As he approaches 90, Michael Caine is the beloved, cuddly elder statesman of the UK film industry. For years it was traditional to poke fun at him for deigning to star in silly Eighties sequel Jaws 4: The Revenge as a beach bum whose seaplane is chomped by the great white. The imminent rerelease of 1971’s Get Carter – a brutal gangster tale that still feels queasily compelling over 50 years later – is a useful reminder that there was a time when Caine could have played the shark.
His Jack Carter is unblinking, single-minded and lethal: a London gangland enforcer returning to his long-abandoned stomping ground of Newcastle to investigate the suspicious death of his brother.
This belated journey home becomes the opening titles, an extended train ride north where Carter kills time with Farewell, My Lovely. Mobbed-up heavies are not commonly known for their reading habits – and there is no mention of Raymond Chandler in Ted Lewis’s 1970 source novel Jack’s Return Home – so this feels like director and screenwriter Mike Hodges tipping his hand.
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Carter has been warned off this revenge mission by his bosses so he is operating solo, private eye-style (he even wears a trenchcoat). This will not be an undercover operation. His teetotal older brother Frank supposedly died in a drunken car crash, but Carter is convinced there is another explanation, and retrieves a family heirloom shotgun to help expose it.
As he prowls the cramped streets and crowded pubs, this tall and urbane incomer is unashamedly conspicuous, noising up local hoods to see how they react in search of what will be a terrible truth.
Carter is capable to the point of being callous, Caine curdling his natural screen charisma into something impressively hard-boiled. Only his traumatised niece Doreen (Petra Markham) seems able to unlock anything like compassion in him. But as Carter tears through rackets and henchmen, leaving collateral damage in his wake, redemption never seems to be a conceivable option.