Even bad guys have families, and no matter how rotten a character is, we can sympathize when a crime against that family drives them into action. In the movies, senseless death in the family is often enough to turn the most mild mannered citizen into a killing machine. We don't mind seeing that, since most of us probably imagine we'd feel the same way.
In "Get Carter" we, like Carter himself don't know anything about his brother Frank's murder. We start off with no evidence that it was anything but an accident. Jack Carter must investigate anyway, as he doesn't believe it. Judging by the company he keeps, he has good reason to consider anything bad that happens as suspicious. He's a hit man on retainer for a couple of London gangsters. His idea of having a social life is sleeping with his boss' girlfriend, planning to go to South America with her. There is no sense of "family" loyalty towards his employer. He's somewhat of a free agent, as we see when Gerald tells him not to go check out his brother's situation, and he openly declines to listen. These men don't care for each other much, their alliances based on getting the job done with as little trouble as possible. This is true in London, and in Newcastle where Carter comes from. The only difference between place are the guys in charge. Presumably, Newcastle crime is smaller scale, but we don't really see London for comparison. In any event, they look about the same to Jack Carter. He knows all about the underworld. It's a fact of his life. Its influence has corrupted his whole family. His brother Frank, who we never see, but hear described as nothing like Frank, but "calm as gentle Jesus." while not seeing himself as a gangster, works at a bar owned by a gangster. The closest thing Frank has to a regular girlfriend is a married woman who may be a prostitute. He wasn't a gangster but his life was full of the criminal influence. Unsurprisingly, this also touched his daughter's life starting the sequence of events that led to his death.
Jack Carter is a good guy to pick if you want revenge, but he's not a good guy in any other way. Watching him laugh as he's about to hurt somebody, of after he's done, we know that he's not reluctant about violence, and even enjoys it. He's not one of those hit men who tells himself he only hurts bad guys, he doesn't seem to care about anything but his own desires. Even Frank's death doesn't seem to bother him much. And he pursues his revenge as much out of pride as any emotional attachment. Even his allies get no special consideration. When Keith the bar employee who assists him is kidnapped, he's not bothered. He simply says "What do you want me to do? I don't know where he is?" He catches up with Keith later and gives him some money for the trouble he had, but he can't help but mock him telling him to spend it on karate lessons. He offers his niece Doreen a place to stay, but doesn't push the issue when she says she's going to stay with friends. As his parting gesture, he gives her some money and tells her not to trust boys. He fulfills his possible duty, but Jack hasn't been to Newcastle in some time, he's not a beloved uncle, but a stranger that Doreen knows just well enough to recognize.
We're not shown much of Jack's past in Newcastle, but there is a hint of it in his associations. Finally fed up with Carter, Keith reveals that he knows more about Jack than he said. Frank told him that Jack slept with his wife and he didn't even know if Doreen was his. Eric's hatred of Jack is obvious immediately, although it doesn't stop Carter from toying with him. It's obvious that he delights in reminding Eric of his grudge, and we can safely assume that whatever happened between them, Carter came out of it far ahead. Eric's resentment is too strong for a minor slight, although they never outright mention what happened. Eric's continued "Still got your sense of humor" comments, imply that Carter made him the butt of a joke at some point.
Carter has a limited sense of duty, but no loyalty at all. Shortly after making love to Glenda, he thinks nothing of throwing her in the trunk, and his expression doesn't even change when the car containing her (still alive) is pushed into the water. He may have been angry that she was involved in Doreen getting into pornography but she wasn't the agent behind it all, or forcing anyone to do anything, she was simply someone doing what she always does. Carter's relationship with Anna is a betrayal of his boss. And as far as Anna herself goes, he's not even loyal there, calling her his fiancee, but sleeping with any woman he can. He betrays Kinnear, making a deal with him and then planting a body and calling the police. He thinks nothing of betrayal and takes very little seriously, making a joke out of anything he can.
There's no secret do gooder waiting to be revealed, but at the same time, he's not completely inhuman. He appears genuinely shaken on discovering the pornographic film with Doreen in it. But even this can be seen as an affront to his own pride, in the same way that killing his brother was. In fact, Eric seems to view it much the same way, as a side benefit to his actions. We learn that Eric said "Good." when told that Frank was Jack's brother. Still, whatever, Jack's depth of emotion (or lack of) we want him to succeed, because we all understand family. Even though Jack wasn't good to his brother, he gets angry at Margaret when he realizes she isn't the kind of girlfriend he though Frank should have. "I'm the villain in the family." he says, and he certainly believes this. It's his role in the family to be the undependable, untrustworthy one. They weren't close but there was still some connection and that's where the duty comes from.
