“Small change got rained on, with his own .38.”
— Tom Waits, Small change
The 1971 original, Get Carter, directed by Mike Hodges and staring a then young, dangerous and potent Michael Caine, is a prism by which both our current moment and the middle of the 20th century can be contextualized.
Caine plays a gangster, drug addicted (probably to speed but it’s not specific) who goes up from London to Newcastle to find out who killed his brother.
The film is similar in style to a generation of films in which as pre-special effects artifacts that rely on tightly condensed small frame action, and exhibit an attitude of just the facts, Hardboiled Existential gloom. George Seagal in Berlin as a Cold War spy movie protagonist is a good example as is Caine in The Ipcris File.
There are a few explosions in these films and the effects, as such, are both tame and simplistic but mostly the idea is atmosphere – a sense of dread, paranoia and a kind of quiet in which the “underground” is operating more or less on Main Street or in this case, The High Street.
This in turn echoes responses to and reflections of Weimar as if Doblin’s Berlin Alexander Platz was recontextualized as a cross between Dashiell Hammett and a satire of Hardboiled fiction.
This is in opposition to the bloated if not morbidly obese special effects heavy contemporary “epics” which descend from Jaws, Close Encounters, and Star Wars. Jaws at least takes a bite out of the idea that characters can have nuance and are based on contradiction, where as all subsequent efforts subordinate character to computer generated spectacle.
Unable to rely on CGI, film makers of the early 70s had to rely instead on trying to tell a story. They did not always succeed but it was part of the equation.
The original film or Ur film for this sensibility is the Bogart version of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.
In it the “hero” is sketchy – morally ambiguous if ultimately better than the authentically evil villains.
What these artistic gestures have in common is a post World War 1 realization that the world was a circular firing squad in which gangsters were essentially no different from the people “elected” to run the government.
If there were moral distinctions they were in the end distinctions without a difference.
Hammett’s world, the world of America as it leapt from empire of one continent to co-imperial hegemon with England, was utterly ruthlessly corrupt and violent.
Hammett of course as a former Pinkerton Agent and a Baltimore native who had worked the rails in Maryland, knew first hand that corporate fascists had no qualms about breaking strikes by breaking heads. He knew they ran the banks, the press, City Hall and that the police were just another gang. In this America honesty was for sale along with “Christmas cards in June.”
This vision was always in conflict with the Bedford Falls propaganda which had its moments of authenticity but unlike Hammett and later Ray Chandler, ignored the sinister reality. Hammett could be romantic and Chandler could admit love existed but neither of them were going to ignore that more often than not it came wrapped in a box found outside in an alley behind the mortician’s showroom.
Cain’s Carter of course carries all of that as cultural baggage but also stands inside the world of Vietnam – the world of “Vietnam” in turn is Nixon, and Dead Kennedys and dead martyred preachers; it is a world sinking into a swamp of industrial scale genocide, lies and sadomasochistic displays of opera in which politicians float above the terrified crowd like obscene parade floats. It is Dr. Strangelove and the Wild Bunch. As always feel free to make your own list but Get Carter is atop a cultural totem that says Abandon All Hope Ye Who enter Here.
This was the era where it was assumed a priori that everything – every facet of society – was rushing off a cliff. This did not stop the machine from selling counter propaganda as after all Get Carter is from the same time frame as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar but it’s Caine’s Carter that contemporary auteurs and assorted charlatans and posers claim as a cinematic and cultural touchstone.
What sets the film apart are two key plot points.
The first is the much remarked upon cool if not calculating indifference Caine’s Carter exhibits in regards to violence and the cost paid by “innocent” accessories.
A bartender he hires as a look-out gets a beating from the local gangsters, and one of the gangster’s moll ends up “accidentally” dead at the hands of her in theory friends and yet, in addition to Carter’s indifference to her fate, the deeper issue is that her fate was locked in long before he found out about her depravity guilt and complicity.
Who then was responsible?
Carter of course, who has locked her in the boot of her car, which the gangsters push into the harbor so she drowns (and as an even more cynical layer, the fact is, not only do they not know they’ve killed her, and Caine is indifferent but, it is likely that her body and the car will never be discovered) and of course the gangsters who used her but then of course who are they all together if not the foot soldiers of the empire determined to resist any and all efforts to end organized crime.
And then of course what is organized crime except an adjunct to the system which declares itself at every turn to be the agent of decency and the rule of law.
This of course is the morality of epic mass murdering gangsters using The Bill of Rights for target practice; the goons and professional thugs, employing mouth breathing knuckle dragging psychopaths to destroy the world in order, they claim, to save it.
What, asks Carter, rhetorically if not savagely, do you want me to do about it.
Which brings us to the end in which despite Carter bringing down the goons who had murdered his brother and tricked out his niece, ends with the not-hero being executed by a contract killer who had been hired by one of Carter’s victims and was guilty of being a sociopath trafficking in underage porn, prostitution, blackmail and whatever else seemed lucrative, but managed what amounts to a last gasp from the grave and arranged for the protagonist to die.
The circular firing squad does its job.
“Shakespeare” tragedies the saying goes are done when the stage is littered with corpses.
So too does “civilization.”
In our time, we get the papier-mache version of this with the drink the cultural Kool aid cadres extolling the brutal possibilities of characters in Game of Thrones being killed off. As if that renders the otherwise utterly facile imitation Lord of the Rings product authentic.
Get Carter of course is part of the brief moment when Hollywood had slipped away from the original despots who had run it as a vast plantation and had not yet been colonized by the global entertainment empires.
Cinema as Art, as complex, even as failures but interesting failures, was a crack in time closed down with the advent of the “Blockbuster.”
Periodically, like an accident at a secure research facility, an actual work of Art escapes and enters the cultural bloodstream.
But the drones with their syringes and media induced comas are quickly on the scene and the possibility of liberating contagion is suppressed.
Carter lies dead on the shore within sight of the automated industrial system; he is about to throw away the symbol of his revenge when fate intrudes and the sinister truth moves on to whatever is next.