Get Carter, Snatch

The alpha and omega of British gangster movies. The two could not be further apart in every way. Get Carter, from 1971, has a single protagonist, the structure of a revenge tragedy, an elegant, inexorable screenplay, gritty 70s realism, a palpable, Altmanesque sense of place, stunning, ferocious moments of brutality and ugliness, canny, closely-observed directing, and characters who are thinking, feeling human beings. Snatch has multiple protagonists, the structure of a screwball comedy, a ridiculously complicated screenplay bursting with incident and coincidence, flip 00s surrealism, action where even murder victims don’t seem to suffer, restless, anything-for-a-gag direction and a cast of screwy cartoon characters.

I dearly love both of them.  When I can understand the accents, anyway.

My movie-going life crossed paths with Michael Caine during his “I’ll choose roles for the sunny locations” phase (beginning, I’d say, with The Swarm, continuing through Jaws: The Revenge and on to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This is Michael Caine during his “eminence for hire” era, and it’s easy to forget what an impressive, cold-eyed, nasty, mean little fucker he could be.  He’s absolutely blood-chilling in Get Carter (and check him out in Mona Lisa as well, a dynamite script), a real cockney Samuel L. Jackson.

The script really helps.  Everything is underplayed and unexplained.  For the first half-hour, we’re not even sure who Caine is and what he’s doing.  We know he’s some kind of London lowlife and we know he’s going to somebody’s funeral, but it isn’t until 25 minutes into the movie, when he suddenly picks up a fallen branch to knock a lookout man unconscious to we realize what kind of man we’re dealing with.  We learn that the funeral was for his brother and that he didn’t die by accident, and we soon learn that Carter isn’t going to take his brother’s death in stride, and by the third act we almost feel sorry for the pornographers, gamblers and real-estate developers in his path, we cringe anticipating each savage remorseless, merciless encounter.  We see him kick a car-door closed on a man’s head, grab another man by the genitals, throw yet another man off a seven-story car park.  We see him drown a drugged woman, stab a man repeatedly in the gut and club another to death with a shotgun.  We also get to see him engage in explicit phone sex (a cinematic first, I believe) while his landlady sits mere feet away.

Not that Carter is happy with himself, mind you.  A good deal of his rage is directed inward as he knows that he, himself, is at least partly responsible for the death of his brother.  He’s filled with turmoil and self-loathing and he plows through the underworld of Newcastle knowing that he’s never going to get back to London, he’s playing for keeps.

A lot of gangsters have passed into cinema history since Carter, but Snatch still manages to bristle with indelible portraits.  The acting in Snatch is wonderful across the board, but two performances always stand out for me: Brad Pitt as the Irish traveler and Alan Ford as Brick Top, the gangster who feeds his enemies to his pigs.  I’ve always enjoyed Pitt’s work, but his performance here is, I believe, without precedent.  He’s game, lovable, fascinating and completely indecipherable, playing a character both utterly simple and yet utterly unknowable, and he positively inhabits the role, vanishes into it.  It’s no star turn and no goof, he’s both playing the role straight and also performing it in the context of a comedy and you can’t take your eyes off him.  This and Fight Club are his two best performances. 

(I first saw Snatch in Paris [with Urbaniak and our wives, if you must know]: between the heavily-accented English and the French subtitles, we could almost make out what the actual plot of the movie was.) 

When Alan Ford’s character first showed up, I first thought “Oh well, here’s another mean gang boss, I’ve seen this character a hundred times,” but Ford brings such a livid, seething intensity to the role that he’s breathtaking.  I found myself actually scared of what he was going to do next, since there seemed to be no limit to his rage.  Maybe it helped that I’d never seen Alan Ford’s work before (although he has a small role in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and has apparently done a lot of British television), I had no casting reference to fall back on (you know, the way we feel that it’s okay if Matt Damon kills someone in The Departed because we’ve seen him do it in The Talented Mr. Ripley but we freak when we see Henry Fonda kill someone in Once Upon a Time in the West because, damn it, he’s Henry Fonda, he’s not supposed to kill people!).

