This article was originally published on Cinephilia & Beyond
It was a big car park, but it was in bad shape. So in 2010, the Trinity Square high rise car park, an iconic brutalist building that dominated Gateshead’s skyline in the 1970s, was demolished, and a part of British film history was gone. Though not before the canny council sold tinned lumps of rubble to film fans for £5.00 a go. The film they wanted a piece of was Get Carter, a 1971 Jacobean (Jack-obean?) revenge tragedy dressed up in grim, Northern gangster style. It was from here that Michael Caine’s Jack Carter throws Brian Mosely’s Brumby over the edge to the streets below. Much has changed beyond recognition in Newcastle since Get Carter was filmed. The slums have been cleared for tidy modern homes, although the imposing High Level (or Iron) Bridge Carter chased across remains. Speaking about the film around its 40th anniversary, director Mike Hodges told The Guardian in 2011, “I came across Newcastle, which I’d never been to before. And as soon as I saw it, I knew that’s where I wanted to shoot. 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. And with all the houses that ended up in the film, you felt you could begin to understand why someone as psychotic as Jack Carter had ended up the way he was.”
“You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full-time job, now behave yourself.” Who hasn’t mimicked Michael Caine delivering that line to Brumby in his front room with a slap, possibly inaccurately adjusting imaginary horn-rimmed spectacles as well? Get Carter is arguably the greatest British gangster film ever made, certainly one of the best regardless of genre. It is chock-full of such quotable lines, performances, and gritty, bitter violence, leavened with the driest of wit.
It was film producer Michael Klinger who brought the property to Hodges’ attention, in the form of the original novel, entitled Jack’s Return Home, by British crime author Ted Lewis. Klinger had earlier “discovered” Roman Polanski in Poland and brought him across the water to make Repulsion and Cul-De-Sac. Hodges told Adam Scovell what he saw in the book:
“It was a cracking novel. Sparse in every way. Not a sinew of sentimentality. Very much the way I like both my literature and films. Initially I didn’t want to change anything. It’s a long time ago but I think the first draft was much the same as Lewis’s original text. Probably because I’d never before adapted a novel and somehow felt obliged to the original author. At some point I knew I had to free myself from that straightjacket and begin to think only in cinematic terms. I abandoned the novel’s structure of flashbacks and settled on a straight narrative form; one that I felt happier with for my first feature film.”
Hodges, as mentioned earlier, switched the location from the novel’s small north-eastern town to Newcastle, settling in the city for a week to soak up the atmosphere and location scout. “I had happened upon a city in violent transition. It was a place that somehow captured the cataclysmic rupture slowly happening to British society but not yet visible to most of its inhabitants.” By a curious twist of fate, the (wrongly credited) architect of the car park, Rodney Gordon, was a poker-playing associate of Hodges. Owen Luder actually designed it. Gordon was a junior partner at Owen Luder Partnership between 1965-1967. “Rodney Gordon’s involvement on Trinity Square Gateshead was limited to leading the initial design group working up my sketches,” Luder told Jessica Mairs.
Vienna-born DP Wolfgang Suschitzky was perfectly placed to record the milieu of an industrial city in decline. His diverse career encompassed features and shorts, documentaries and fiction, natural history films and commercials. He was intimately familiar with the north-east, and working-class subjects. He entered film-making in his twenties during the war years as a cameraman at Paul Rotha Productions. In 1944 he departed to jointly form DATA (Documentary and Technicians Alliance), Britain’s first film cooperative. Although he went on to commercial success, he never forgot his documentary origins, recording coal mining communities for the National Coal Board’s Mining Review, and making industrial training films into the 1980s. At the time of Get Carter, he was approaching his sixties, perhaps little knowing it would be a defining work. “Art can be produced with any medium,” the modest Suschitzky told Sight and Sound in the August 2012 issue, “but only in the hands of an artist. Unfortunately there are not many of those about. I certainly don’t claim to be an artist. I am content if I am considered a craftsman.”
