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How Get Carter created the blueprint for the British gangster movie

Michael Caine is as chillingly charismatic as ever in the remastered version of the 1971 classic coming to cinema screens this month

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. 

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Though it received mixed reviews on initial release, Get Carter was soon being reappraised as a singular classic, helping formulate a hard-nut blueprint for British gangster movies that survives to this day. That familiarity risks reducing Hodges’s towering film to its greatest hits: Corrie’s Alf (Bryan Mosley) being informed: “You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape”; Carter buck-naked but for his shotgun, shooing off some London muscle in the street; poor Mosley, again, getting bodily chucked off a brutalist multi-storey car park. 

But there is so much more in it: Roy Budd’s stark, windswept theme and jazzy score, Caine’s brittle armour cracking when the squalor of the central mystery is revealed, the gut-punch ending that you belatedly realise has its origins in the opening credits. There is something new to uncover with every viewing, not least because Hodges’s documentarian eye makes the film a textured time capsule of fag smoke and fascinating faces, a close study of working-class life in a hardscrabble town that missed the swinging 1960s.

Get Carter is in cinemas from May 27

What does get brushed under the carpet is the ill-advised 2000 remake, led by Sylvester Stallone in a shiny suit and salt-and-pepper goatee. His Carter is a sullen Las Vegas leg-breaker heading home to Seattle (a suitably rainy stand-in for Newcastle, admittedly). But while retaining the bones of the story and forcefully remixing Budd’s theme, it is a listless imitation, a time capsule only in its very 2000s use of flashy, jarring editing techniques. 

Caine is present though, as the tycoon on the make previously portrayed by Mosley. Tacit blessing or another Jaws 4 paycheck job? (Likely both.) 

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Dig deeper and there is another ghost of Get Carter: the blaxploitation quickie Hit Man (1972) starring Bernie Casey as strident stud Tackett, causing ructions in the LA gang scene after his brother’s untimely death. While stylistically far removed from its forebear – no-one is attacked by a lion in the original – it is adapted from the same novel, so some dialogue scenes are uncannily similar and watching it is like falling through a flamboyant funhouse mirror.

This week’s new restoration of Get Carter will be released on deluxe Blu-ray in July; Hit Man is only available in the US via a service that manufactures DVDs on demand. So for now, there is really only one Carter to get.

Get Carter is in cinemas from 27 May

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic. Follow him on Twitter.

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