Mike Hodges’ 1971 British gangster classic GET CARTER has a hallowed reputation which is undoubtedly well-deserved, but which in no way prepares the unsuspecting Johnny-come-lately for the unsparing gut-shot/uppercut combo that it is. I’d heard about GET CARTER long before I ever managed to see it, and what I expected was a solid crime picture which was an important step forward for the genre, a keystone movie (like BONNIE & CLYDE and THE WILD BUNCH) at a time when violence in cinema was getting more graphic, and a hugely influential film for later generations of tough-guy filmmakers. It is all of those things. But what I did not expect is that forty years later, it still plays like a punch to the face of Donald Trump – thrilling, vicariously exhilarating, and as necessary today as it’s always been for many, many years.
Mike Hodges adapted the film from Ted Lewis’ 1970 novel, called Jack’s Return Home. The source material was brutal and so was Hodges’ approach. Michael Caine plays the lead character, Jack Carter, with an unyielding coldness. Carter is a bad man on a revenge tear, though there are very subtle touches to give him dimension. For example, Carter is headed to the funeral of his brother, whose suspicious death he will spend the rest of the film avenging. But the first time we see Carter, he’s riding on the train reading. It’s probably not an accident that he’s reading Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. We’re immediately meant to think of noir, how GET CARTER recalls traditional noir elements, and how it departs from them. Carter isn’t the romantic figure that Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is. Carter is a mean snake of a motherfucker. He routinely commits acts of violence that still can shock today.
Again, though, Hodges and Caine manage to nicely undercut Carter’s murderous efficiency with one pivotal, wordless moment (you’ll know it when you see it), where Carter sits and watches a very pertinent reel of film. His face doesn’t change at all, but his eyes start to water. From what he does next, there’s a very good chance that those are solely tears of rage. (What he does next is particularly nasty.) But it’s also possible that these are real human tears, the guard slipping for just the once, and this is why this film still has the resonance it does. GET CARTER is not mindless violence. It’s a character study of a very violent man.
GET CARTER is unforgettable in hindsight, but at the time it didn’t go over when it came to the States. Still, the powers that be immediately recognized its value, and decided to remake GET CARTER quickly and cheaply for an American audience. More specifically, the makers of HIT MAN used Jack’s Return Home as their model for the English-language version, which, this being 1972 now, was done in the genre that was an easy fit for abundant violence, ‘Blaxploitation.’
HIT MAN is hardly as well known as SHAFT, BLACK BELT JONES, or TRUCK TURNER, but it’s absolutely as much worth remembering. It was written and directed by George Armitage, who is best known and loved today for directing the stone-cold cult-classics MIAMI BLUES and GROSSE POINTE BLANK.
Bernie Casey takes on the Jack Carter role, here renamed Tyrone Tackett. The action takes place in southern California but otherwise the general set-up is the same. Tyrone comes home to avenge the death of his brother, who was wrapped up in all kinds of drug trafficking, whore-mongering, porno, and death-dealing. As in GET CARTER, the victimization of a second family member puts the protagonist on the warpath all the way to the bitter end.
HIT MAN is unlike GET CARTER in that it’s a lot more fun. GET CARTER has true value in its depiction of revenge and how it consumes. HIT MAN glosses over such themes; its main rewards are blissful silliness. The unparalleled Pam Grier appears as a porn star on the wrong side of Tyrone’s temper. She’s as punchy and thrilling to watch as ever, but her hairdo pushes the level of parody. In one scene, they go to a movie theater and Pam’s Afro is all you can think about. (What about everyone stuck sitting behind her?) Bernie Casey’s Afro is pretty incredible also – it has grey streaks. It looks as though it’s beginning to freeze. There are some unintentional sight gags here that Keenan Ivory Wayans made overt a decade-and-a-half later in his keen Blaxploitation parody I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA. This is the movie they were referencing. I mean, there’s a scene where two men get drunk and go through the car wash. It’s incredibly entertaining, but not quite the mournful and bruising tone set forth by its predecessor, GET CARTER.
HIT MAN has maybe one of the more insanely indelible anti-climaxes in American cinema history. It’s that whole thing about introducing the gun in the first act and it going off in the third. Let’s just say that in a film where Bernie Casey visits the zoo twice, you’re probably going to see those zoo animals again. In a scene late in the movie, Bernie Casey is driving his car, and the theme music is blaring, and suddenly the car and the music both stop. He gets Pam Grier out of the car and tells her to run or he’ll shoot. Then he drives off. What happens next? Pam Grier is attacked by a lion. Repeat: Pam Grier. Repeat: Is attacked by a lion. I’m not telling you this to spoil anything. Believe me, there’s no earthly way I could ruin this movie. I’m telling you this so that you make it a priority to see HIT MAN.
GET CARTER and HIT MAN are a fascinating pair. It’s not a compare-and-contrast – I happen to believe that they’re both great. GET CARTER, despite any puritanical objections to its subject matter, is the more classical, thematically-coherent, emotionally-modulated film. HIT MAN tells the same story but in an unruly, tonally-rambunctious, hilarious way. In my eyes, both films are equally valid. But the methodology is tellingly different. The British set us a good example, but Americans just plain do bad manners better.
GET CARTER and HIT MAN both play tonight at Anthology Film Archives as part of the William-Lustig-curated Tribute To The Warner Archive Collection. There’s no better way to spend a Tuesday night.
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