The setting and timing of Get Carter lance the fading hedonism of the sixties and those that the swinging movement left behind in the provinces like a boil. That freedom was gone, replaced by crumbling infrastructure and uncertain social standards in a frightening and uncaring new era. As we experience through Jack’s outsider eyes, the degeneration of the city, it feels almost as though we are in a documentary, not a crime film.
In contrast to the grime of the surroundings, Caine’s Carter brings a touch of London glamor in his sartorial sense and cockney affectation, a blending in down south to knock the rough edges off a provincial origin. Costume designer Evangeline Harrison clothed Caine in his then Mayfair tailor of choice, Douglas Hayward. From The Rake:
“It was as if the suit had come into being, organically, around Caine’s form. The details—slanted pockets, high-notched lapel, boot cut trousers, five-button single-breasted waistcoat—all made their contribution to a truly imperious whole, as did the accessories (blue long-sleeved shirt with double cuff, oversized gold and white cufflinks, dark blue silk tie with a diagonal rib, black calfskin full strap loafers, Rolex Oyster Day-Date with brown leather strap). And then of course, there’s the criminally dapper suit’s trio of accomplices, making up a whole which will forever be associated with this and no other movie: the double-barreled shotgun, the trench coat and a frown scored across Caine’s features that could curdle milk.”
Although Caine’s Jack inevitably stands out up north amongst the tweeds and nylon shirts that seem stuck in time, the actor chose Hayward for the innate sense of confidence and bearing it brought to the wearer, not a flash, brash, look-at-me sense. “It was brilliant tailoring without drawing any attention to itself whatsoever, and you didn’t care that anyone didn’t notice it—you knew. You see, it wasn’t for anyone else—it was for you.”
Conversely, as Christopher Laverty states in his own site, Clothes On Film, Jack is at his most dangerous unclothed. “Strolling outside his landlady’s house with a shotgun in hand and nothing else, he is genuinely on the verge of losing control.” The old lady next door who drops her milk bottle in startled alarm genuinely didn’t know he would be naked. Children’s marching band The Pelaw Hussars advance on, oblivious. “Come on Jack, put it away, you know you won’t use it.” “That’s the gun he means,” the two hoods who’ve come for him crack wise.
Hodges was surprised and delighted to secure Caine for the lead role on the strength of the script’s second draft. “I remember being astonished. Jack Carter was such a shit, it never occurred to me that a star would risk his reputation playing him.” Caine recalled why he chose the role: “One of the reasons I wanted to do it was because I had this image on the screen as a Cockney ersatz Errol Flynn. The Cockney bit was alright, but the ersatz suggested I’m artificial and the Errol Flynn tag misses the point. One’s appearance distracts people from one’s acting. Carter was real.” MGM came up with ridiculous suggestions (often American) for actors to inhabit the rich supporting cast of Geordie characters. Hodges stuck to his guns and cast British unknowns or character actors. “I knew by surrounding Michael with fresh faces, I could ground the film. I was right. A young Alun Armstrong is the kid who gets beat up for asking too many questions on Carter’s behalf. Jack tosses him some tenners. “Here, go get yourself a course in karate.” Hodges had asked Armstrong to be a sort of unofficial accent-coach to the rest of the cast, but to locals, the film is full of vaguely Yorkshire voices. Playwright John Osborne in his first film role is the quietly menacing local crime boss Cyril Kinnear, his honeyed voice affecting barbed hospitality. “You don’t give a man like Jack a drink in those piddly little glasses. Give him the bloody bottle.” Ian Hendry is a delight as his creepy, wraparound shaded chauffeur Eric Paice, with “yes like pissholes in the snow.”
