Classic Cars on Film: Get Carter (1971)

Although not strictly a car film, 1971's cult masterpiece Get Carter employs now-classic vehicles to huge effect. Here's how

If you ask the average classic car enthusiast to name the most prominent vehicles in 1971's cult movie Get Carter, they would probably commence with Jack Carter’s Ford Cortina Mk II 1600 De Luxe before going on to an ill-fated white Sunbeam Alpine Series V. Some may remember the unfortunate Jaguar Mk II of Con McCarty and 'Peter the Dutchman', while others may even mention the fleet of black Rolls-Royce Phantoms prowling around the graveyards.

Some might then list the Cadillac Fleetwood 60 Special of Cyril Kinnear, the Land Rover 109 Series II Station Wagon employed as an automotive thug and the Humber Super Snipe Series IV belonging to the hoods or the Rolls-Royce Silver Drophead of Cliff Brumby.

The unfortunate Frank Carter’s car was a 1957 Austin A55 Cambridge Mk I and we could also mention the Fiat 124 Coupe and the MGB GT at Cyril Kinnear’s residence. But perhaps the key vehicle of the entire film is one that has a brief but crucial cameo role – a Ford Zephyr 4 Mk III.

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Most readers will already know the narrative of Get Carter - Michael Caine’s anti-heroic protagonist Jack Carter travels back to the North East after decades in London to discover the cause of his brother Frank’s death. The film was adapted from the Ted Lewis novel Jack’s Return Home and the budget was limited, even for the period.

What the director Mike Hodges unforgettably evokes is a vision of Hell, one that reeks of seediness, gin and tonics, cheap aftershave and Rothmans’ smoke. The North East of Victorian terraces, which were progressively being demolished when shooting commenced in 1970, uneasily co-exist with the T Dan Smith style concrete buildings.

The police rarely appear on screen – we see an Arrow-series Hillman Minx speed towards the Trinity Square Car Park and two Rover P6s in the final reel – as the inference is that Carter finds himself in an open city for criminality. Affluence has brought the likes of Brumby (a brilliant performance from Bryan Mosley) a gracious villa, the Rolls-Royce and a Bond Bug for his daughter, but these trappings cannot mask his corruption.

Kinnear lives on an even more lavish scale, some of the guests to his house party arriving in Aston Martin DB6s, but he seems actively bored by his life. The role was played by John Osborne, who was a stage actor before writing Look Back in Anger; in later life he was reportedly highly amused to be recognised more for Get Carter than for his plays.

We could fill pages listing the virtues of Get Carter, to Roy Budd‘s score and Hodges’ script and direction. The cast boasts some of the finest character actors in British Equity – Alun Armstrong (one of the few cast members with an authentic accent), Tony Beckley, Rosemary Dunham, Glynn Edwards Bernard Hepton, Geraldine Moffatt and George Sewell.

The two most memorable characters are Ian Hendry’s Eric Paice, who dominates the screen with his camp malice (Hendry actually wanted to play Carter) and Caine’s protagonist. Jack is a minor foot soldier in the underworld and although the hired Cortina and the conservative suits are attempts to pass as a commercial traveller, nothing could disguise those dead eyes.

Of the younger figures, Armstrong’s Keith and Doreen (Petra Markham) Carter’s niece (or possibly daughter) stand a chance of escape, but a shot of Carl Howard in the train scene shows that Jack is doomed from the outset.

In Get Carter, violence only brings further violence - which brings us to the aforementioned Zephyr 4 Mk III.

In a lesser film, Brumby’s body would hit the ground after being despatched from the car park, but in Get Carter he lands on the Ford to gruesome effect.

We see passers-by frantically trying to open the doors, to reveal the driver and a small child who are either seriously injured or possibly dead. And it is in such telling moments, even more than the oft-quoted famous lines, that Get Carter abides in the memory.

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