Showing posts with label Postwar Noir. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Postwar Noir. Show all posts

24 April 2024

Get Carter (Brit noir)


Another movie post, because I’m still in the geosynchronous orbit of Tarantino’s brain candy, Cinema Speculation.

Brit noir hit its stride in the immediate postwar years, just as American film noir did, but the Brits had an extra serving of world-weary.  American tough-guy pictures in the late 1940’s laid on the cynicism and corruption, with no small helping of conspiracy and nuclear paranoia (Kiss Me Deadly took the atom bomb metaphor literally); the British style was more inward and furtive, and just plain creepy.  American noir was about lost innocence, Brit noir was about losing your soul. 

Carol Reed directed Odd Man Out in 1947, The Fallen Idol in ‘48, and The Third Man in ‘49, which is three for three.  Along about the same time, Brighton Rock, with a screenplay by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan, made Richard Attenborough a star in his early twenties.  No Orchids for Miss Blandish – called “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever shown,” a review that only baits the hook - broke box office records. 


They were doing something right.  This was the period that saw David Lean’s two terrific Dickens adaptions, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and the heartbreaking Brief Encounter.  The famous and successful Ealing comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico, and Whisky Galore! – released in the U.S. as Tight Little Island – all of them did well in the States.

Crime pictures seem to come in cycles.  Heist movies are always in fashion, for example, but after the late 1940’s, Brit noir took a sabbatical, and then came back with a roar in the early Sixties.  Stanley Baker in The Criminal (why was Stanley Baker never that big a star outside the UK?), a picture Joe Losey made after he was blacklisted and left the States.  The very strange and violent Never Let Go, with Peter Sellers as the psychotic heavy – Sellers later said he was channeling Rod Steiger, but didn’t mean it as a compliment.  All Night Long, Patrick McGoohan as Iago, in modern dress, a jazz drummer.  The Mark, Stuart Whitman an accused child molester; Night Must Fall, Albert Finney an axe murderer; and Victim, a ground-breaking noir, with Dirk Bogarde a gay lawyer who allows himself to be blackmailed. 

Not to mention the beginning of Bond, with Dr. No, and spy stories suddenly in vogue.  Again, the more kitchen-sink, hard-luck, wiseguy pictures took a back seat, glamorous and exotic was in. 

And then came the ‘70’s. 

Villain, Richard Burton in a remake of White Heat, all the gay subtext upfront and center – with Ian McShane, of all people, as Big Dick’s boytoy.  The way McShane tells the story, Richard told him, “You remind me of Elizabeth.”  McShane lets a beat go by, all innocence.  “I guess that made the kissing easier,” he says.  (Burton has to be seen to be believed, in Villain: the heavy gold jewelry, the paisley loungewear, open to his navel, the chest hair and the florid jowls, it’s a gay parody, pathetic and offensive and real as a dime, in its own crazy way.)

Which brings us to Get Carter, released in 1971.  First off, Michael Caine.  Introduced to major audiences in Zulu, he slipped effortlessly through the keyhole with The Ipcress File (not to be upstaged by seasoned pros like Gordon Jackson and the impeccably reptilian Nigel Green), and Alfie made him a bankable star.  The thing to remember about Michael Caine is that he was ours, it felt like he belonged to us, that cheeky attitude, and the accent.  For a generation of a Brit kids (not that I’m one), he turned the class system – where the way you speak is destiny – inside out.  He was a bloody Cockney, and he was suddenly the new archetype, much to his own surprise.  Secondly, the source material, a hard-boiled pulp novel by Ted Lewis called Jack’s Return Home, which rocketed to commercial success, and almost single-handedly established the Brit neo-noir.  Third, there was the director, Mike Hodges.  Carter was his debut feature, and truth be told, he’s never made another movie as crackling and acid.

The story’s a revenge tragedy.  Jack, the Michael Caine character, is muscle for the London mob.  His brother Frank is killed in a car crash, back home in Newcastle.  Jack travels up from the Smoke, to go to the funeral, and once he’s back, he smells a rat.  Somebody staged Frank’s murder to make it look like an accident.  Things go downhill from there, Jack being an agent of chaos, and by far the meanest bastard in a place seething with snakes.

Two things in particular stand out.  One is that Michael Caine plays Jack without any apparent emotional affect.  He isn’t simply remorseless; he has no sympathy for anybody.  I’d never seen anything like it, and certainly not from Michael Caine.  Almost always, a name actor will play to the audience, a nod and a wink, to show you the guy’s got a heart of gold under his gruff exterior.  (There’s a moment in Sharky’s Machine, where Burt Reynolds breaks character and goes all Aw, Shucks! on you, and almost blows the whole picture.  Burt, the director, shouldn’t have allowed Burt, the movie star, to pander.)  Caine is having none of it.  He doesn’t even pretend that Jack has an ounce of pity.  There’s one moment, late in the story, where Jack is watching a dirty movie, and recognizes who’s in it – I can’t tell you who, without giving it away – but his face is impassive, while his eyes leak tears.  Amazing bit, too.  In context, it shows you that Jack isn’t in control, that his stony mask has a fatal cost, but even so, the mask never really slips.  Jack has such a tight grip on himself, he can’t see he’s let his soul slip through his fingers.

The second thing is the visual affect of the picture, the way it’s shot.  The cinematographer said later his main contribution was the lighting and the exposures, and that it was director Mike Hodges who was responsible for the camera work, the shot setups and the look of the film.  (Which might remind you of Ridley Scott, on The Duellists, working as his own cameraman.)  The visual style, in Get Carter, is foreshortened and claustrophobic.  The movie starts with a zoom in, against the London skyline, at night, and ends with a zoom out, from a lonely shingle of beach.  In between, the tight zoom shots squash you up against the lens, shot from a distance, but pulled in close.  The whole picture has a Peeping Tom feel to it, and since a major plot point turns out to be pornography and sex traffic, it follows that the visual context is voyeuristic.  The sudden, savage violence has that same pornographic quality, that we’re watching, but more disturbing because it just boils up out of the earth, the random nature of the characters, bad luck and bad genes and bad choices.  You’re too close to look away.     

Get Carter cast a long shadow.  You see its influence.  It turned a corner, and afterwards you couldn’t go back.  Probably its most direct heir is The Long Good Friday, with that other Cockney, Bob Hoskins.  That’s another column.