It was the quiet moments of doubt and vulnerability Caine exuded that excited Hodges. We witness him sentimentalize a young family on the ferry, perhaps regretting a life path he never took. Yet he finds it a chore to engage and empathize, blandly asking after his niece Doreen’s fortunes—when told she’s left school and works in Woolworths all he can muster is, “That must be very interesting.” At a crucial point, the actor exhibits a masterclass in bottled pain and anger as he silently watches a porn cine film, gradually realizing that the young girl featured in it is his niece (or possibly daughter) and this discovery by his brother, for whose funeral he came home, was the reason he was murdered, not killed drunk driving as made out. Caine’s unblinking eyes never leave the screen, almost looking directly at us, the audience, a single tear starting to roll unnoticed down his cheek. He and the director make us complicit as voyeurs in her fate, as the film reflects upon the white wall behind Jack. “I want to congratulate you, Glenda, you deserve an Oscar,” he says quietly to her co-star, next door in the bath. When she professes not to know who the young girl is he suddenly explodes with rage and drags her out, the sound of the displaced water and his voice shocking after the stillness before. “What did he (Caine) give me?” Hodges says in the film’s commentary. “He gave me the film in many ways. If he hadn’t made this scene work it would have been a horrible film.”
Hodges showed early mastery of sound design in this, his first major film. A screw going slowly into Carter’s brother’s coffin lid, the creak of the landlady’s rocker as she listens to Jack’s half of the “phone sex” conversation with his bosses’ moll Anna (Britt Ekland), and the chill wind echoing around the bluff, concreted concourses of the soulless estates, accompanied only by the throaty growl of the car Jack drives, all add great dramatic weight.
Roy Budd’s musical score is superb, a mixture of easy listening tracks heard in the background of the pubs and clubs, and of course the masterly main theme, “Jack Takes a Train,” as well as the Bach-like piece at the climax as Jack finishes his rampage of revenge on the coal slag filled Blackhall beach, forcing whiskey down Eric’s throat just as Eric did with Jack’s brother. Laughing maniacally as he tosses the shotgun away, Jack is brought down by a sniper’s bullet, the sniper the very man we saw across from him in the train carriage leaving London as he read, forebodingly, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. In the theme, the tabla takes the place of drums. The percussive line is insistent, like a train rolling over the tracks, slowing as the train pulls into the station. Double bass, electric piano and shaker add to the unusual mix. The harpsichord-like instrument providing the melody is a celesta. It provides a ghostly, melancholic sound to echo the theme of empty revenge. The entire score was created on a limited budget of £450.00 and recorded in London with Budd’s fellow musicians in his jazz trio, Geoff Cline on Bass, and Chris Careen (Drums and Percussion). Jack Fishman co-wrote the songs.
Get Carter‘s influence is widespread, from its dramaturgy, through its score, to its cufflink details. However, author Jim Smith, in Gangster Films, notes a word of caution:
“That a film as dark and condemning, as crisp and clever as Get Carter should have been co‑opted by ‘Cool Britannia’ is repellent. Get Carter is not cool, it’s cold but there is power and intoxication in that coldness and it is in that that the picture finds its own considerable power.”
It is a social drama, a thriller, a revenge tragedy in modern dress as stated earlier. It is not a leery, geezer caper, instead it uses real people in real locations. So in that spirit, let us remember the five-fingered tippler in the Great Northern Bar who glances up at Jack’s very particular order, and raise a pint "in a thin glass" to Get Carter.
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Mike Hodges’ screenplay for Get Carter. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only).
A conversation with writer/director Mike Hodges, by Maxim Jakubowski, Mulholland Books.
Mike Hodges, you’ve had a prestigious career making films, and in your seventies you pen your first novel. What prompted the change of direction?
