“Get Carter”: The Brit-mob revenge saga that influenced a new crime genre

By on August 4, 2015

The English gangster movie has proven an enduring genre to this day. The 1971 picture that jumpstarted the long-lived cycle, Get Carter, Mike Hodges’ bracing, brutal tale of a mobster’s revenge, screens late Thursday, August 6th, on TCM as part of a day-long tribute to Michael Caine, who stars as the film’s titular anti-hero.

We won’t have to wait long for the next high-profile Brit-mob saga: October will see the premiere of Brian Helgeland’s Legend, a new feature starring Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dark Knight Rises, Locke) in a tour de force dual role as Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the legendarily murderous identical twin gangleaders who terrorized London in the ‘60s.

The violent exploits of the Krays mesmerized Fleet Street’s journalists and the British populace until the brothers and most of the top members of their “firm” were arrested in 1968. The siblings both died in prison after receiving life sentences. They’ve been the subjects of several English TV documentaries and a 1990 feature starring Martin and Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet.

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However, the Krays and their seamy milieu may have had their greatest impact in fictional form, via the durable figure of Jack Carter, the creation of a shy, alcoholic graphic artist, animator, and fiction writer named Ted Lewis, the man now recognized by many as “the father of British noir.”

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Ted Lewis at famous Newcastle Get Carter location

Born in 1940 in a Manchester suburb, Lewis was raised in the small town of Barton-upon-Humber in the dank English midlands. A sickly child, he became engrossed with art, the movies, and writing. The product of an English art school in nearby Hull, he wrote his first, unsuccessful novel, a semi-autobiographical piece of “kitchen sink” realism called All the Way Home and All the Night Through, in 1965.

He soon moved sideways into movie animation, serving as clean-up supervisor on George Dunning’s Beatles feature Yellow Submarine (1968). However, now married with a couple of children, he decided to return to writing with an eye to crafting a commercial hit, and in 1970 he published a startling, ultra-hardboiled novel titled Jack’s Return Home.

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British fiction had never produced anything quite like the book’s protagonist Jack Carter. He is the enforcer for a pair of London gangsters, Gerald and Les Fletcher, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Krays. At the outset of the book, recounted in the first person, Carter travels by train to an unnamed city in the British midlands (modeled after the city of Scunthorpe near Lewis’ hometown) to bury his brother Frank, who has died in an alleged drunk driving accident.

Carter instantly susses that his brother was murdered, and he sets about sorting out a hierarchy of low-end midlands criminals (all of whom he knew in his early days as a budding hoodlum) responsible for the crime, investigating the act with a gun in his hand and a heart filled with hate. He’s no Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe bound by a moral code – in fact, he once bedded Frank’s wife, and is now sleeping with his boss Gerald’s spouse. He’s a sociopathic career criminal and professional killer – a “villain,” in the English term — who will use any means at his disposal to secure his revenge.

Carter’s pursuit of rough justice for his brother, and for a despoiled niece, attracts the attention of the Fletchers, whose business relationships with the Northern mob are being disrupted by their lieutenant’s campaign of vengeance. As Carter leaves behind a trail of corpses and homes in on the last of his quarry, the hunter has become the hunted, and Jack’s Return Home climaxes with scenes of bloodletting worthy of a Jacobean tragedy, or of Grand Guignol.

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Before its publication, Lewis’ grimy, violent book piqued the interest of Michael Klinger, who had produced Roman Polanski’s stunning ‘60s features Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac. Klinger acquired film rights to the novel before its publication in 1970, and sent a galley copy to Mike Hodges, then a U.K. TV director with no feature credits.

Hodges, who immediately signed on as director and screenwriter of Klinger’s feature – which was retitled Get Carter — was not only drawn to the taut, fierce action, but also by the opportunity to peel away the veneer of propriety that still lingered in British society and culture. As he noted in his 2000 commentary for the U.S. DVD release of the film, “You cannot deny that [in England], like anywhere else, corruption is endemic.”

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Casting was key to the potential box office prospects of the feature, and Klinger and Hodges’ masterstroke was securing Michael Caine to play Jack Carter. By 1970, Caine had become an international star, portraying spy novelist Len Deighton’s agent Harry Palmer in three pictures and garnering raves as the eponymous philanderer in Alfie.

Caine had himself known some hard cases in his London neighborhood; in his own DVD commentary, he says that his dead-eyed, terrifyingly reserved Carter was “an amalgam of people I grew up with – I’d known them all my life.” Hodges notes of Caine’s Carter, “There’s a ruthlessness about him, and I would have been foolish not to use it to the advantage of the film.” Playing what he knew, Caine gave the performance of a lifetime – a study in steely cool, punctuated by sudden outbursts of unfettered fury.

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The actor, who aptly can be seen reading Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely in the film’s credit sequence, summarizes his character on the DVD: “Here was a dastardly man coming as the savior of a lady’s honor. It’s the knight saving the damsel in distress, except this knight is not a very noble or gallant one. It’s the villain as hero.”

The supporting players were cast with equal skill. Ian Hendry, who was originally considered for the role of Carter, ultimately portrayed the hit man’s principal nemesis and target Eric Paice. Caine and Hendry’s first faceoff in the film, an economical conversation at a local racetrack, seethes with unfeigned tension and unease – Caine was wary of Hendry, whose deep alcoholism made the production a difficult one, while Hendry was jealous of the leading man’s greater success.

For Northern mob kingpin Cyril Kinnear, Hodges recruited John Osborne, then best known in Great Britain as the writer of the hugely successfully 1956 play Look Back in Anger, Laurence Olivier’s screen and stage triumph The Entertainer, and Tony Richardson’s period comedy Tom Jones, for which he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Osborne, a skilled actor before he found fame as a writer, brings subdued, purring menace to the part.

Though her part was far smaller than those of such other supporting actresses as Geraldine Moffat, Rosemarie Dunham, and Dorothy White, Brit sex bomb Britt Ekland received third billing as Anna, Gerald Fletcher’s wife and Carter’s mistress. Her marquee prominence is somewhat justified by an eye-popping sequence in which she engages in a few minutes of steamy phone sex with Caine.

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Some small roles were populated by real British villains. George Sewell, who plays the Fletchers’ minion Con McCarty, was a familiar of the Krays’ older brother Charlie, and introduced the elder mobster to Carry On comedy series actress Barbara Windsor, who subsequently married another member of the Kray firm. John Bindon, who appears briefly as the younger Fletcher sibling, was a hood and racketeer who later stood trial for murder; a notorious womanizer, he romanced Princess Margaret, whose clandestine relationship with Bindon later became a key plot turn in the 2008 Jason Strathan gangster vehicle The Bank Job.

Verisimilitude was everything for Hodges, who shot nearly all of the film on grimly realistic locations in Newcastle, the down-at-the-heel coal-mining town on England’s northeastern coast. The director vibrantly employs interiors of the city’s seedy pubs, rooming houses, nightclubs and betting parlors. In one inspired bit of local color, he uses an appearance by a local girl’s marching band, the Pelaw Hussars, to drolly enliven a scene in which a nude, shotgun-toting Carter backs down the Fletchers’ gunmen.

The film’s relentless action was perfectly framed by director of photography Wolfgang Suchitzky, whose experience as a cameraman for documentarian Paul Rotha is put to excellent use. Some sequences are masterfully shot with available light; the movie’s most brutal murder plays out at night by a car’s headlights. The breathtakingly staged final showdown between Carter and Paice is shot under lowering skies against the grey backdrop of a North Sea coal slag dump.

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Tough, uncompromising, and utterly unprecedented in English cinema, Get Carter was a hit in the U.K. It fared poorly in the U.S., where its distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer dumped it on the market as the lower half of a double bill with the Frank Sinatra Western spoof Dirty Dingus Magee. In his DVD commentary, Caine notes that it was only after Ted Turner acquired MGM’s catalog and broadcast the film on his cable networks that the movie developed a cult audience in the States.

Get Carter has received two American remakes. The first, George Armitage’s oft-risible 1972 blaxploitation adaptation Hit Man, starred Bernie Casey as Carter’s African-American counterpart Tyrone Tackett. It is notable for a spectacularly undraped appearance by Pam Grier, whose character meets a hilarious demise that is somewhat spoiled by the picture’s amusing trailer. (Casey and Keenan Ivory Wayans later lampooned the film in the 1988 blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.)

Hodges’ film was drearily Americanized and relocated to Seattle in Stephen Kay’s like-titled 2000 Sylvester Stallone vehicle. It’s a sluggish, misbegotten venture, about which the less that is said the better. Michael Caine’s presence in the cast as villain Cliff Brumby (played in the original by Brian Mosley) only serves to remind viewers that they are watching a vastly inferior rendering of a classic.

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Ted Lewis wrote seven more novels after Jack’s Return Home, and returned to Jack Carter for two prequels. The first of them, Jack Carter’s Law (1970), an almost equally intense installment in which Carter ferrets out a “grass” – an informer – in the Fletchers’ organization, is a deep passage through the London underworld of the ‘60s, full of warring gangsters and venal, dishonest coppers.

The final episode in the trilogy, Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (1977), was a sad swan song for British noir’s most memorable bad man. In it, Carter travels to the Mediterranean island of Majorca on a Fletchers-funded “holiday,” only to discover that he has actually been dispatched to guard a jittery American mobster hiding out at the gang’s villa. It’s a flabby, obvious, and needlessly discursive book; Lewis’ exhaustion is apparent in his desperate re-use of a plot point central to the action of the first Carter novel.

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Curiously, the locale and setup of Mafia Pigeon appear to be derived from Pulp, the 1975 film that reunited director Hodges and actor Caine. In it, the actor plays a writer of sleazy paperback thrillers who travels to the Mediterranean isle of Malta to pen the memoirs of Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), a Hollywood actor with gangland connections. Hilarity and mayhem ensue. (Pulp also screens on Thursday as part of TCM’s Caine tribute.)

All of Lewis’ characters consume enough alcohol to put down an elephant, and Lewis himself succumbed to alcoholism in 1982, at the age of 42. Virtually unemployable, he had moved back home to Barton-upon-Humber, where lived with his parents.

He went out with a bang, however: In 1980, he published his final and finest book, the truly explosive mob thriller GBH (the British abbreviation for “grievous bodily harm”). The novel focuses on the last days of vice lord George Fowler, a sadist in the grand Krays manner, whose empire is being toppled by internal treachery. Using a unique time-shifting structure that darts back and forth between “the smoke” (London) and “the sea” (Fowler’s oceanside hideout), it reaches a finale of infernal, hallucinatory intensity.

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After Lewis’ death, his work fell into obscurity, and his novels were unavailable in America for decades. Happily, Soho Press reissued the Carter trilogy in paperback in 2014 and republished GBH in hardback earlier this year. Now U.S. readers have the opportunity to read the books that influenced an entire school of English noir writers, including such Lewis disciples and venerators as Derek Raymond, David Peace, and Jake Arnott.

Echoes of GBH can be heard in The Long Good Friday, another esteemed English gangster film starring Bob Hoskins as the arrogant and impetuous chief of a collapsing London firm. Released the same year as Lewis’ last novel, the John Mackenzie-directed feature is only one of a succession of outstanding movies – The Limey, The Hit, Layer Cake, Sexy Beast, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels among them – that owe a debt to Get Carter, the daddy of them all.

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About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).