Jack Carter (Michael Caine) has received some very bad news. From his hometown of Newcastle, which he left behind years ago, word has reached him that his brother Frank has died, in circumstances that Jack has trouble believing are not untoward. He is a gangster in London, the right hand man of his boss who is unaware he is carrying on an affair with his mistress Anna (Britt Ekland) behind his back - indeed, she and Jack plan to elope together for South America. But first things first, and he must travel to the city he abandoned to get the information he needs about who exactly killed his brother... then make them pay.
Get Carter caused some ripples when it was initially released, mainly due to the liberal dollops of sex and violence that this determinedly gritty gangster movie provided. Not that there was much to savour in their depiction, as all of this was downbeat to an extreme degree: sure, there's plenty of people getting bumped off and women taking off their clothes, yet the feeling of titillation that might have arisen at these sights was at best muted, and at worst non-existent. No, what offered the film its considerable charge was the dialogue, adapted from Ted Lewis's novel by director Mike Hodges, here making his cinematic debut after a decade of working in television.
There were those who pointed out that Get Carter was little more than typical TV play material given the X-rated treatment, but that would be to underestimate it. Hodges is not a romanticist here, and while that suited the small screen dramas littering the British television landscape, here he had a proper movie superstar to carry his take on the United Kingdom's less salubrious corners. With Newcastle representing the whole nation in this, the austerity the population were going through was rarely as keenly shown, and the poverty - not only of wealth but of generosity and decency - lends a palpable atmosphere of menace as Caine stalks his way around dingy streets and dingier interiors.
If Jack is our hero it's solely down to the fact he is meteing out justice, not thanks to his unpleasant methods. He is generous, but only to the extent that he sees the best way to deal with the characters he encounters is to judiciously apply a few large banknotes if he likes them, as if he doesn't like you he treats you no better than the supposed villains. The plot takes a bit of following to work out who has done in Frank and what their motives were, as Hodges steadfastly refuses to spell things out as if it is enough for us to know that Carter is on the right track and he will not be stopped until his thirst for vengeance is satisfied. But we can see that he is as cunning as he is violent, and will take some beating if his enemies wish to halt his trail of vanquished evildoers.
If there's one thing that you might find hard to swallow, it's that famed Cockney Michael Caine was ever from the North East of England - can you imagine him with a Geordie accent? But this works in the film's favour, as he comes across as a fish out of water: a shark amongst the minnows for example. With his pale stare and mirthless grin, Carter is formidable, and Caine draws on his skills to make us warm to him while still perceiving that he is not a nice chap at all, whether it's in the way he calls Anna for phone sex as his landlady listens in, or the manner he cruelly thinks nothing of executing those he feels have affronted him. He's like a one man force of rough justice, and by the time his London associates have followed him up to Newcastle to settle some debts of their own, he seems unstoppable in spite of their efforts. Well, almost, as the ending famously undercuts the triumph and reasserts the overwhelming bleak mood. Music by Roy Budd, some of the best of the era.
British director, from television, with an interesting take on crime movies. His first film was the gritty, gangster cult Get Carter, but the offbeat follow-up Pulp was not as successful. The Terminal Man was a Hollywood science fiction thriller, and Flash Gordon a gloriously over-the-top comic book epic which showed Hodges' good humour to its best effect.