For me writing a novel seems a logical extension rather than a “change of direction.” Over the years I’ve written and directed for both theater and radio, always venturing into territory I always knew I’d never be allowed to enter on film. I seem to recollect Kurt Vonnegut saying he had to cease writing because nothing in his imagination could contend with the reality of our accelerating insanity. I’m new to the literary game, so it’s too early for me to give up on the human comedy. The title of my novel says as much: Watching the Wheels Come Off. Unlike Vonnegut, I always use a crime story as the conveyor belt for ideas; crime seems to more easily hold our attention. On both film and page, human curiosity is the one thing I’ve always banked on, although I suspect it may be a diminishing human trait. We seem to be moving in larger and larger cultural swarms, with our collective moves being directed by increasingly Machiavellian marketing skills. Manipulation, exploitation, and human gullibility have always been the engines that drive my creative output; not sure quite why. I suspect it stems from having sampled all three in a childhood dominated by Roman Catholicism, an indoctrination process I managed to shed in my early teens, but not without a struggle. By the time I emerged from that trauma it seems my sense of humor had been considerably sharpened, from then on becoming a major tool in my survival kit. Not surprisingly, Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers. Only in Get Carter, with its odd shafts of dark humor, and, more fully, in my second film, Pulp, have I been able to exercise my bleak drollery. Hence the necessity for my literary output.
You’ll always be remembered for Get Carter. How did you first come across Ted Lewis’s novel?
It landed on the floor of my London apartment; only then it was called Jack’s Return Home. With it came a letter from film producer Michael Klinger asking if I’d be interested in adapting and directing it for the cinema. The back story to this is that, during 1968-69, I had written, produced, and directed two feature-length thrillers for television, Suspect and Rumour; Klinger had seen and liked them. He’d already successfully produced Roman Polanski’s first two English-speaking films: Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion. Needless to say, with that track record, I read Ted’s novel immediately. It was a unique book; way outside the usual British crime fare. I can’t say I realized it was the classic I now recognize but I knew immediately it could make a great film. I still have Klinger’s letter: It’s dated 27th January, 1970. It’s a date I still find hard to believe. On the 20th of July—a mere seven months later—I was shooting the opening scene in London and the following day Jack Carter on the train to Newcastle. Get Carter was completed in forty-five shooting days and was in the cinemas early the next year. I thought filmmaking was always going to be like that: decisions quickly taken and quickly acted on, instinct always in the driving seat. Nine feature films over the next forty years shows how wrong I was. Keeping instinct alive in an industry run largely by committees of incompetent and frightened executives is no easy matter.
A good proportion of your films are within the crime and mystery genre. What attracts you to it?
Crime is the litmus that shows what’s really going on below the surface. That’s why I’m attracted to it. Besides, as one myself, sinners interest me more than saints. The preparation for all my films in this genre, from the first, Rumour, to the latest, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, is rooted in the compost of intensive research. This habit came from my days in television documentary and current affairs. Get Carter is a good example of what I’m getting at. I’d never adapted a novel before and, because Ted Lewis hadn’t named the location of his story, I quickly decided it had to be one I knew. This was Newcastle. Despite the film being firmly based on a fiction, I still investigated the local crime scene and happened on [a crime] that was to influence the very fabric of the film: the Dolce Vita murder. This crime, committed two or three years earlier, somehow captured the sleaziness and corruption festering in the city’s underbelly: it even involved a hit man, already incarcerated, but who, like Jack Carter, had come up from London. My research led me to many of the locations used in the film, including the grim Gothic house occupied by Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne), which had also been the home of the real-life criminal behind the murder. The veracity of the film’s thrust was confirmed soon after its release when the city’s manager, the first ever appointed in England, was arrested and found guilty of corruption, a cancer that had spread to very top of the country’s establishment. So what sources drew me initially to this genre? They were probably Raymond Chandler’s novels (“Los Angeles has the personality of a paper cup”) and Hollywood B movies (Kiss Me Deadly). They showed me how to use the crime story as an autopsy on society’s ills.
Two of my personal favorites amongst your films, and also slightly less known compared to Get Carter and Croupier, are Pulp and Black Rainbow. How did they come about?
