It’s an old movie but it’s still in good shape. In the three decades since Get Carter (1971) was released to an ambivalent critical response, the cult following has erupted into full-blown canonisation: at last, Carter has a place in society. The popularity of Mike Hodge’s explosive revenge thriller has snowballed particularly since the 90s (thanks largely to Tarantino, the video and DVD market, and lad culture) and Chibnall’s account and analysis of the film’s history is well due.
The author is at his best when describing the conditions that led to the making of Get Carter and relating anecdotes from the production; for example how Brian Mosley (who played the ‘Big Man’ Brumby) took the original script to his priest before accepting a part in the violent revenge thriller. Apparently the priest assured Mosley that his catholic faith would not be compromised by his taking part in what was, in fact, ‘a very good morality play.’ Quotes from Hodges and Michael Caine come from a vast range of sources and are refreshingly down-to-earth and frequently enlightening. Chibnall describes the filmmaking process in unglamorous, anti-mythologising terms: a physical process overseen and enacted by talented but flawed human beings. The producer Michael Klinger had a background in ‘commercial sexploitation’ not entirely dissimilar to that condemned in Get Carter, and the onscreen animosity between Caine as Carter and Ian Hendry as Eric Paice (the gangster’s henchman with eyes like ‘pissholes in the snow’) was itself informed by real life. Hendry turned up to the production in too much of a ‘drunken and resentful’ state to rehearse the classic racecourse meeting scene between Paice and Carter: he had been Hodge’s original choice for the film’s lead.
Chibnall places Get Carter thoroughly in context, as the antithesis of the British crime film when that description meant either Ealing or Bond; influenced by or concurrent with similar Stateside productions by Boorman, Siegal and Eastwood; quickly overshadowed in film studies circles by the subsequent releases of The Devils, Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange (all 1971). In hindsight, Get Carter was both prophetic and markedly of its time. The 60s were over, and Hodges was ‘careful to link the theme of revenge with an attack on the corruption endemic in the local state and the sense of a society disintegrating and out of control.’ In fact, much of the recent publicity for Carter – expertly packaged DVDs and glossy magazine covers – probably distorts public perception of the film which was, in fact, a bleak and nihilistic warning shot from Hodges to a smug, hungover and transitory Britain. In Get Carter, notes Chibnall, free love is a tool of repression and sex is a manifestation of violence. The author may overstate the relevance of Tyneside’s civic corruption, but his evocation of the time and his detailed research do both himself and the film proud: the mediocrity of Get Carter’s success on its original release may have been partially down to the honest but unflattering reflection of society it held up. Now, more than just the undeniably visceral thrill it provides, Get Carter is seen by many as a vital document of its time.
As a general study and history of its subject, this book is an undoubted gem, insightful and thorough. The film studies angle does not work quite as well; the middle section, in which the author dissects the movie scene-by-scene, is anecdotally sound, but Chibnall’s technical insight is not always convincing. His decision to include brief quotes (from Jacobean revenge tragedies, Ted Lewis’s source novel ‘Jack’s Return Home’ etc.) before each scene description proves distracting: there are just too many and they break up the read.
Chibnall’s Get Carter is a fascinating celebration of a vital, iconic British movie. A readable, inclusive tone is quickly established, with ‘heavy’ issues such as class and gender explored without resorting to po-faced vivisection (Chibnall’s only reservation in the whole book is that Hodge’s defence against charges of misogyny is not entirely convincing). Get Carter is a much imitated classic: from the Blaxploitation remake Hit Man (1972) featuring Pam Grier to Sly Stallone in the 2000 Seattle-based version which didn’t even get a cinematic release in the UK (‘we’re going to get crushed in London,’ trembled its director), to the influence it held as a Godfather figure for the late 90s rush of gangster flicks. Unlike many of its copycats or its own doomed protagonist, Get Carter’s longevity seems assured, a fact reflected by the grit, complexity and pure visceral thrill captured by this book.