After-Image: ‘Get Carter’ (1971)

❉ “Get Carter is one of the greatest British Films ever made. If you haven’t seen it stop reading this and go watch it now because I am about to blow the entire ending for you.”

Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry.

This time – and be warned, there be spoilers here: The Freedom of Jack Carter.

Get Carter is not a gangster film.

Although it frequently tops polls of the greatest crime films, best gangster films, best British Gangster films and although it is widely accepted as massive influence on Lock Stock and its bastard progeny, Get Carter is no more a gangster film than Star Wars is science fiction*. There are a number of clues to the real genre in which Jack Carter operates, some subtle – the whisky, the cigarettes, the shots on the streets at night – and some pretty blatant – the trenchcoat, the urban setting, hell, even the structure of the plot. The biggest giveaway is put right there on the screen for us, though. On the train journey which forms the title sequence, Jack Carter is reading a book. It’s front and centre in the frame – and it’s Farewell My Lovely.

Get Carter is a private eye film – in which the PI happens to be a gangster.

The plot is a clear investigation into the death of Carter’s brother. It follows the tropes of all the best PI films with the core difference than the main character is – as nearly everyone in Newcastle is at pains to point out – a total bastard. Given that Get Carter is breaking genre rules it seems only fair that we break the rules that we established at the start of this column: this time, we’re going to look at two frames. One from the very opening shot of the film, one from the very last.

At this point let me reiterate – Get Carter is one of the greatest British Films ever made. If you haven’t seen it stop reading this and go watch it now because I am about to blow the entire ending for you.

The opening shot of the film is this:

Carter is surrounded by darkness. Central to the frame we immediately understand he is Our Guy. This is the character we are going to follow – into the darkness. Carter does not know what has happened to his brother; he does not now where this journey is going to take him. And so we see him, in blackness, a small, indistinct figure. That this is an artefact of the optical processing which allows the slow zoom in to the window is, I think, irrelevant. Hodges, the director, shows enough understanding of image during the rest of the film to suggest that he welcomed this side effect. The colours are cold and distant; indeed throughout the whole film Carter wears black and blue, a walking bruise on the nicotine-brown skin of the 1970s Newcastle.

Perhaps more interesting is the window frames. Carter is trapped, behind bars. As we discover he is trapped by his employers, his life and his relationships; indeed, he is planning to escape to south America after he’s taken care of one last little bit of business (and how many times have we seen the world weary PI taking on one last case before quitting?). This image of characters shot through enclosing frames within frames repeats through the film: windows, the cage in a betting shop, the spokes of a devastating 8mm movie reel and even – in one bravura shot that hints of the gonzo sensibility that Hodges will bring to Flash Gordon – Britt Eckland fondling her breasts shot from between her own shins. Every character is trapped within the frame and there is no escape from their lives, no escape from the web of debts and lies and, finally, no escape from Jack Carter’s wrath.

Jack, of course, does find an escape. He deals with the goons sent to bring him back to London. He solves the mystery of his brother’s death and metes out his own version of justice on those responsible. Which brings us to the final shot:

It is a direct mirror of the opening shot. Jack, no longer centre frame, lies forgotten and abandoned to the right while the left of the frame where we instinctively read from is an empty sea-scape; the surrounding is bright and natural instead of dark and artificial. Perhaps most importantly, Jack is no longer trapped by the enclosing frames of those windows; he is no longer trapped by the unknown that surrounded him at the start of the film. In the close up immediately preceding this, it is odd to note that Jack Carter’s face is oddly serene. Ina  film that feels very much like a British premoniton of Chinatown, Carter finds something denied to Jake Gittes.

He has found peace.

Get Carter is a special film for me as I grew up in the North East. It records a world I can just remember ending as my childhood ended and I moved further south as my dad followed the work; the marching bands, the wastegrounds filled with rubble waiting for redevelopment; a world of smoky working men’s clubs where comics with impenetrable dialects and accents told jokes my parents laughed and I couldn’t understand; a world of arcades and penny slots and beer in dimpled glasses. The film is shot like a documentary, grounding Carter in a world that would vanish within a decade. The future does not belong to men to like Carter or even Cyril Kinnear; it belongs to men like Cliff Brumby. Perhaps Jack understands this on some level, for as he says:

“How would you have liked it if that had been your daughter being poked in that film? What would you have done then? Slags like your Sandra can get away with it. Can’t they?

“The Doreens of this world can’t.”

And maybe that’s the darkness the surrounds Carter as he stands alone in the opening of the film; the future closing in around him. And when the future arrives there is, indeed, nothing for Jack Carter lying there alone but the endless hissing of the waves on shore.

Get Carter is not a Gangster film.

It is a work of art.

* Apart from the Last Jedi. A lot of the peculiar fan backlash against the Last Jedi was caused by people unable to deal with Rian Johnson wrenching Star Wars out of its sub-Lord of the Rings aristocratic rut and into a more democratic, science fiction milieu.

❉ Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial

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