Having always heard that this was good [and having seen the Stallone remake], this was always on my list, but now that I’m on this jag of reading all this classic hard-boiled fiction—and watching the associated films—it quickly moved to the top of my list. And good thing, too, because it’s AWESOME.
We open with a shot of Michael Caine as Jack Carter in a room that seems to be hovering in space, as curtains close over him. This is meant to signify him as being alone in this space untethered to the rest of the world—and there's a lot of this stuff, but I’m going to let you discover the majority of it on your own. He’s at a party of London gangsters, watching a stag film as they advise him not to take this little trip he’s planning. They say that the police say the matter was satisfactorily explained, and Carter replies “And since when did that mean anything?” This little trip he’s planning is to Newcastle, town of his birth, to investigate the death of his brother. The gangsters are advising him not to go because, in turning against other gangsters, even those in a far-away city, he is going against the gangster code, and becoming a rogue vigilante.
Now a nice credit sequence on the train to Newcastle. We have many exciting shots shooting through rail tunnels [too bad about that dirty window they’re shot through], and we see Carter on the train, reading Raymond Chandler. While this is going on we hear the first of a fantastic gritty jazz-funk score by Roy Budd.
It’s clear that something is off from the moment Carter arrives. People at the local pub eye him warily. He stays at the house of his dead brother, Frank, and quickly finds Frank’s shotgun. We also meet Doreen, Frank’s teenage daughter. Virtually no one attends Frank’s funeral.
Doreen’s mother, Margaret, who wanders around town wearing short-shorts, doesn’t want to talk to Carter and wants nothing to do with Doreen. Carter meets this old associate, Eric, who is now in the employ of the kingpin Frank worked for, and was surely involved in his death. An additional layer of significance is added by the fact that Carter grew up with all these people, and they all know—and fear—him. And Caine is at the top of his early-career game, exuding coiled, still menace. And that’s my favorite!
SPOILERS > > >
In the first of many wonderfully satisfying sequences, Carter easily infiltrates the “high-security” mansion of the local kingpin, Kinnear, and simply waltzes into the room while they’re playing cards. Then follows a wonderfully tense game as Carter simply sits there and watches the game. While this is happening, Kinnear’s moll becomes intrigued by Carter and flirts with him, to the silent indignation of those trying to concentrate on their game.
Then Carter goes back to his rooming house and, in a very funny, unexpected scene, has phone sex with his girlfriend, Britt Eckland, right in front of the dowdy landlady—and please recall that NO ONE does 'dowdy' quite like the British. Then there's a chase that takes us through the hot, decadent, sexy, exclusive underground nightclubs of 1971 Newcastle [pictured below], then back to the boarding house. Now I have a question: Why, whenever intruders have ransacked an apartment, do they always leave the door ajar, so that the hero touches it slightly and it creaks open? Why can't they just pull it closed? I'll never know. Anyway, and I really shouldn't tell you this, because it's a funny surprise, but while the landlady is bitching about all the trouble he's brought to her home, he rips open her shirt—and they end up having sex. There's another little surprise in the morning, also with its own little jokes, and then Carter has to make a hasty exit in a car, and he makes a joke so funny I am forced to tell you: As Carter's running out to the car, the landlady, who now believes that they're very deeply in love [this film cannot be considered a feminist landmark], shouts out "You're coming back?" Carter, with a deadpan only Michael Caine can deliver, replies "How could I stay away?"
