I’ve been fascinated with Michael Caine long before I even knew of his films… in fact, long before I even realized who he was. While a love and reverence for Michael Caine is the appropriate manner in which to consider the illustrious actor, you are probably asking yourself why anyone would be fascinated with him before really experiencing his wonder. For this fascination, I can blame (or thank, rather) my early proclivity towards two-tone ska and, specifically, the music of Madness.
Just over a week ago, the latest of Sir Michael Caine’s 150+ feature appearances arrived in theaters to a strong turnout and mixed reviews. Now You See Me 2 features Caine reprising his role as the protagonists’ benefactor, Arthur Tressler. After the events of the first film that left Tressler with far less money and far more prison time than he planned on, the former sponsor of the dubious quartet of magicians vows revenge. But this is far from Caine’s first go at vengeance. Take, for instance, the first in today’s two pack of Caine’s charismatic characters, Jack Carter.
With ringing endorsements from Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino, 1971’s hard-boiled British gangster film Get Carter rose from lesser known cult film to the BFI Top 100 and a 1999 Sly Stallone remake (that actually featured an older Caine as one of Carter’s rivals). To say the initial British audience didn’t quite latch onto the film would be an understatement. While its grittiness isn’t on par with some of the American exploitation or Italian crime dramas of its day, the British audiences weren’t ready for it. The eventual remake tanked, but the acclaim for the original only grew. Today, the cult status among the film’s devotees remains, but there is a wider overall appreciation of the once controversial crime thriller.
Caine’s Jack Carter isn’t a nice guy. He’s a Cockney accented ’70s version of John Wick, a known entity in the underworld who is able to take on several trained men at once. He’s relatively stoic throughout most of the film, giving a lot of meaning to the moments where he loses his cool or lets out cathartic tears. Carter works for the Fletcher crime family, but is plotting his exit by fleeing the country with his mistress (whom happens to be his boss Gerald Fletcher’s girlfriend). Before his grand exit, he attends his brother’s funeral and finds himself uneasy with the explanation of his brother’s death. So, he takes it upon himself to investigate and find out what really happened to his brother.
As Carter snoops around, his journey brings him in contact with numerous other gangsters and a plethora of beautiful women in various degrees of dress and undress. As signs begin to point towards more and more shady circumstances around his brother’s death, he encounters a pornographic film where his niece (or possibly, his daughter, as he seems to insinuate later in the film) is forced to have sex. It is at this point that Carter shows the most emotion in the entire film. It is also at this point that Carter’s mission goes from personal vendetta to brutal revenge.
As someone whose most common and most fond memories of Caine tend to be in lighter fare or sunnier roles, I was impressed (but not surprised) at how he was able to handle himself as a vengeful and somewhat sadistic bastard. As an anti-hero protagonist, I find myself both sympathizing with him and repulsed by him. Caine is convincing as a morally flexible criminal who cares for his family and wants to do right by them. He is aided by a strong cast and gritty screenwriting.
The influence of this type of film on the style of directors like Quentin Tarantino is undeniable. The story is oozing with cool. Caine is the primary reason for this, which makes me wonder why Caine hasn’t done a film with Tarantino. It’s hard to picture this film with anyone else as Carter, so it’s a good thing the director was trumped when the decision to cast the lead was made… and it also speaks to why Stallone’s remake was a flop. However, what I find perhaps the most interesting and influential is how the film ends. The bleak ending really feels like something Tarantino would employ. One thing that stands out about Get Carter, though, is how after the film ends, we are treated to silent credits, which really drives home the dreariness of the final scene.
Jack the Ripper
While Get Carter shows Caine doing informal detective work as Jack Carter, the second selection in the double feature showcases him in a formal detective role. 1988’s Jack the Ripper is an award winning television miniseries presented by the Warner Archive as a 2-disc DVD set. While quite lengthy, the story has enough ebbs and flows to help it feel like a film rather than a massive commitment.
While we’re were nearly 120 years in the future today, citizens of the world should be somewhat familiar with the story of the unsolved mystery of “Jack the Ripper”. In case you are one of the few people who isn’t familiar with the case, here are a few of the basic facts: a number of prostitutes started showing up murdered in the poor Whitechapel district of East London; a team of local officials and Scotland Yard detectives began investigating the murders; there were many leads and many theories; and ultimately there was not enough evidence to convict any person or groups of people. The murders were grisly and involved removing body parts (sometimes, seemingly, with medical level precision).
Released in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the crimes, the miniseries featured an accomplished cast beginning with Michael Caine as Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline. His partner in the investigation, Sergeant George Godley, is portrayed by Lewis Collins. In the ensemble supporting the duo are Armand Assante as an American actor, Richard Mansfield, Jane Seymour as Emma Prentiss, and many other great character actors from British film and television. The filmmakers based their story on the actual people, including using their real names. One particular theory was highlighted in their script’s conclusions; this theory postulated that Sir William Gull, a prominent English physician, was Jack the Ripper. The series was presented as a serial style mystery with red herrings and numerous suspects prior to settling on Sir Gull.
Caine’s performance in this miniseries is extremely strong. In fact, he won a Golden Globe for it. Assante was nominated both for an Emmy and a Globe, winning neither but receiving a great deal of critical praise. While theirs were the only nominations of note, Collins, Seymour, and the rest of the cast all gave great performances as well. I would be remiss if I didn’t note how beautiful the young Jane Seymour appears in this film.
The film ends with the epilogue:
In 1888, neither fingerprinting nor bloodtyping was in use and no conclusive forensic, documentary or eye-witness testimony was available. Thus, positive proof of the Ripper’s identity is not available.
We have come to our conclusions after careful study and painstaking deduction. Other researchers, criminologists and writers may take a different view.
We believe our conclusions to be true.
A bold claim from filmmakers when considering this case has been picked apart by some of the greatest minds in the criminal justice field to no avail. However, if anyone can sell you on a theory, the performances of Caine, Assante, and crew can.
Michael Caine is a national treasure in at least two countries and featured here are two of many exhibits of proof that he’s been killing it for decades. These two films (or, film and mini-series) are well worth your time and can be found at Warner Archive (Get Carter and Jack the Ripper). There are fantastic Michael Caine films in every genre, so support the man’s work. He won’t be with us forever.