Gritty, grimy, and relentless, Mike Hodges’s Get Carter is a masterpiece of atmosphere and tone. It exists in the same logical universe as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but its moral universe is even darker: here, our central character isn’t a weary working man but a violent hypocrite. Michael Caine is rarely better than he is here, as Jack Carter, a man with no geniality and only enough civility to contain–but never conceal–his savagery. Hodges and Caine could have collaborated on making him likable, but instead, they let him be an almost elemental force of vengeance and criminal intent. He may have loved his murdered brother, but we discover he betrayed that love; what he won’t betray is the resulting rage.
Carter is a London gangster who returns to his hometown of Newcastle–here a benighted industrial hellhole; few places in film have ever looked so miserable and hopeless–to look into the suspicious death of his brother. The decision plunges him into a dark pit of sex, murder, power, and pornography, and it slowly strips away his veneer of having any kind of code. He doesn’t have principles, just purpose.
Michael Caine has done a lot of truly atrocious movies–does anyone else remember The Dissolve podcast episode where they joked about how extensive (and often awful) a Complete Films of Michael Caine set would be?–and his flippant and justly iconic comment about Jaws 3 paying for his house is a masterpiece of not giving a shit. But performances like this remind us of how gripping he can be at his best. It’s a role he cared about because it was, he said, his shadow self, what he could have become if his luck had been worse: “Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood; I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.” His willingness to let that ghost be truly vicious and ugly–to offer a stripped-down, thoroughly deglamorized Carter–risks his image but cements his reputation.