And, as different as the script for Snatch is from Get Carter‘s, I love the way the stories dovetail, I love tracing the plotlines from character to character and dive to dive, from madcap situation to madcap situation.  If Richard Lester made gangster movies, they would probably be a lot like this.  The scripts for this and two other Matthew Vaughn productions (Lock, Stock and Layer Cake) are, as far as I’m concerned, top-notch, intricate puzzle-boxes of narrative invention, Roman candles of collision and intrigue. hit counter html code


10 Responses to “Get Carter, Snatch”
  1. ndgmtlcd says:

    I usually don’t like the “film noir” genre at all, but “Get Carter” proved to be an exception and you’ve summed up why perfectly. After what you said about it, I’d gladly rent “Snatch” next time I drive over to Montreal to visit a friend who loves the “film noir” but he’s even worse than you are when it comes to understanding cockney and other English regional accents.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    with urbaniak and our wives, if you must know

    I must, I must!

    I’m glad you were finally able to give an explanation for The Swarm and especially Jaws IV: The Revenge. I’d been wondering.

    • Todd says:

      Oh my God, he used to actually go on talk shows and brag about it, like saying “Yeah, I’ve got this Hollywood thing licked, I choose my projects based on how nice the location is!” and everyone would laugh.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I saw Caine leading an “Actor’s Workshop” or some such titled program once. Just he working with two actors on some scenes. And really, he was surprisingly good. He would show a scene at work and you were able to see him take on the character and then turn it back off. Like Richard Burton on Dick Cavett I think, where he just suddenly could go into a few lines of Camelot, and make his character occur, and then just as easily discard it.

    Like one always forgets especially in the U.S. version of “acting”, there is the guy who has to appear on the talkshows and the guy who is on stage working. Caine as a British actor who wasn’t Olivier, made it seem natural he is invited over and over into our living rooms, when it wasn’t really the case except for Connery, who was Bond for Gods sake!

    He did mention on the program that he thought once about whether he should be a director or not, and added up the hours and decided acting was the better deal. Also how to carry a breathspray freshner with you before a love scene kiss, and find some charmingly disarming way to spray it also into your partners mouth. All very earnestly given tips, duly noted.

    • Todd says:

      I read Caine’s book on acting (which is an excellent read), and remembered the bit about acting a drunk scene. The trick, he says, is that drunk people don’t act drunk. Rather, they try too hard to act sober. Ah, yes, I see, how true, I said, and then Caine ended up doing a drunk scene in, of all things, a script I wrote, and none of that showed up in the end product, which was all slurred consonants, giggles and weaving across the room. So, apparently the rules of acting are rather malleable.

      • Anonymous says:

        I want to add out of context here, as I just reread and caught your comment about Richard Lester. He did do gangster films, with the Beatles, only they were “funny” and played guitars instead of firing off guns. Carry On Gangster with a knowing mod smirk, etc.

  4. teamwak says:

    Excellent read, thank you.

    Both are favourites of mine, although I enjoy Lock, Stock a little more as it is funnier. The UK produces too many formulaic gangster pieces, bit it still manages to to produce the odd stand-outs. A recent gem was Layer Cake with 007 Daniel Craig. It is beautiful and thought provoking. I really enjoyed it.

    • Todd says:

      Really, you think Lock, Stock is funnier? I just watched it again recently (Sting is superb in that movie, by the by) and was surprised by how staid it seemed next to Snatch I also loved Layer Cake (all of which were produced by Matthew Vaughn, and the last directed by him).

      • teamwak says:

        I always thought the showdown at the end of Lock, Stock set to Zorbas Theme is an all-time comedy classic. Its farce as the scene shifts between the 3 gangs, getting faster and faster until the bloody climax at the end. Loved it.

        I have high hopes for Vaughn with Stardust, but an early review was less than positive. Fingers crossed, but I am sure it will look good anyway.

      • pjamesharvey says:

        I think Lock, Stock is funnier, and the better film. Snatch seems to be a pastiche of the earlier work too often, with humour deliberately injected instead of played out naturally. The dialogue seems too forced too often, written for laughs directly. Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones’s characters, in particular, have been dialed up a couple more notches, when they worked better played straighter.