After the success of Get Carter, Michael Klinger offered me various projects, none of which appealed. I was also very anxious to get back to writing my own films, going back to where I’d started. Whilst it was agreed that [Michael] Caine, Klinger, and I wanted to work together again (eventually we formed the Three Michaels production company) I decided not to accept a script commission but to write one speculatively. It was the only way I knew to retain my sense of freedom and to ensure that my partners were really enthused by the results. In short, they would only proceed if they liked the script. The idea for Pulp came from many different sources. In the early 1970s I’d been severely shaken by local elections in Italy which revealed the existence of a neo-fascist political party and one that received strong support from the electorate. As a youngster of twelve I’d been horrified when the German concentration camps were opened up one by one, unmasking the infinite scale of human depravity. My childhood naivete (the assumption that mankind, having had its nose rubbed in the vileness of fascism, would ensure it was never resurrected) had curiously extended into my early thirties. What had compounded this naivete, I suspect, was my exposure to library film of both Hitler and Mussolini making their rabble-rousing speeches. They looked to be complete buffoons; Charlie Chaplin’s portrayal had been spot on. In close-up Il Duce took on the persona of a posturing bullfrog; one then wondered how he could possibly have led so many to embrace such a repugnant philosophy. But, of course, those speeches were not witnessed in close-up; they were delivered from balconies and podiums high above vast spaces filled with enthusiastic followers. Somehow all this morphed into a counterpoint film to Get Carter, on the surface a lighter comedic thriller but with the sinister undercurrents of fascism constantly breaking the surface. After six months a script emerged: Memoirs of a Ghost Writer. With it I doffed my cap affectionately to the B movies and pulp fiction I’d always loved. Quite rightly Pulp even became its eventual title. Mickey Rooney, Lizabeth Scott, and Lionel Stander were my attendant ghosts to a film genre long gone.
Black Rainbow was, like Pulp, written speculatively. It came directly from a nightmare shoot I’d endured two years earlier in North Carolina. Wherever I am in the United States, I’m an avid reader of the local newspapers. During my time in the Carolinas I read reports about workers who, having blown the whistle on breaches of safety, were beaten up and even murdered at the behest of the employers. It wasn’t the first time I’d come across such stories; there seemed to be a pattern across the United States. Not surprisingly this fact attached itself to my urgent desire to tell a story about the impending ecological meltdown. This, in turn, coincided with my growing passion for quantum mechanics, the unraveling of mysteries previously considered to be the sole domain of religion. For example: proof that particles can be in several places at the same time. Back in England I’d watched a stage medium by the name of Doris Stokes at work, becoming fascinated by the theatricality of her performance and the desire of her audience for confirmation of an afterlife. Somehow all these elements became welded together in my mind and I wrote Black Rainbow. The story centers on a medium (Rosanna Arquette) performing across the Bible Belt in the company of her alcoholic father (Jason Robards). However, instead of connecting with those on “the other side,” she suffers a time slippage and begins to predict deaths before they happen: she turns from medium into prophet and a threat to one employer in particular. A hit man is put on her tail. The film’s end scene explores that dictum of Marx: All that is solid melts into air. Some months after I’d finished the script my agent was lunching with John Quested, who had recently acquired Goldcrest Films, asking him what sort of projects he was looking to make. John immediately said, “Another Elmer Gantry.” My agent must have smiled. A year later I began shooting in Charlotte.
You write some of your own films, whereas others are penned by scriptwriters (who are also crime novelists) like Paul Mayersberg or Trevor Preston. I gather you work closely with them; how do you choose them?
