out of an American context, it also makes the tension involved and the psychosis that was burgeoning now fully evident, with part of this psychosis lying in how Jack imposes himself on the northern city he visits. At the beginning of the film, Jack is still in London, preparing to go north after hearing of his brother's death. He gets told, "Some hard nuts operate up there, Jack. I smell trouble, boy." But Jack seeks trouble generally we might assume: right from the beginning we notice how he looks at his boss's bird, Anna (Britt Ekland), and sure enough they are in the midst of an affair. If he is willing to take risks bonking the boss's lady then why wouldn't he take a few more discovering exactly what happened up north? His brother purportedly died in a drink-driving accident but Jack suspects a murkier story behind that, and off he goes, getting a train to Newcastle. The distance between the capital and the northern city is 282 miles, which is a hundred miles less than the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Point Blank, an American film with a few similarities to Get Carter and made by British filmmaker John Boorman several years earlier, there is no great gap between one city and the other, as though people could choose either LA or San Francisco with no suggestion of cultural differences. Yet in the boss's comment about hard nuts operating up there it seems that the gap between the two cities is enormous; that one is the North and the other the South. "There are almost 40 different dialects in the UK that sound totally different from each other, and in many cases use different spellings and word structure. In fact, there's pretty much one accent per county." (Ef.com) To put that in context, the UK is 242,000 square kilometres, while the US is 9.838,000 and yet has fewer accents. "There are roughly 30 major dialects in America. (Fluency Corp) Even though the Geordie accents here may be all over the place, Hodges nevertheless gives us enough sense of regional variation for us to feel we are very far from London indeed, and that Carter is in a different, and dangerous world.
Thus Hodges manages to register less the size of the UK than its nuanced variation: that, rather than thinking how many miles Jack covers getting to Newcastle, how many regional variations will he have passed through to get there? The train journey may be a relatively short one geographically, but the film allows it to take up three minutes of screen time, as the film cuts between the credits, the various tunnels the train passes through, the surrounding landscape, and Jack going for dinner. No word is spoken but the moment he arrives in a Newcastle bar shortly after alighting the train, he seems to be in a different world, one that he arrogantly assumes he has the better of perhaps because he is both from the region and coming from London. We might already notice a hint of the psychotic when he goes into a bar as a stranger and acts with the authority of a local. When he orders a beer and the barman starts putting it into a thick glass, Jack clicks his fingers and insists on having it a thin glass as we watch his pointing finger while the camera offers a slow zoom out to show the length of the bar. A minute later the phone rings and the barman asks in a Geordie accent if there is a Mr Carter in the room. Hodges racks focus as the image moves from a clear foreground and a blurred background to the reverse as Jack says yes in a cockney voice.
What does this have to do with our comments from Todorov and Schrader? Perhaps it allows us to see the film as a chronicle not only of a death investigated but of another foretold: that Jack isn't just trying to find out the details behind a murder, like anyone in detective fiction who knows there is more to a case than what is apparent, and isn't only the protagonist who finds himself in high-risk situations, but someone actively seeking the highest risk possible. Through the course of the film he won't only be phoning Anna for a bit of dirty talk that his boss almost catches, as he sees Anna lying in her underwear on the bed, while she talks to Jack on the phone, he will also sleep with a landlady he may or not be able to trust, and a northern businessman's mistress, Glenda, whom he surely shouldn't. He will also beat up the northern businessman, Brumby, in his own home, later throw him off a high-rise car park, and kill or threaten numerous others as well. Partly what makes the film so convoluted rests on the numerous risks Jack takes within a story he is trying to figure out.
The gist of the story is this: Jack's brother didn't die in a car accident but was murdered, forced to drink a bottle of whisky to give the impression he lost control of the car while drink-driving. Frank had discovered that his teenage daughter was lured into making a porn film, and Brumby got Frank to watch it, hoping to get him to contact the police and inform on the main gangster in the region, Kinnear. Kinnear wants to take over Brumby's interests after a Brumby associate screwed up, and if Frank tells the police about Kinnear, Brumby can continue as normal. But it doesn't quite work out as planned: Frank is dead, Kinnear still after Brumby, and the man chiefly responsible for Frank's death, Eric, proves elusive. By the end of the film, Jack will have killed or been responsible for the death of Brumby, Eric, an old acquaintance, Albert, Glenda, and Frank's treacherous mistress, Margaret. But he will be dead too, taken out by a sniper's bullet after Kinnear orders the hit, a hit we might assume has been arranged just in case Jack gets above himself, which he most surely does. As Hodges notes on the film extras, we can see the person hired for the killing is on the very train Jack gets up north.
