After almost 50 years following its release, the crime-fiction film Get Carter is now regarded as both a gem of the noir genre, and also a treasure of British cinema. True Crime News Weekly publisher, Serkan Ozturk, takes a philosophical look at a Michael Caine classic.
A revenge tale, the 1971 movie follows its protagonist – Jack Carter, a gangster ‘working’ in London – as he returns to the northern, industrial town of Newcastle to uncover the truth of his brother Frank’s suspicious death. The decaying urban landscape of Tyneside is very much to the fore in a story steeped in the mythological symbols which perhaps loom largest over the genre of crime-fiction: the return of the prodigal son and the slow descent into The Fall, from which, to suit these ambiguous times, Carter the outsider will not escape.
Carter, in the tradition of noir set by Hammett, Chandler and Cain, is a loner, self-sufficient, and extremely able in delivering violent results against his foes. Where Carter differs from his American counterparts however is that he has no time at all for recognised figures of authority. For instance, Chandler’s hard-boiled private-dick character Marlowe in outings such as The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely, will, on occasion strike up tense although mutually serving relationships with members of the police. Such a thought, it seems, would never cross the mind of Jack Carter.
It is, perhaps, better to describe Get Carter, as a neo-noir film, which although heavily influenced by the noir genre of the previous two decades, or so, constructs a much more brutal sketch of modern life. It must be remembered that the 1970’s ushered in an era that continues to this day, with increased trade liberalisation and the concurrent dismantling of organised labour unions helping drive up unemployment and the loss of welfare programs, and thus greater urban alienation. It follows, then, that there is a certain hopelessness, a form of bleakness, which precedes any violent act. The people who welcome Carter ‘home’ are stand-over men, corrupt businessmen, boarding house proprietors, prostitutes, and pornographers.
The film, has, in time attained a certain cultural cachet, or cult status, which is most likely due to its unblinking depiction of Carter’s descent into The Fall. Anthropological knowledge and psychoanalysis suggest that The Fall appears as the existential embodiment of the dynamics of darkness experienced by a human from its youngest age.
In the genre of crime-fiction, it is darkness that shadows every turn, which hovers at an uneasy distance over any semblance of luminosity. The town of Newcastle is representative of an abyss for Carter; the deeper he gets into the mystery of Frank’s death, the more blood he gets on his hands, the closer to futility he gets.
Cultural investigation reveals The Fall originally suggested to archaic human thought the theme of dangerous fatal time, moralised in the form of punishment. However, due to a pessimistic ascetic current, thought to have spread from India, through most of the Near East, before reaching the West, the knowledge of death and awareness of temporal anguish was replaced by the much less significant problem of the knowledge of good and evil. For this, we have Plato, as much as Christian-Judeo thought to blame.
And within this, we have one of the overarching myths prevalent in much of the crime-fiction ouvre: that of the inherent wickedness of women. In Get Carter, Jack saves his most callous act of revenge for Margaret; a sex worker he blames for getting his niece involved in an amateur pornographic film. Carter loads up a ‘hot-shot’ of heroin which he then injects into Margaret’s naked body as she lies in a bathtub.
At this moment, one may question why femininity is subjected to such beatings by crime-fiction. Well, the metaphor of The Fall itself is bound up with symbols of darkness and disturbance. Such nyctomorphic symbols at their core allude to a schema of flowing water, or water so black its depth will remain unknown. Let us not forget that the idea of the ‘gothic’, is, in essence represented by the dark, lustral waters which flow throughout Poe’s writings and poetry. Dark water is also blood. It streams through Fall of the House of Usher until the “final blood-red moon which now shone vividly through.”
The symbol of blood is overpowering, as it is both the master of life and death but also in the menstruation cycle of women, it is the first human clock. Woman – impure, through her menstrual blood – becomes responsible for original sin. This blame on femininity for The Fall can also be viewed as a euphemisation; in that the irrepressible terror of the abyss (nothingness, death) is ‘reduced’ to a fear of female genitalia, and of intercourse, where masculinity valorised as strength must (and can) dominate.
It is, in all likelihood, extremely apt that Carter’s almost mythical hero’s journey home, is chillingly ended when a lone sniper guns him down from afar. Carter, walking somewhat happily along a dark, overcast, Easington beach, is killed by a single bullet to the head whilst in the middle of throwing away a large gun with which he has disposed of Frank’s remaining murderers. The film’s final scenes close with Carter’s body lying limp, waves washing over, grey clouds and water intermingling. The proper return home he was seeking, maybe? Those who seek violence, actually seek death for themselves, could conceivably be the ultimate message of this flawed, yet vital film.
Oh, and one more thing. You could also just watch it as it’s got Michael Caine in it. And he’s good, innit?