Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to take a butchers at two films that routinely vie for top spot in any self respecting list of British gangster movies. Both are more concerned with gangsters performing investigations, both refuse to sugar coat the nefarious activities of the their leads, and you could probably make a case for each film reflecting the mood of the decade they lead into. We are speaking, of course, of Get Carter, a firm favourite around these parts for many a year, and The Long Good Friday, which despite the reputation it has garnered has so far been a stranger to me. Let’s get that sorted and see if its as good as it’s cracked up to be, and indeed if Get Carter is as good as we remember it to be.
Based on Ted Lewis’ novel “Jack’s Return Home,” Get Carter from director Mike Hodges landed like a sledgehammer blow on the UK cinema scene of 1971. Not that gangster movies were anything new at the time, but up until that point they had been largely cheeky chappie and/or slapstick affairs, played as much for laughs as for thrills. Hodges’ vision for Get Carter was to redefine the genre for the post flower power, diseased industrial landscape of a Britain in decline, and push the boundaries of what was acceptable in the bleak, violent and sexually charged telling of the story of a London gangster returning home to Newcastle to investigate the death of his brother. It is safe to say he succeeded.
Michael Caine is Jack Carter, the gangster in question, and his quest for answers as to the circumstances of his brother’s death see him stalk the streets of a Newcastle in grim transition from vanishing point industrial tenement rows to brutalist concrete parking towers. You can have any colour you want in this movie so long as it’s grey, and let me tell you that’s as upbeat as it’s going to get. Amateur porn productions, slot machine empires and working men’s clubs are the order of the day here, the clean lines of Jack’s London fashion sense marking him out as an alien in his own home town as he pieces together the faces and events that precipitated his brother’s demise.
Roping in locals as extras, Get Carter is a movie that is at once authentic yet fantastical, the dour faces of Newcastle’s working class completely at odds with the flamboyance of its larger than life antagonists. The cast of characters can often be as camp as it is cruel, with the likes of Ian Hendry (a tragic figure of the British cinema scene, here sporting a completely inexplicable but awesome Scottish drawl) playing shifty chauffeur to playwright John Osborne in his first big screen role as porno-producing kingpin Cyril Kinnear. As compelling as the supporting cast are, however, it’s Caine who shocks the most, his Carter no longer carrying any trace of the man dubbed a “Cockney Errol Flynn” by the critics, as Jack works his way through Newcastle’s criminal underworld, rekindling acquaintances and then snuffing them out when deemed necessary.
Angry outbursts aside, the only clue we get that Carter may actually once have been a functioning human comes with a solitary moment’s tearful recognition of his niece in one of Kinnear’s porn films, whereupon suddenly the circumstances of his brother’s murder come into focus. As a performance it’s a far cry from Charlie Croker, and British audiences were not prepared for Caine’s willingness to play at such a sharp tangent to type. Only with hindsight did the movie come to be appreciated in fullness, and for me this was, and still remains, a formative cinematic experience. I don’t know that Caine has ever been better, and in fact I don’t know that British gangster movies have ever been better. Come to think of it, I don’t think British movies have ever been better, period.
So much of Get Carter informed the aesthetic of British cinema and the broader culture, both directly and indirectly, and throughout my many watches I have never once been left wanting. From Roy Budd’s iconic score to Wolfgang Suschitzky’s starkly efficient cinematography, I find there are so many things to appreciate in Carter, and there’s never really been a time when I have found myself not in the mood to watch it. The dialogue, quoted in school yards up and down the country for decades now, is just the icing on the cake, and there are lines which have practically joined common parlance; one can only wonder how many brawls must have started across the course of the last five decades with the words “you’re a big man but you’re in bad shape.”
It is by no means a feel-good movie, but as a reminder that British cinema can be both entertaining and uncompromising Get Carter is certainly to be celebrated. There can only be a handful of movies that feel as vital a half century after the fact as they did the year of their release, but Carter can claim its place in that pantheon quite assuredly. If being British means being miserable then by God can we claim to be efficient at it, and here is the glorious evidence of that.
