Michael Caine’s latest movie, Harry Brown, is, according to the man himself, about the kind of man that Jack Carter might have been if he survived to a ripe old age.
I have no idea whether the film is any good or not, but it has done is get me thinking about Get Carter, one of the best damn crime flicks you’re ever likely to watch. And more surprising because of Caine.
It’s easy to forget sometimes just how damn good Michael Caine is. He’s so recognisable for being himself and he’s done so many bad movies that when he comes back at you with an incredible performance, you just sit there open mouthed.
Get Carter is one of those performances. It is literally iconic. You watch Caine and you think, “That man is cool.” And he is. In the best sense of the word. There is no posing for Carter. He exists and he does what he does. He is the UK equivalent of a man like Parker in the way that Caine plays him. His eyes are ice-cold, his expression unchanging and his determination absolute. Nothing will stand in his way.
What brought home the absolute brilliance of Caine’s performance was going to see Get Carter on stage at the Fringe a couple of years back. It was a good show, but what was interesting was to see how the lead interpreted the character of Jack Carter. On stage, he was bluster and anger and sheer rage. This character was heading towards his own doom. He was out of control. He created his own troubles and you could see it in every move he made.
It was a great and affecting performance, but what works so well with Caine is that you just don’t know what he’s going to do next or how he’s going to react. He is unreadable. All you know is that you don’t want to be on the wrong side of him. Say the wrong thing and there will be no warning. He will strike back. Fast, deadly and brutal. Beneath that cool exterior, the rage that the stage projected is bubbling up and threatening to explode, but Caine’s Carter keeps it so reeled in that when it is unleashed, you – and those around Carter – are shocked and horrified.
But it is interesting to think about the different ways in which characters are interpreted – not just in film, but in the minds of readers – and how that affects their actions. The Carter on stage went through a very similar (with some minor variations) journey to the character of Carter on film. And yet the emphasis was very different. The conclusions drawn were different. The Carter on stage was a thug, a loudmouth, a man filled with anger. The Carter on film is a bastard, through and through, self centred and yet curiously indifferent to the world around him if it stays out of his way. Were it not for the fact that his family are affected by the machinations of local criminal elements, Carter would just shrug his shoulders and walk on his way. He wouldn’t hurt anyone, wouldn’t even notice them. There is a beautiful scene where a fella Carter knows has been beat to shit. Its Carter’s fault. Carter offers some money to the fella because, well, its in part Carter’s fault this happened. The fella moans about his girlfriend is coming down from Liverpool, and what’s she gonna think when she sees him like this?
Caine, dismissvely throw the money, says, “Here, go get yourself a course in Karate” and walks. He doesn’t care. He’s giving the guy money because its Carter’s fault and he knows you have to take responsibility. But in his cold heart, he truly does not give a shit.
Carter is one of my favourite on screen tough guys. Truly, he’s the real deal. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Get Carter is probably one of the most perfect British crime movies ever made. Not a false step in there.
And one of the coolest opening themes you’ll ever hear:
PS – you’ll notice I didn’t mention the Stallone interpretation of this character. There’s a very good reason for that. But if you want me to explain it, you’ll just hear a lot of bad-tempered swear words…