14 July 2021

The Sound of Bow Bells

I first saw Michael Caine in Zulu, but he didn’t stick, not like Nigel Green’s stern Color-Sergeant, or James Booth’s cheeky slacker, Pvt. Hook.  Caine had in fact auditioned to play Hook, but the director Cy Enfield cast him as the junior lieutenant, Bromhead.  Caine later said it was lucky Enfield was a Yank; a Brit director would never have cast him as an upper-class officer, not when his accent betrayed him as a Cockney lad.


Then in 1965, The Ipcress File was released.  Alfie, a year later, made him a name, and Shirley MacLaine hired him for Gambit.  Those three pictures essentially established him as a star, and established the character he so often played, insolent, a little below the salt, a striver with an ironic sensibility, and somehow detached from his own self-regard.  Ipcress, though, was the movie that put him front and center, at least for me personally, and he played Harry again in Funeral in Berlin and Billion-Dollar Brain.  Not quite a franchise like the Bond pictures, they seemed a good deal less calculated.


Bob Hoskins remarked that Caine basically opened the door for working-class stiffs.  Before him, you had to mimic the posh.  Roger Moore, who hailed from Lambeth, not far from Southwark, where Caine grew up, had to get rid of his speech patterns, which in Britain are destiny.  (The most famous Cockney to reinvent himself is of course Cary Grant, a character, a disguise, a second skin.)


The trick of Michael Caine is his natural authenticity, his transparency.  He’s not pretending to be anything but what he is, although acting is play.  Caine, like Bob Hoskins, is recognizably not Oxbridge, the Royal Shakespeare, or the soothing tones of the BBC.  His voice identifies him.


He’s got over sixty years in the business, but earlier on, in 1971, he made the movie that for me personifies him.   You can’t imagine anybody but Michael Caine playing Jack in Get Carter.


The movie is more nihilist than the Ted Lewis novel it’s based on, which is going some, because Ted Lewis could be as hardboiled as they come, but Get Carter is a particular kind of Brit noir.  You could cast back to Brighton Rock or Odd Man Out, or the truly odd Never Let Go – Peter Sellers as a psychotic gang boss – or look ahead to The Long Good Friday.  Richard Burton did Villain, a remake of White Heat, the same year Get Carter came out.  More recently, Essex Boys (2000), with Sean Bean, or Tom Hardy’s astonishing double turn as the Kray twins in Legend (2015).

What they have in common isn’t the psycho business, so much, or scorn for convention, but the attitude that conventions are irrelevant.
  The suckers, the punters, play by the rules; apex predators could care less.


Get Carter has a deceptively simple premise.  A legbreaker for the London mob goes back home to Newcastle for his brother’s funeral.  They haven’t actually spoken for years, but when Jack realizes his brother’s death wasn’t an accident, the cover story unravels, and everything that follows has a Greek inevitability.  Caine plays Jack with an icy fury, glacial and retributive.  He says he based the character on the dead-end he might himself have become, a ghost of his own childhood environment.  Jack is utterly existential, shown by his actions, never reflective.  The most startling scene, for my money, after repeated and grueling violence, comes late in the movie, when Jack is watching a pornographic film clip – the contents of which I can’t reveal – and while his face is still and empty of emotion, he’s leaking tears.  The character is clearly, and fatally, compromised. 


Get Carter was the director Mike Hodges’ first feature, and he wrote the screenplay.  The cinematographer was Wolfgang Suschitzky, who says he waited for the light, and set the exposure.  The rest is Hodges.  This is generous of him to say, because the look of Get Carter is very specific.  It begins with a slow zoom in, to the lit upper floor of a dark London highrise, and ends with a slow zoom out, from a deserted Newcastle beach.  In between, most of it seems to be shot in tight zoom.  Not a moving lens, but already cranked in tight, so the perspective is flattened, and any peripheral background is cut off.  This has the effect of squashing the movie in your face, so it’s voyeuristic, and claustrophobic.  And because the violence is seen both at a remove, but intimately, by the camera, it’s pornographic. 


This is a clear esthetic choice.  The shooting method reflects the movie’s objective content.  Pornography is the story hook, and a visual correlative.

We will, in charity, pass over the painful remakes.  The original is the one to see, and in a very real sense, it’s sui generis.  You can’t do better.  This is Michael Caine epitomized; this is visceral, committed movie-making, as if the fate of the human condition depended on it.  


  1. Love Michael Caine from ZULU to IPCRESS to THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and SLEUTH and FUNERAL IN BERLIN (to name a few of my favorites). My wife and I just saw GET CARTER for the first time the other night and it was riveting. We both agreed only Michael Caine could have pulled off that role, a despicable person you’re rooting for. The scene you mentioned, him watching the film, was outstanding. The scene of him watching the white Sunbeam (that’s a car, y’all) splash into the drink and knowing what’s in the trunk was chilling.

  2. I watched & loved all the Michael Caine movies based on Len Deighton books. His ALFIE was sui generis, too - yes, there were other rotters in British and American cinema, but like GET CARTER, he was the one who could play a despicable person you're rooting for. It was all in the attitude.

  3. I only saw GET CARTER last year. Very impressive. I thought one of the cleverest things in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy was having Caine play Alfred. Making the butler a cockney made a huge difference.

    When he played an officer in Zulu he had to figure out how to play an aristocrat, so modeled the portrayal on Prince Phillip.

  4. I'm dying to see GET CARTER now! Caine was great in the Batman trilogy. I've seen Caine even playing an American which he actually does quite well.

    My favorite cockney actor is Jason Statham. He's on my laminated list for sure.

  5. Forgot to mention... Glad you included Bob Hoskin, who I ADORED. He and Caine were great together in Monda Lisa.

  6. I enjoy Michael Caine, but I've never liked anything better than The Ipcress File and its immediate sequel, Funeral in Berlin. Billion Dollar Brain was a dud of a book, so it was difficult to do anything with it. I hardly recall Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in Saint Petersburg.

    I'm otherwise out of the mainstream. Alfie and Blame It on Rio left me cold and other films, lukewarm. So it's peculiar that I like Michael Caine but mainly for a pair of movies.

    Which suggests I really need to see Get Carter.


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