Several years ago, I attended the Melbourne leg of a national speaking tour by Australian ex-pat journalist and humourist Clive James; back Down Under to promote his latest book, Cultural Amnesia. For some obscure reason that I cannot recall, during the audience interaction at the event, the subject of actor Michael Caine cropped up for discussion. James had the following to say about the English thespian:
“Michael Caine cannot act. He can’t act any better than you, he can’t act any better than me. He simply is.”
My own opinion is that Michael Caine can indeed act, but I do agree that Caine seems to be at his best when, as James put it,’ he simply is’. In other words, Caine is at his best when he doesn’t try to give a performance – or as it’s sometimes (paradoxically) called, ‘acting without acting’, where the player merely reveals another facet of his or her real-life personality.
For his part in the film Get Carter (1971), Caine obviously allowed the more ornery side of his personality to take over, as he appears as a ruthless, heartless bastard named Jack Carter, an English underworld figure whose general lack of humanity would make Margaret Thatcher look like a saint by comparison. Between his role in Get Carter and his much more recent outing as the eponymous vigilante in Harry Brown (2009), I’d hate to see Michael Caine angry in real life.
Get Carter takes place in Newcastle, England. Jack Carter is visiting for the funeral of his brother, Frank, whose death was allegedly subject to ‘accidental circumstances’. Jack, believing that foul play was the cause of brother Frank’s demise, hangs around Newcastle to find some answers. Basically, this is Michael Caine in full-tilt bastard mode. He’s playing a gangster. He’s extremely angry. Need I tell you that much mayhem ensues?
Directed by Mike Hodges (his feature directorial debut – he went on to direct Flash Gordon in 1980!), Get Carter had been recommended to me a number of years ago, and when I finally got around to experiencing it at the Astor the year before last, it surpassed even my loftiest expectations. The jazzy theme music by composer Roy Budd is absolutely sublime (it will be stuck in your ears for days, if not weeks, after the screening), the script is teeming with witty dialogue and sharp one-liners (it’s quite funny, in a dark sort of way, for a gangster film), and despite the occasional deadpan comic relief from Michael Caine, the whole affair is immersed by an air of impending danger. As the film moves closer to its climax, the feeling of suspense grips tightly and doesn’t let go until just before the closing credits.
Get Carter is a gangster film devoid of heroes and bereft of glamour. The world presented is as sordid as one could imagine, Newcastle in the early 1970s looked like it would’ve been a positively miserable place to live (at least insofar as it’s depicted in the film), and nobody seems to be safe; not even Doreen, Jack Carter’s niece (?), the most innocent character in the film. But aside from its aforementioned strengths in various areas, Get Carter would be a much less impressive film without the work of Michael Caine; it’s a character that you couldn’t imagine anybody else playing, as Caine certainly puts his stamp on the film.
Let me make this perfectly clear: if you have even the slightest interest in the gangster genre, or you simply relish truly great cinema, Get Carter is must-see material.
Following hot on the heels of Get Carter is Point Blank (1967), directed by John Boorman (who would later go on to helm Deliverance, 1972). Lee Marvin (in this instance, acting without acting – see how well it works?) brings to life the role of Walker, survivor of a violent double-cross, who is out to claim a sum of money (ninety-three grand, to be precise) that he feels is owed to him for his part in a heist. Just remember, kids, this was 1967 – these days, that would work out to be more than half a million dollars.
Point Blank doesn’t reveal much about its protagonist, thus leaving us with few clues as to Walker and his past – basically, it’s an existential crime/action/drama, and it’s the sort of film that even if you’ve seen it before, warrants a second look. It’s also worth catching if you want to see what cinema tough guys looked like back in the 1960s, before your standard Action Movie Hero became interchangeable with the latest air-brushed, Laser-White smiling, manicured-and-pedicured cover boy from Men’s Health magazine. Lee Marvin didn’t have the body of Adonis, nor was he blessed with matinee idol features, but he was authentic. Suspension of disbelief is not required when Lee Marvin, playing the role of Walker, slices through anybody who stands in his way. Also, check out that horrendous-looking scar that adorns Marvin’s stomach – how in the hell did he get that? Forget about a washboard abdomen, you want to impress the ladies with how tough you are, you get yourself marked up with one of those! [Ed’s note: couldn’t find an appropriate scar image, you’ll have to get along on Sunday to see it on the big screen, folks!]
Point Blank, when viewed along with Get Carter, also led me to believe that no crime drama from the late 1960s/early 1970s was truly complete unless the protagonist, in a search for somebody, wanders into a swingin’ nightclub, complete with groovy music and hip young things dancing their troubles away. It also happens to Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff (Don Siegel, 1968). Lesson learned: if anybody is chasing you, don’t run into a nightclub, especially if it’s full of hippies, beatniks and mods, because you’re going to get caught. Those kids have a habit of attracting trouble.
Get Carter and Point Blank are ideally-matched as a double feature. This is rare chance to experience two of the most acclaimed gangster films of their period in their original theatrical format. Screening Sunday June 1st, 7pm.
Written by Mark Vanselow for the Astor Theatre