Noir is a convoluted genre at the best of times but Hodges adds to the complexity in several ways. First of all the film is a fish-out-of-water movie that shares some similarities with other early seventies works like Wake in Fright and The Wicker Man. All three are about men entering environments they might in many ways feel superior to but whose codes they can't quite understand. Understanding those codes can offer narrative enough in the other two films but it is only a small dimension of this one. Jack may be ostensibly returning to the place of his early years but his thick London accent suggests of course not just, non-diegetically, an actor who was always reluctant to master any other, but also, diegetically, a person who has been away for a very long time indeed, someone no longer au fait with northern mores. When he clicks his fingers in the bar, this might be the southerner who can teach a northern barman a thing or two about sophistication, but it isn't the best way to make friends when you are looking to root out enemies. When he does find a local he can trust, the young man (Alun Armstrong) gets a brutal beating for his troubles and Jack puts some money near the bed Keith is lying in, before smugly saying, "get yourself some lessons in karate."
More complicated still is the proliferation of potential femmes fatale. Here we don't only have Anna as the gangster's moll in an affair with Jack, we also have Margaret, Frank's duplicitous ex, the pornographic Glenda, who is also the married Brumby's lover, who sleeps with Jack, and Edna, his local landlady a woman who seems to make a living from her bed and allows Jack into hers for no more than the price of the rent. Usually, one woman would contain the different facets of the fatal woman but Anna takes care of emotional duplicity, Margaret, betrayal, Glenda lasciviousness and Edna, bitterness but the sub-division leaves motive more mysterious than we might usually expect. From one perspective this can seem like a series of weak roles for women that would often be combined together to create a strong one, as we find with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai. As Molly Haskell says in From Reverence to Rape, where she sees so many strong female roles in forties films compared to the seventies: actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis "...far surpass women in movies today, where the most heroic model that women can fast upon is Jane Fonda's prostitute in Klute, or Tuesday Weld's deadpan actress in Play it as it Lays, or the comatose housewives in Marguerite Duras' Nathalie Granger." But rather than getting into that argument, we might notice that just as the femme fatale is spread across four women, the antagonist is spread across four too. While in a traditional film noir we often have a husband who is in the way and maybe an investigator who after the husband's death knows something is up (Double Indemnity immediately comes to mind), here we have the gangster boss in London whose partner Jack is sleeping with, the head figure in the north of England (Kinnear) Brumby, and also the man responsible for his brother's death, Eric (Ian Hendry).
This creates simultaneously a complex plot that isn't always easy to follow and also a milieu that is important to discern, as though the serpentine story allows Hodges to explore the city. "By setting the film in the contemporary criminal world of Newcastle, Hodges made use of his experiences in making documentaries", Sven Mikulec says, "more often than not opting for a naturalistic documentary feel, especially in the scenes where hundreds of extras were used, the chance bystanders who happened to appear on the streets of Newcastle at the time of the filming." (Cinephilia and Beyond) It isn't that we should ignore the story and focus on the locale but Hodges brought to the gangster/noir film an understanding of where criminality may come from; that rather than seeing it as a generic exploration of given character types, he saw Get Carter as a transposition and an examination. What would happen if one set a gangster/noir in the north of England, what sort of grain would the film possess? Some years earlier while in the navy Hodges talked about going onshore in the city and was horrified by what he witnessed. "I saw horrendous things there. I ended up in a flat. We went out for a drink on a Sunday and met some people. We went back to their basement flat and I said, 'Well, I'm going to have a pee.' And they said, 'There's a bucket in the corner.'" It was really serious poverty." (BFI) It was as though the film passed through the swinging sixties London that Caine was so central to in films like Alfie, The Ipcress File, Gambit and The Italian Job, but also the earlier kitchen sink realist films including A Kind of Loving, Look Back in Anger and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. If, in the Caine films, the characters often contain a nonchalant arrogance, in kitchen sink the protagonists sometimes display self-destructiveness, and none more so than Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, who goes through the film with little regard for others but not that much of a sense of self-preservation either.
Jack has an element of this self-destructiveness and more than enough of the swinging sixties swagger, but his superiority towards others is part of his downfall, no matter if the hitman is hired right from the start. In one of the film's most famous lines, he is in Brumby's house; when the businessman gets aggressive, Jack tells him, "you're a big man but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full-time job, now behave yourself." Brumby throws a punch and Jack blocks the blow and gives him a brief pasting. Another friend, made in the north even if Brumby, admiring his talents, does ask him a little later to take out Kinnear and offers him 5,000 to do so. It seems one of Brumby's team has been selling slot machines to a club that belongs to Kinnear, and the gangster isn't just happy for Brumby to "eat shit" for a while, he wants to take over his outfit. Brumby can't fight him; he is a businessman not a gangster and hopes Jack will kill Kinnear for the cash. But Jack doesn't only refuse the offer, he also goes off almost immediately and sleeps with Brumby's mistress. Jack then finds out that Glenda is involved in a porn film that also stars his niece, and Jack half drowns her in the bath and then throws her into the boot of her car, which is later pushed off the quay by Eric. Eric doesn't even know Glenda is in the boot, and Jack, who watches from across the other side of the quay, cares little to tell him. If one of the most famous TV shows about Newcastle is Our Friends in the North (with Armstrong in a leading role) Get Carter could have replaced friends with enemies, with Jack not only happy with acknowledging the few he has to deal with, but making a few more while there.
What we have then is the insouciance of a dapper Londoner who looks like he has made it on his own terms, colliding with an environment where others are struggling to get by. Looking at Caine's attire in the film, Nick Scott says, "Dormeuil Tonik is the mohair-wool fabric from which one of Savile Row's most wily tog-smiths - probably Douglas Hayward, given the actor's choice of tailor at the time - created the suit worn by Michael Caine's eponymous character...a blue three-piece that's up there with Cary Grant's attire in North By Northwest, Steve McQueen's in The Thomas Crown Affair and Sean Connery's in Dr No." (The Rake) But we also still have the presence of the sort of poverty that turned Hodges politically radical. "From being a young Tory (and recently-qualified Chartered Accountant) I became a passionate Socialist." (Celluloid Wicker Man) If we are inclined to describe the film as 'kitchen sink noir,' it lies in a sort of gangster grime, and the anomalies of a man who has been dressed on Saville Row finding himself slumming it on a row of terraced, brick houses. Alex Ramon used the term on the 1954 film, The Good Die Young "[which] might be termed kitchen sink noir, with the crime aspects of its plot anchored by convincing British social details" (BFI) But it seems much more applicable to Hodges' film, coming as it does after the Kitchen Sink movement, which ran more or less from 1958 to 1964, and that gave to British cinema a new interest in location shooting. While The Good Die Young uses the odd location (the Barbican line and Heathrow airport), Hodges shot entirely around Newcastle, and recced beforehand by walking all over the city and the surrounding area. "I moved into the city for a week or more and walked its streets looking for locations to use. They came in an abundance." (Celluloid Wicker Man) By placing Hodges' film in the context of kitchen sink we can also see how the passivity of the lives in films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Look Back in Anger (with writer John Osborne here in a key role as Kinnear) becomes the irony of Get Carter.
Noir is often an ironic form if we accept that a dimension of irony rests on the intention met with its opposite. In Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank Chambers wants a better life and hopes to find it with Cora after killing her husband, but life will turn out very badly indeed as he will meet his monicker in the form of the gas chambers where he is executed. In The Lady from Shanghai, Michael O'Hara kills the femme fatale in a fun park hall of mirrors where he doesn't know which Elsa is the real one, as though the proliferation in the looking glass is just a reflection of the various personae that she adopts. In Get Carter, the irony rests on Jack heading north to avenge his brother's death but right from the beginning, of course, as Hodges notes and we may observe, while Jack feels he is in control of his life and sharper in mind and couture than those around him, his death was only in abeyance. Near the beginning, on the train, the man we see reading the Sun newspaper is also the one who gets a call one evening late in the film to take out Jack. He is in bed with a fag in his mouth and what looks like a bottle of whisky on the bedside table, a man perhaps anxiously awaiting the moment when the deed will be done. Jack may see himself as superior to his environment but he isn't quite aware enough of it. Here is a man sitting in the same carriage and whom we see on more than one occasion on the train, and who we assume gets off at Newcastle as well. Hodges makes clear the train thins out the further north it goes. Jack finally seems more hyper vigilante than hyper-vigilant, someone who if he had spent a bit less time making enemies might have had more time to observe his surroundings.
Hodges does however observe his surroundings, and partly why we invoke kitchen sink realism when Jack goes into the pub where he orders that beer in a thin glass. The film cuts to various faces. Jack isn't impervious to their presence but he does look as if he thinks he is vastly superior to all of them, staring back at the locals when they look in his direction. The faces though aren't those of a noir film where everyone is a potential threat or on the make. We can find similar faces in Ken Loach films of the time, like Kes, as Hodges offers the sort of observational realism that took further the kitchen sink aspect of focusing on the specifics of people's lives, as if finding in the faces and the body language, a personal history. The people Jack looks at appear like they are in their seventies, and very much suggest in their faces a life less than comfortable. They could be people Hodges had seen fifteen years earlier who may have had little more than a pot to piss in. Shots like these from one point of view could endanger the film's generic purpose but, instead, they contribute to the film's vivid interrogation of an environment that does something interesting with the detective genre as whodunnit, if we also keep in mind Todorov's remarks. The whodunnit is a backstory narrative where the detective comes in and tries to make sense of an incident that has taken place before the story starts. Obviously, if we were privy to that info at the beginning, the mystery would be solved for us even if it wasn't solved for the detective, and there wouldn't be much of a whodunnit. However, usually this backstory is little more than predicated on deductive detail: that the detective looks in the present for the clues that will reveal the murder. But Get Carter proposes that there isn't only a back story but a sort of back-milieu, a world that Jack, and perhaps even more the viewer, try to understand in our and Jack's determination to find out what happened to his brother.
Now one reason why some generic works are far inferior to others rests perhaps on how much this back-milieu is no more than deductively manipulative: that it isn't there to fill out a world that exists beyond the detective's investigation but to create narrative retardation with false leads and red herrings. If Chinatown and The Long Goodbye are far greater films than, say, Farewell My Lovely and The Drowning Pool, it rests on seeing the necessary delaying of plot detail as part of the thus far unknowability of the milieu: that the more the investigative character comprehends of the case, the more he (and it is usually a he) comprehends the milieu of which it is a part. In The Long Goodbye, for example, we increasingly sense a world Marlowe doesn't really know the Malibu colony where the wealthy and the shady unite; where dubious doctors, famous writers, insecure gangsters and the perennially tanned meet. He isn't so much solving the case (and indeed misreads most of the clues in his determination) but his existence in this world allows us to comprehend a particular milieu. This isn't a generic demand on Altman's part; it is an environmental fascination. Altman "is much more concerned with the non-explicit story the way that characters reveal themselves in mannerism and in unguarded moments; the way an event is shaped by the uniqueness of its time and place." (American Cinematographer)
Exploring this properly would require looking at a handful of films in some detail and is best left for another essay. We can see though how it works in Get Carter, and see too that the proliferation of characters in an insistently streamlined film could seem like a flaw if the emphasis is on the plot rather than on the specifics of the environment. Here however it is vital to the back milieu. In the story the film conspicuously tells, we have Jack determined to discover who killed his brother; in the broader story Jack is an interloper in a world that precedes him and will continue beyond him, even if Kinnear and others will surely end up in prison after Jack sends the porn reels to the vice squad, and after a body is found on Kinnear's grounds. This milieu is one where Glenda can be mistress to Brumby but also close to Kinnear, and who is a porn actress willing to lure others into the trade. It is one where the landlady makes a living on her back while also renting rooms in her house, and where Margaret might get by as a snitch. It is one where Brumby didn't necessarily want Frank dead but wanted to work him up enough for Frank to go to the police over finding that his daughter appeared in a porn film. Instead Frank dies in an 'accident' when it looks like he is going to report Kinnear and co. and Brumby still has Kinnear on his case, which is why he offers 5,000 to Jack while withholding the fact that his previous attempt at screwing Kinnear over failed. With Frank, he tried to manipulate him with anger; and tries to persuade Jack with greed. Kinnear seems to sit back and wait to see how events will develop, accepting that Jack may more or less break into his home but this is just over-eagerness that needs to be observed: his henchmen can take him out later. Then we have Frank's daughter and Jack's niece, Doreen, a teenager who has lost her mother and may not have had Frank as a father, and Jack as an uncle, but the other way round. Keith suggests as much after his beating: that Jack had screwed Frank's wife and the poor man didn't even know if his daughter was his.
When Todorov discusses the risks the hero takes in later crime fiction as opposed to the deductive sedateness of earlier works, we can see that what makes crime fiction still more vivid is how far one feels the milieu is explored. Thus it isn't just that the hero works out what is going on, with supporting characters little more than clues, nor that the hero is in danger from some of these suspects, but that the world around the central figure has a texture which shows he has dropped into this environment but that it is much greater than his investigation of it. In deductively-oriented fiction this isn't so important: the detective needs to include or exclude, and this is why we can have the notion of the red herring: a narrative that leads nowhere because it is a clue that can now be removed. It also means that the back story is narrow: an inheritance that all the family members sought as the detective finds out who had the greatest motive, the easiest access to the victim, and the object that matches the injuries the victim sustained. The milieu isn't very important except as some seething, resentful environment that justifies why a murder takes place. The recent Knives Out is as good an example as any, a Poirot-style tale that absorbs many of the genre cliches all the better to pastiche the whodunnit. But a film like Get Carter instead creates an interesting contrast between the egoistic centrality of Jack as he sleeps with various women, kills various baddies and looks, in his Savile Row suits and his upright posture, superior to everyone he meets, and the sense we have that there would be more than enough going on in Newcastle even if he hadn't shown up to investigate his brother's death.
Thus we invoke kitchen sink cinema all the better to understand the complexity of Hodges' film, and why it needs from its perspective to multiply the characters that often in another work serve as a function. By insisting on a plausible milieu, by showing an interest in the interacting elements, Hodges at the same time rarely leaves behind Jack to focus on other characters. The sort of crisscrossing multi-character narratives popular in the nineties (City of Hope; Short Cuts), or the sixties logistical cinema of Costa-Gavras (Z) or Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) is eschewed partly because the film wants to remain within the noir genre and knows that focalization matters: that where we are positioned in the story is vital to its tension. We could have been aware that Kinnear was ready with a hitman right from the beginning, that Doreen was lured into the porn industry and that Brumby told Frank about her involvement in an attempt to get Frank to tell the police and get Kinnear off his back. All this takes place before Jack arrives and while the simple answer to these factual suppressions is that it wouldn't leave the film with much of a plot, what interests us is that the withheld elements don't merely feel like revelations awaiting disclosure either. They offer a world behind the scenes that become increasingly opened out.
By earlier invoking The Wicker Man and Wake in Fright we didn't only want to play up the fish-out-of-water theme, but also propose that in both films, as in Get Carter, the brilliance resides in that narrative time unravelled is also topographical space explored. "Before making Get Carter, your experiences in life had made you angry with the world's injustices, inequalities and hypocrisies," Hodges was asked. Do you think all this bled into Get Carter?". "Undoubtedly", Hodges replied. "I found the British very complacent about the state of its community. They were unwilling to face how deep the cancer of the country's class system ran. The corruption that stemmed from such desperate inequality infected society from top-to-bottom; parliamentarians, lawyers, police, media. All had, or wanted to have, their noses, in the money trough. In fact shortly after I'd finished the shoot in Newcastle its mayor and other dignitaries were convicted for taking whopping bribes." (Money Into Light) Get Carter shows that it isn't only an isolated injustice that has taken place, but the film works with great irony as Jack tries to solve a crime while committing a few of his own and leaves us sensing that there are many others evident in this northern city. It gives to the film a proper sense of perspective without losing the singular focus often required of noir fiction.
Though there are scenes to which Jack isn't privy, most of the time the film attends to Jack's concerns so that other incidents that could be dramatised are left offscreen only for us to witness the aftermath: Keith's beating is brilliantly ignored all the better to imply its significance. When Jack goes to visit him afterwards, we see Jack pulling up and throwing the washed bed sheets next to the road, the sheets that attached themselves to his car after a chase through the back streets of brick houses. As he leaves the car, the film cuts to a woman looking out of an upstairs window, and as he buzzes there is another cut to a couple looking on. What have they witnessed we might wonder, or are they just intrigued by this tidy-looking bloke showing up on someone's doorstep? Did they hear Keith's screams the night before while we have been privy to Jack banging his landlady? We don't know and don't need to know; what matters is that we don't feel the community Hodges shows us is indifferent to the events in its midst, and this will include the children we see sitting on the front step next door, when Jack rings the bell, as well as the older neighbours looking on. Out of the poverty of Newcastle, gangsters go about their business, but Hodges' achievement is to make as vivid the impoverishment as the machinations of the story, even if the former is always in the background and never quite what the film is 'about'.
After all, any film that wished to pay special attention might have worked harder at getting the accents right. A letter in the Guardian by the offspring of the actress playing the landlady noted: "My mother, Rosemarie Dunham, played Edna Garfoot, Michael Caine's obliging landlady, in Get Carter. I once asked her why no one in the film speaks with a geordie accent... She said she had been working on a geordie accent, but was told by the producers to drop it in favour of all-purpose northern British, as US audiences would otherwise not be able to 'get Carter'." Yet in other ways the film is even more political than many a Kitchen Sink drama, with the gangster narrative commenting on a level of deprivation greater than that shown in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and others. In the earlier films, one witnesses poverty but not really criminality; Hodges indicates that a community dealing with thugs on their doorstep has even more to contend with, and the implication is that in a deprived environment we shouldn't be surprised when people turn to crime to get by. It is a theme Ken Loach would later pick up on in his own kitchen sink gangster movie Sweet Sixteen, as though extending further the misery of working-class lives as the difficulties in Kes becomes much more exacerbated in Raining Stones (even if criminality was evident in his first film Poor Cow), where loan sharks are the norm, and becomes fully criminalised in his 'gangster' film. Hodges may never have been the conspicuously political filmmaker Ken Loach happens to be, and why critics would be less inclined to see the links with kitchen sink that is always evident in Loach, but once one is aware of Hodges' socialism, the film offers us plenty opportunities to see the deprivation.
However, Get Carter is also a much more architectural film than most kitchen sink works, that Hodges and his cinematographer wanted to capture Newcastle's past grandeur within its present destitution. Newcastle isn't only an industrial city that along with Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool helped power the world in the 19th-century. It was also developed culturally as a consequence of its new-found status. A statue to Earl Grey went up in 1838 and the builder Richard Grainger and architect John Dobson worked in the neo-classical style around Grey Street in the 1830s, building the Theatre Royal in 1837. Victoria Tunnel was built in 1842, and Dobson and Robert Stephenson designed the railway station in 1850. There was also the High Level Bridge in 1849, built by the Hawks family using 5,050 tons of iron. Numerous infrastructural projects were put in place during the 19th century and also in the early years of the 20th most famously, the distinctive semi-circular Tyne Bridge in 1925.
Hodges nevertheless generally wanted the rough rather than the smooth, the elements that illustrated its architectural industrialism rather than its neo-classical assuagement. "It was such an incredibly visual city. It didn't look like a British city. It looked like Chicago or New York. There were those extraordinary bridges and, of course, the other element was the huge ships, which were a kind of architecture in themselves. The river was just amazing: hard, and rusty." (BFI) Made the same year as The French Connection and resembling the New York school work of the decade by Friedkin, Lumet, Scorsese and Schatzberg, Get Carter might be a bit all over the place when it comes to getting the accents right, but its sense of place is visual rather than verbal. Numerous shots take full advantage of Newcastle's quayside and the Tyne river, showing bridges and ships, indicating past glories but present decay. Even the high-rise car park, that only a few years earlier would have been seen as a sign of regeneration looks on the way out. Designed in 1962 by the Owen Luder Partnership, Brutalism was already on the wane by 1971 and Hodges shows the high-rise as a place of threat, using long lenses to give a sense of the car park's height and depth but also to show it a place of portent. In a wonderful shot, Jack is disgusted by Brumby's 5,000 offer to take out Kinnear, and we see him walking away as Hodges imperceptibly zooms out while Jack walks the length of the top floor of this car park and disappears out of the frame. Hodges momentarily holds the image, with Brumby standing there in the distance. The shot invokes the architectural framing so prevalent in Antonioni's work but like other filmmakers of the early seventies (none more so than Pakula with Klute) he utilises it for the purposes of foreboding. We aren't surprised when in a later scene Jack tumbles Brumby off the high rise: brutality meets brutalism as we see Brumby falling to his death, the car park behind him as he falls. This isn't part of Newcastle's regeneration; it is evidence of the city's degeneration, with Carter making full use of it for his murderous purpose.
