Like most good movies, it started with a book: Outside the school gate, waiting for the #31 bus, my classmate and best friend RA, pressed upon me a well-thumbed copy of a novel by Ted Lewis called Carter. RA said it was the greatest crime novel he had ever read, if not the greatest crime novel ever written, which was some recommendation knowing his liking for detective novels, thrillers and the works of Sven Hassel. My eyes were attracted to the color photo on the cover of Michael Caine, with shotgun, in a black Mackintosh walking along a coal-stained beach. Michael Caine was cool. He had played Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer and Harry Palmer was cool—ergo Caine was cool. On the back there was an even more intriguing picture of Caine interrogating a naked woman in a bath. What the hell was this book about? The only clue RA gave was the cryptic “Schoolgirl Wanks.” I borrowed the book and have shamefully kept it ever since—thinking RA was correct—it is the greatest crime novel ever written, and certainly led to (arguably) the greatest British crime film ever made, Get Carter.
This dog-eared paperback Carter, originally titled Jack’s Return Home, had been written by Ted Lewis, a young author who had attended Hull Art School, worked in TV, written one other novel All the Way Home and All the Night Through in 1965, and had worked as an animator on The Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine. In Jack’s Return Home, Lewis told the story of a hardman gangster (Jack Carter) who goes home to find out who killed his brother—a trail that opens up a world of corruption, sex and violence—perhaps surprisingly, the book was loosely based on the true story of a gangland murder in the 1960s.
When Jack’s Return Home was first published in 1970, film producer Michael Klinger sent a copy to TV director Mike Hodges asking if he thought it would make a good movie? Klinger had started his career as film producer making soft-core nudist films with Tony Tenser, before the pair produced Roman Polanski’s early movies Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac. Hodges saw the book’s immediate potential and told Klinger it would make a great movie. The book was optioned, the film financed and cast.
Where the novel is set in Doncaster, Hodges decided to relocate the action to the gritty, monochrome streets of industrial Newcastle—then mired in political and civic corruption over the redevelopment of the city center—a scandal that almost brought down the British government in 1973. Casting a Cockney as a Geordie might seem strange, but Michael Caine made Carter very much his own—-cold, ruthless, dead-eyed and utterly plausible. He stalks the film in his black overcoat like a messenger of death, bringing havoc, violence and murder to those unlucky enough to cross his path.
I was about twelve or thirteen when I first read Carter, and can still vividly recall whole sections of the book from opening line, “The rain rained..” to the near end paragraph about a shotgun, twisted and smoking, a grey curl rising into the morning air and the grim significance of “Schoolgirl Wanks.” Some authors stick with you throughout life, their work is so powerful, visceral, infectiously memorable. I went on to read other books by Ted Lewis (most notably Plender, Billy Rags, and GBH) finding them as good if not better than Jack’s Return Home, and rate him up there with Chandler, Hammett and Ellroy—if not often ahead. Sadly, for such a talented writer, Lewis was never to equal the success of Jack’s Return Home—though he did write two further Carter novels: Jack Carter’s Law(1974) and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (1977). His early success and what he feared was apparent failure bit deep and Lewis tragically died from alcohol related illness in 1982. Thankfully, he is now rightly recognized as the father of British noir fiction.
Get Carter the movie had a mixed reception on its release—given shit publicity by the American distributors (who knows why?) and hated by the likes of critics such as the prissy and snobbish Pauline Kael who loathed the film. However, Get Carter held its own until it achieving its classic status with the Loaded generation in the 1990s. Klinger went onto produce another movie with Caine and Hodges, the superb and shamefully overlooked Pulp.
This selection of photographs captures Michael Caine filming Get Carter on location in Newcastle, alongside director Hodges and cast members John Osborne, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland and George Sewell.
‘Jack’s Return Home’: Michael Caine as Jack Carter returning to his hometown to find his brother’s killer.
Man about town: Caine in Newcastle during filming.
More photos of Michael Caine on location with ‘Get Carter,’ after the jump….