It should also be said that Jack's traits are not unusual among his peers. We see Brumby betray Kinnear in order to get out of the snare he was caught in. Glenda betrays both Kinnear and Brumby. Margaret betrays Frank and Doreen. And of course Gerald betrays Carter, to pay his own betrayal back. Betrayal seems a big part of Carter's way of living. The important thing is to betray the other guy better than and before he betrays you. That's the world he lives in, and he's well versed in the rules. His revenge never comes across as a noble deed, as much as following the rules of betrayal. If he lets it stand, that would send the wrong message, that he can be insulted without consequence.
He's curious as well, and wants to see the mystery solved. We see him reading "Farewell, My Lovely" on the train ride to Newcastle, and that's certainly no accident. "Get Carter" has a lot in common with a detective story, only replacing Philip Marlowe with one of the thugs that beat him up. Carter and Marlowe both enjoy witty banter, but the similarities end there. Carter doesn't have the governor on his actions that Marlowe did. He'll kill you to get information and may even laugh about it. He belongs in the underworld and aside from the family sympathy, he has other relatable qualities. He's smart and efficient and he actually gets his hands dirty, while the bosses merely give orders. He's good at doing his job, even if it's not an admirable job to have. He's not the only hit man around though, as we see at the end when the cycle of betrayals catches up to him, fortunately just after he finished his mission. He's not immune to his own lifestyle.
"Get Carter" is Mike Hodges' first film, although it doesn't seem like a debut. He manages to get the shady essence of Carter's criminal lifestyle in every part of the film. This world is not a nice place to live, but you can believe that a few blocks over, maybe it's not so bad. We get the sense however, that Carter wouldn't know what to do in a nicer neighborhood. He only knows one way. It was an interesting choice to make the lead character as unsympathetic as Carter, and it's a credit to Michael Caine that despite his rotten nature, he becomes just personal enough, that we still want him to succeed. This is by far my favorite Michael Caine role and watching it again, it's easy to believe that he's still acting today, although the role is very different than the mentor figures he's been playing recently. Here, he's witty, sharp and very dangerous. The film has sparse dialogue, including long stretches where no one says anything at all. As a result, when people talk it counts. Carter especially seems to measure everything he says for maximum impact. Everything is not explained, but we pick up the edge's of the character's back stories, just enough to know how they feel about each other. This adds to the feeling of precision, all the way up to the last action, a sniper pulling the trigger and packing up, the logical end of the story. The scenery is used to great effect, both urban and natural environments are perfectly used. Even at the beach, there are coal buckets zipping by, as if nothing is really clean.
The supporting actors all hold up very well, especially Ian Hendry as the grudge nursing Eric Paice. You can feel the contempt he has for Carter every time they speak, as well as the knowledge that Carter is dangerous. John Osborne's Kinnear is very entertaining, just to see the smug way he holds a conversation with Carter while toying with someone as he takes all their money. RoseMarie Dunham's portrayal of Edna is another high point, her alarmed interjections into Carter's situation are all the more amusing after he calls her bluff. Geraldine Moffat's Glenda makes the most of every scene. There isn't a bad performance here even the bar patrons feel like they belong. Like the rest of the film, we're given exactly the elements required to tell this story, but it feels like there's more underneath it.
We find Jack Carter (Michael Caine) at a party hosted by brothers Gerald (Terence Rigby) and Sid Fletcher, (John Bindon,) centered on a pornographic slide show. Gerald tells Carter "We don't want you to go up North, Jack. You work for us." He mentions some connections they have in place that they'd rather Jack not screw up. He asks Carter why he's going. Carter tells him "To find out what happened." He tells Carter, "Look, your brother's dead and gone. They're hard nuts up there, Jack. They won't take kindly to someone from London poking his nose in."
Carter: Too bad.
Gerald: Remember, they're killers. Just like you. The police seem satisfied.
Carter: Since when was that good enough?
Gerald: Think again, Jack.
Carter: I will.