Okay, a lot of this is so good that I am simply unable to tell you about it—not to mention that there is a great deal of it I found fairly incomprehensible, so I couldn't tell you if I wanted to. I will inform you, however, that there is a scene of driving intercut with a sex scene, and the driving scene DOES include several shots of a female hand GRIPPING the gear shaft. It's hilarious and good-natured, however, rather than cheesy. Then a major scene that really supercharges the rest of the film. After porking Kinnear's girlfriend, she goes upstairs to take a bath, and Carter casually flicks on a film projector that's right there. He watches—the shot is composed with him leaning against a mirror, so we see his face as well as the film he's watching—and who should appear in the film, but Doreen. This means many things; one, Doreen is underage, and does not seem to be entirely happy to be in this film. Two, it occurs to Carter that THIS is probably central to why his brother got killed. And three, there is discussion that Doreen may actually be Jack's daughter, because of course he schtupped his brother's wife. All of this has time to percolate through your mind as the lengthy shot simply shows Caine as he watches the film, stony-faced, as tears slowly form in his eyes. There is no music and no sound but the rattle of the film running through the projector. This type of device is often used to tough gangster films—throw in one moment of emotional tenderness to bump up the energy of the rest of the story. Well, he's an example of it done expertly and it gleaning 100% of its desired effect. God, I want to get this movie back and watch it again right now!
< < < SPOILERS END
Okay, that's about all of the plot I'm going to tell you, because you need to see it for yourself—as well as the fact that I read a synopsis on Wikipedia and discovered that there were several key plot points toward the end that sailed right over my head. One thing I want to discuss, though, is the director's ingenious use of the industrial settings of Newcastle and Gateshead to amplify the themes of the story, as well as just to provide shocking, electrifying visuals. The frame above with the row houses leading down the huge factory looming in the background, tells us about the economy and sociology of this city—the lower-classes living in oppressive conditions under the crushing reality of having to work in one of these factories—more clearly than any exposition or dialogue could. The arrangement of the ships in the below frame gives a kind of monumentality to Carter and the gangster's confrontation. And then there's the incredible, surreal bleakness of this coal contraption toward the end of the movie, wherein a box of coal will slowly come up from the distance to pass our characters, and another will pass them, on the way down to this huge, scary-looking tower out in the roiling gray ocean. It truly looks like something from the end of the world. As a little aside, I listened to tiny bits of the commentary by director Mike Hodges, and he said that when he was originally scouting the location, there were a bunch of vans in the water down there, because people in the area were so poor that they would come in to attempt to scavenge the coal that fell out of this machine—and end up drowning!
Mike Hodges went on to direct the well-regarded Coupier and the, um, not-so-well-regarded Flash Gordon. He wrote the script for this based on the 1969 novel Jack's Return Home. The film was poorly received upon release in England [and ignored in the US, although some claim that this is because it was presented as part of a double-feature with a stinker], although in 1999 the BFI listed it as #16 on the Greatest British Movies of the 20th Century.
And you know what? It's REALLY GOOD! It's one of those things that ends up being so deep and rich in terms of character and sociology, it transcends what [I think of as] the "gangster film," a label that personally turns me off. Carter is an antihero who is really fun to get behind because he's already a criminal, so no tedious moral speeches to sit through, and you know he's not afraid to play dirty to bring down who he wants. Let's also not forget that this is young Michael Caine at his menacing best, and he brings a droll wit and intelligence to his performance and line readings.
The other thing that stands out is Hodges' intelligence and sense of humor as a writer and director. I've already mentioned the great use of industrial settings, but Hodges also used framing to show us how the moll's conversation is annoying the other gangsters, the thing that allows us to see Carter's face as well as the film he's watching that I mentioned, and a lot carefully-chosen shots that allow us to enjoy the way Carter is making his enemies squirm. An equal intelligence plays up a lot of the wit and visual jokes Hodges includes, like the way, after Carter has chased some enemies out into the street while nude—during a parade passing by the front of the house, which is funny enough—the next shot is of Carter archly buttoning the last button on his vest. The whole thing just zips along, is smart and funny, moving and exciting, and keeps you on the edge of your seat until the stupefying ending.
By all accounts, the Stallone remake is not the worst thing ever to happen to humanity, but is eminently missable, whereas this one is not, and I suggest you make arrangements to watch it immediately.
Ya not listen' to me, BOY!