The Long Good Friday
For a long time I associated Bob Hoskins only with Mermaids, Super Mario Bros., Who Framed Roger Rabbit and mostly, due no doubt to their ubiquity, British Telecom’s “It’s Good to Talk” adverts. After that, it was Shane Meadows’ excellent 1997 film Twenty Four Seven, and an affectionate send up by Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish as Ol’ Bobo ‘Oskins, scruffle me nuts! (‘E’s off to Stepney to ‘aggle his brush). The one thing I never associated him with was being a gangster, in what is considered to be one of the seminal British crime films. Therefore, having thus far avoided seeing John “Frenzy” Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday, or, indeed, knowing a single thing about it, I was excited to see it.
Hoskins’ Harold Shand is a proper East End gangster who, in Thatcher’s Britain, dreams of himself as a great property mogul and tycoon, ready to make a killing when the Olympics come to London in 1988 (the Olympic Games that year were, of course, in Seoul, so I’m not sure how that was going to work, but perhaps London was the favourite for the award at the time). To do this he needs crooked politicians, which he has, and investment, which he has not. To this end he invites a mafia boss (Alphaville’s Eddie Constantine) from New York to the UK capital for a deal.
Despite Shand’s efforts to keep the meeting secret, though, it seems someone is aware, as a number of Shand’s employees and businesses are targeted with bombs (and a stabbing), in an apparent effort to disrupt his dealings. Eager to keep the mafia in the dark so as not to jeopardise the deal (though they find out anyway, as they’re apparently clairvoyant), Shand instructs his goons to turn over the “manor”, and bring in every likely suspect that may have dared challenge him. It never occurs to him, nor the audience (and why would it, it’s stupid), that his unexpected enemy is the IRA, who blame him for a number of their members being killed by the police on the same night that one of Shand’s employees delivered money to them in Belfast.
Warned against confronting the IRA, Shand nevertheless attempts to deal with them, leaving us the rather unsatisfying prospect of the film ending with either the gangsters winning or the IRA winning, and goes with the worst option.
Gangster films are always a difficult sell: the characters are not good people, we shouldn’t want them to succeed, we shouldn’t be invested in them. Therefore, we have to be given compelling reason to do so, and that’s often the charisma of the main actor. And, in The Long Good Friday, I started off quite prepared to engage with Bob Hoskins’ Harold Shand. But more or less right from the start Shand, and several other characters, are casually, and unnecessarily – it adding nothing to the story nor the character – racist and homophobic, and I checked out. Now, given that our “heroes” are gangsters, their bigotry ought to come quite far down a list of concerns, certainly far after “are murderers”, but it killed all interest for me in them. (Here may be a good place to mention the related, illustrative fact that the film’s original name was “The Paddy Factor”.)
That rendered me pretty detached for the whole film, leaving me instead focusing dispassionately on its technical merits (which are fine) and its story (which is poor), and wondering why this film has the reputation that it does, given that I was thoroughly underwhelmed by it. Ol’ Bobo himself is pretty good (it’s hard to imagine how the original producers, ITC Films, thought that dubbing Hoskins with a Wolverhampton accent was a good idea), and his chemistry with Helen Mirren as his girlfriend Victoria is likewise good, though that does bring me to one of the greatest disappointments: originally written as a more typical gangster’s moll, Mirren pressed for a rewrite to make Victoria a smarter, more capable character, and Victoria’s intelligence, assuredness and savvy make her more of a foil and partner for Shand, but she’s still not given a great deal of agency. This genre in particular tends to be a sausage-fest, but Helen Mirren is a formidable screen presence, and I got to the end of The Long Good Friday wishing that it had been a film that starred her as a gangland boss instead. Not that that would have solved the film’s greatest ill, in that the story is not engaging. For about the first half I was mildly interested by the mystery of who was attacking Shand, but the unveiling of Charlie from Casualty as the traitor was pretty easily guessable from the start, and the introduction of the IRA was, frankly, baffling. 21st best British film of all time? What a palaver! Fiddle me nips. Smack me be ’ind for just two and six!
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