Indeed, we can see other deaths too in the context of Newcastle's general underdevelopment. When Carter finally catches up with Albert, he finds him in a betting shop. Jack asks "do you want to go the toilet, Albert?" as we discover the bookie's doesn't have one on the premises and they have to exit the building and go out the back. It is a typical Newcastle backyard of the period, with a toilet in the far corner next to the gate. Albert makes a run for it as soon as they exit the shop, and, finding the gate locked, tries clambering up it but too slowly to avoid escape. Jack confronts him and stabs him to death even as he acknowledges that Albert wasn't Frank's murderer. "I know you didn't kill him, I know" Jack says as he stabs him twice in the stomach." The seediness of the bookies and the basic presence of an outside toilet show moral impoverishment against a degenerative backdrop. We see it most obviously when Jack kills the man he has been aiming to take out through the course of the film: Eric, the person chiefly responsible for his brother's death. Here we see Jack chasing him through an emptied industrial landscape, passing along train tracks and cranes, out past the docks and onto the seafront, finally catching up with Eric on a slag heap. After forcing a bottle of whisky down him, just as Eric had forced alcohol down his brother's mouth, Jack then kills him with the rifle as if felling him with an axe. We next see Eric dead in a coal bucket, travelling along the cable before getting deposited into the sea. It is as if the industrialised landscape serves no more purpose than to emphasise the degradation of the murderous acts rather than to indicate the possibility of energy and effort. The industrial revolution has become post-industrial criminality, a detrital locale encapsulating opportunism, greed, vengeance and duplicity.
Obviously, this isn't what Newcastle is, only what it can be made to stand for, and it wouldn't quite be fair to say that Hodges could have filmed too in Glasgow, Belfast or Liverpool. It would neither be fair to Hodges' very specific use of locale nor the important differences between the cities, Belfast especially so, since by 1971 the Troubles were underway. But Get Carter manages to generalise enough from the particular for viewers to have a sense of a burgeoning post-industrial UK but also be specific enough for the BFI to look at the locations used and see how much they have changed in the intervening years. ('Get Carter at 50: how the Tyneside locations look today.') Equally, the film conveys well an environment that feel connotatively violent; it isn't only that tough characters are going about their business, but the locations used capture the hardness of their behaviour. Brumby could just as easily, narratively, have been tossed over a luxury high-rise and Eric offloaded into a ski lift car, but while the same action would have been performed, its connotative function would have been quite different.
There are other elements of the film that contribute enormously to its significance, including Roy Budd's great score, especially well-used near the beginning when Jack travels north. It captures well the impending threat in the use of sharp discordant sounds and the ironic use of a bassline indicating that for all Jack's insouciance he might just be getting himself into a lot of trouble. Hodges and his editor Jack Tripper have shown the influence of the Nouvelle vague, especially during a sex scene between Jack and Glenda with cuts between them making love and back and forth to Glenda driving the car: the close ups of her legs and her gloved hands creating an anticipatory desire that we can see as Jack's subjectivity, but also a retrospective sense of its inevitability as we witness them in tight embraces, in tight close up, in bed. But it is also there later when the film crosscuts between Jack chasing Eric and the police raiding Kinnear's house after Margaret's body is found in the lake on the grounds of his home.
But though the music is fine and the editing clever what one remembers most about the film is Carter moving through the cityscape, a brutal man who returns to his hometown and feels right at home in the worst aspects of it even as his dress and demeanour suggest the place is beneath him. By the film's conclusion, he will be just another body to join the ones he has taken out as the police will have yet one more crime to solve, or at least another corpse to dispose of, in a milieu that will comfortably, or uncomfortably enough, get by without him.
© Tony McKibbin