Both Paul and Trevor are old friends of mine. I must confess to becoming weary of writing scripts, having completed so many that never went into production. Also I must admit that screenplays are not a literary form I relish; their function is, of necessity, an ill-defined one. So I was much relieved when Film Four approached me to direct Croupier. The commissioning executive had also produced my first stage play so we already knew each other. Obviously he and Paul had talked about possible directors and my name came up. Even when reading the then-current draft (when I eventually started shooting, it was draft number nine), I was beside myself with excitement. The casino had often been used in films as a metaphor for many things, even life itself, but never before had it seemed so relevant as then/now. Turbo capitalism was racing away with all our lives; it was to be a decade before it finally crashed with us in it. To me this outcome was self-evident even then, so I relished the idea of making this film. My memory is hazy about how long Paul and I worked on the script; probably close to a year before we finally got the green light. We met every few weeks/days to iron out the problem of the croupier also being a novelist. Paul solved that by thinking of him as two people, Jack the Croupier and Jake the Novelist-to-Be; almost certainly a bad one who, like many other bad ones, hits the jackpot. Most importantly we managed to retain the use of a voice-over against some opposition within Film Four. I had used the technique in previous films (among them Rumour and Pulp) and knew how effective it could be. But with a difference: I had Clive Owen, now cast as Jack Manfred, learn the lines, thereby allowing me to move the camera freely, knowing his voice would fit perfectly. Another major change was the location of Jack’s apartment and the casino; in the original, both were aboveground until I suggested we locate them in basements. When the script was published Paul dedicated it “to the memory of Jean-Pierre Melville.” Enough said.
By the time I was shooting Croupier, Trevor Preston had already shown me the script of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. I liked it a lot, its sparseness and lack of cumbersome back story. Once Clive and I had established that we enjoyed working together, I asked him to read it. With him on board I was convinced we could get it financed. The fly in the ointment came when Film Four took against Croupier and declined to distribute it. I managed to save it from going straight to video by getting the British Film Institute (who were embarking on a re-release of Get Carter) to agree to a small- scale U.K. distribution. An American friend, and an ardent fan of the film, Mike Kaplan, was seeking a U.S. distributor. After close on two years he found one. The film garnered wonderful reviews, word-of-mouth was strong, and the film played throughout the summer. Until this happened I’ll Sleep was kept waiting in the wings, unable to be financed. Once again it was Mike Kaplan who came to the rescue. We started shooting four years after I’d originally shown the script to Clive, only by now he was a major star. That does help. The film starts with a criminal act of buggery, a male rape, a scene which reverberates throughout the film and is the springboard for all that follows. And what follows is a story of revenge that roughly corresponds to that of Get Carter. The victim of the rape is a small-time thief and drug dealer but, more importantly, the younger brother of a serious criminal, Will Graham. Graham returns from his self-imposed rural exile to investigate the mysterious suicide of his brother. There the similarity to Carter ends. It shifts gear, instead examining the homoerotic/homophobic duality of gangland masculinity and that essential ingredient: revenge. When it comes to that, Jack Carter doesn’t hesitate; Will Graham does. Just for a moment. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead has the same quiet simplicity of Croupier. Indeed, they’ve recently been released together in a double DVD. At the end of his postscript to the published script of Croupier, Paul writes: “When we’d finished the voice-over dubbing, Clive Owen said to me, ‘How do you see Jack’s state of mind at the end?’ I said, ‘He’s mad.’ Clive said, ‘Thank you.’” What more can I add?
Simon King visits Newcastle to chat to Mike Hodges about the transformation of the Newcastle surrounds since the filming of Get Carter 45 years ago. Contains some nice now and then footage. Shown on The One Show on 12th July 2016.
Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island) on Get Carter.
MICHAEL CAINE TEACHES ACTING IN FILM
“The theatre is an operation with the scalpel, I think movie acting is an operation with the laser.” Michael Caine teaches in this documentary the art of movie acting to five young actors. He talks about how to perform in close-ups and extreme close-ups. He warns about the continuity dangers of smoking cigarettes or fiddling with props. He talks about screen tests, special effects, men who are cavalier about your safety and speaking to someone who is off camera. The movie camera is your best friend and most attentive lover, he says, even though you invariably ignore her (BBC, 1987).
Here are several photos taken behind the scenes during production of Mike Hodges’ Get Carter. Photographed by Bob Penn © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer British Studios. Source: Neil Hendry, Official Website of Ian Hendry. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
This article originally appeared on Cinephilia & Beyond.