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“Get Carter” – the best British gangster film ever made despite alcoholism

Michael Caine playing his own ghost in Get Carter

The first time I ever paid attention to film directing as a child was watching the British ABC TV arts series Tempo.

One episode I saw was so visually stylish and so vividly edited that I actually went to the TV Times listings magazine and checked who the director was.

It was Mike Hodges and I looked out for his name ever after. He is 80 years old in nine days time.

He directed the wonderful and little-seen 1969 Thames TV thriller Rumour (if ever any film were ripe for a re-make, this one is) and his first cinema movie was Get Carter (1971), arguably the best British gangster film ever made (although The Long Good Friday gives it a run for its money).

Michael Caine has said: “One of the reasons I wanted to make Get Carter was my background. In English movies, gangsters were either stupid or funny. I wanted to show that they’re neither. Gangsters are not stupid, and they’re certainly not very funny.” He said central character Jack Carter was the sort of person he might himself have become: “Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood; I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.”

Mike Hodges had originally written the script (based on Ted Lewis‘ novel Jack’s Return Homewith Ian Hendry in mind for the title role (in the finished film, he plays a subsidiary role as the henchman Eric Paice). But producer Michael Klinger wanted Michael Caine, by then already a bankable star.

Ian Hendry’s career had declined, he was alcoholic and in poor physical shape. The climactic chase scene between Caine and Hendry was shot in reverse order, with Hodges filming Hendry’s death first because he was worried Hendry would be too out of breath to play the death scene after running. Hendry’s jealousy of Caine’s success was apparently obvious on set and was made worse by his drinking. Hodges tried to rehearse the film’s racecourse scene between Caine and Hendry in their hotel the night before, but Hendry’s “drunken and resentful state” forced him to abandon the attempt.

Despite all this, Ian Hendry got a 1972 BAFTA Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor and Michael Caine, in one of his best film roles, got nothing.

Mike Hodges introduced a screening of Get Carter at the National Film Theatre in London last night, part of their celebrations of the hundredth birthday of cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (who was in the audience and, according to Mike Hodges, still “leaps up stairs like a gazelle”).

The reason Hodges chose Suschitzky to shoot Get Carter was because he remembered seeing a 1963 movie The Small World of Sammy Lee starring the great Anthony Newley, on which Wolf also cinematographer.

“I loved that film,” Mike said last night. “It was shot in Soho and I was going to be shooting Get Carter in the North East of England, but it was in the same sort of milieu as Get Carter – a seedy underworld.

The Small World of Sammy Lee was shot in black and white. To show poverty and seedy world is comparatively easy in black and white: it lends itself to showing that kind of decay. But colour is a different matter.

“There had been a film called Up The Junction released a little earlier, in 1968. It had been a TV play in black and white, then they made a cinema film of it in colour, which made it look very glossy and beautiful and expensive and, although it was made in London in the same sort of sad, junky-ridden areas we were shooting in in the North East… Well, Wolf’s gift to me on Get Carter was to capture the seediness in colour.”

Thus are great movies made.

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