Criminal past

Film byJonathan Romney

A few years ago the National Film Theatre ran a programme proclaiming the British director Mike Hodges as the Quentin Tarantino of his day, on the tenuous grounds that he, too, started his cinema career with two crime movies, one with the word "pulp" in the title (just plain Pulp in his case). Hodges' time in the Zeitgeist pantheon now seems to have come. His 1971 film Get Carter routinely is hailed as one of the precursors of the catchpenny comedy thriller Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, along with another Michael Caine vehicle, The Italian Job, and The Long Good Friday. Of these, Get Carter enjoys special hip status: it has been serialised as a comic strip in Loaded, and its re-release is accompanied by a club remix of Roy Budd's bare-bones jazz soundtrack.

You can see how Get Carter lends itself to geezer-mag fetishisation, with Caine's sardonic nemesis persona and a tawdry panoply of mini-skirted birds in fast cars. The closeness of all that to Lock, Stock's bullet-headed self-regard may superficially make the film seem contemporary. But what really makes it fascinating now is the very opposite of modernity - its status as a period piece. This is very much a film about the early 1970s - that is, about another country.

Its story of a London gangster going home to Newcastle to avenge his murdered brother may echo the Californian scenario of John Boorman's Point Blank, with Lee Marvin's monolithic righteousness replaced by Caine's icy bonhomie. But Get Carter is unusual among British gangland thrillers in that - apart from a shot of Carter reading Raymond Chandler - it renounces any yearnings for America. It's much more a tale of two nations - the smoothies down south with their musical whisky decanters and flash foreign crumpet (Britt Ekland in a token bra-shedding role) versus the sweaty northerners with their shoddy restaurant deals, council-flat molls and seedy chauffeurs (Ian Hendry with mutton-chop sideburns, Godard dark glasses and slurred cod-Connery diction - now there was a 1970s icon). Get Carter depicts a world of scumbags called Cliff, Cyril and Eric, a world in which the mob kingpin, and supposed arbiter of vicious glamour, is a whiskery, drawling John Osborne. The film seems almost exotic now, with its uncanny echoes of small-screen domesticity - one of the villains, a T Dan Smith developer figure, is none other than Alf Roberts from Coronation Street, and one of Carter's victims was the bluff Welsh teacher on Please, Sir!.

But this world seems aeons away. The modernity of Get Carter has to do with its recognition of an ending - that of the disappearing industrial north. Carter walks out of penthouse (or Penthouse) London and into a coal-fire past - the world of 1950s and 1960s northern realism, of The Wednesday Play. Newcastle is a two-up, two-down universe of bedsits with racy landladies, of pubs with decrepit flat-cap clientele and matronly cabaret singers. The film may be set in 1971 but it could belong to the faded-wallpaper world of Graham Greene's 1930s; it's comparable less to Robert Altman's adaptation of Chandler's The Long Goodbye than to Brighton Rock.

One of British cinema's outstanding evocations of place, Get Carter is a great vindication of the "regionalism" that has long been a battle-cry of the British Film Institute (which is distributing this re-release). The film now looks like regional archaeology: at one point, several men in overalls step off a ferry, and we could almost be watching the Lumiere brothers' workers leaving the factory. The final location looks prehistoric - the filthy sea, with mud flats and scraps of dead cars, prefacing a grim showdown on a slag heap. Hodges never uses shorthand for Newcastle but really works the locations with a documentarist's eye, as if determined to cover every inch of the city before it subsides into the ground, or into history. It's the ugliness of the setting that makes the narrative at once gritty-realist and surreal: there's a startling disjunction in setting a flamboyant revenge tale amid such kitchen-sink mundanity. Even the film's attempts at glamour and raciness suggest a seedy, sweaty Britain dressing up fancy on a Saturday night.

To reclaim Get Carter as a forebear of 1990s style culture is to miss the point. In one sense, however, the film is a direct ancestor of Loaded culture, with its Neanderthal, vindictive sexual attitudes - bad girls ending up in car boots, Caine getting his landlady hot under the collar by ringing Ekland for phone sex. The film never spawned any notable cinematic descendants, but its polo-neck machismo fed directly into TV cop dramas such as The Professionals and The Sweeney - punch-drunk, rot-gut series that you could imagine Hodges' villains staying in of an evening to watch.

So what did happen to Mike Hodges? If you had asked that question a couple of years ago, you'd have had to cough politely over titles such as Flash Gordon and Morons from Outer Space. Now, however, Hodges seems to have caught up with himself. He has recently made Croupier - a small, taut existential thriller featuring Clive Owen as a writer who becomes caught up in the gambling underworld. Written by the former Nicholas Roeg collaborator Paul Mayersberg, it's wry, pared down and claustrophobic, as a gaming-table movie should be. A self-reflexive fiction complete with poker-face voice-over, it's shot to suggest a meeting of Chandler, Bresson and Mamet. It's a prime example of a director hazarding the high stakes of low-budget stylistic austerity, and winning.

"Get Carter" (18) continues at selected cinemas in London and nationwide; "Croupier" (15) opens on 18 June in London

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis