When I decided to do a Their Best Role piece on Sir Michael Caine, I knew that choosing one character would be difficult. Caine's body of work is rich, diverse, and filled with classic parts -- many of which could very well be his best performance. Even then, I underestimated how many options there would be. Looking at a list of Caine's credits and trying to pick one that defines him above all others is a daunting task. The thespian won a Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules. He was nominated for Best Actor after appearing in Alfie, Sleuth, Educating Rita, and The Quiet American. You can't argue against any of those performances -- each of them is memorable and demonstrates why we revere Caine's work. But, while those performances are great, I think a performance that Caine didn't get an Oscar nomination for stands as his best: his portrayal of Jack Carter in the 1971 British gangster film Get Carter.
If you've never seen Get Carter, you're missing out. It's a mean little film about a gangster (Caine) trying to unravel the events surrounding his brother's unexpected death. It's one of those classic examples of 70's crime cinema that proves "They don't make them like they used to." It's drawn comparisons to Lee Marvin's Point Blank and is often cited as the inspiration for the new wave of British gangster films from directors like Guy Ritchie. Its story of a professional killer seeking to vengeance and retribution at any cost isn't particularly profound -- but the direction of Mike Hodges and an absolutely mesmerizing performance from Caine move Get Carter beyond its pulpy origins and place it amongst the best British films of the era.
Caine went against type in Get Carter. He's not the ladies man of Alfie -- although he beds almost every woman in this film -- he's not funny, and he's not charming. He bears little resemblance to the Caine of The Italian Job and Gambit -- two crime films he'd made prior to this one. Instead, Caine is like a predatory creature (although not in the same way as in De Palma's Dressed to Kill) -- an amoral man with a single-minded dedication to getting what he wants. He's a destructive force, almost like a tornado -- he simply obliterates everything in his path.
Part of what makes the performance so compelling are the subtle nuances of the character. Jack Carter is a man hellbent on avenging a brother (and eventually a daughter/niece) that he never cared for prior to that moment. We think maybe Carter has some sense of familial loyalty driving him forward, but it soon becomes apparent that it's merely an excuse for the man to do what he does best: dish out pain and wreak havoc. One begins to wonder if he needed any reason at all to start this settling of scores or if it was merely a convenient one to justify his battering and bludgeoning of those who offended him.
Caine is a bad man in Get Carter -- totally quotable and arguably one of the greatest anti-heroes to emerge from that time period. He's not entirely devoid of emotion -- despite his restrained line delivery through most of the film. He cries after discovering his niece Doreen has been forced to perform in a porn film, but it's a brief humanizing moment. In the next instant, he's beating the prostitute who appeared alongside her for information and then puts her in the trunk of a car that winds up in a river. There's no room for compassion or sorrow in the world of Jack Carter -- it's all about rage and violence. Caine makes us believe that unequivocally.
I've already mentioned the Lee Marvin comparison, but it's hard not to look at Caine in this role and think of another quintessential American tough guy: Robert Mitchum. This is the kind of role Mitchum was born to play and Caine certainly gives off the Mitchum vibe throughout. He's a man who's going to do it his way, regardless of the outcome. If he dies, he dies -- but you know he's going to take out a lot of people along the way, and that he'll have no regrets. Seeing Caine like this, particularly if you've seen his more well known performances beforehand, is like rediscovering the actor. It's a testament to his range that he can play so many different characters so compellingly. To take one as potentially unlikeable as Jack Carter and make us understand -- if not entirely identify with -- what makes him tick is worthy of recognition. That's a tough act to pull off, but Caine makes it look effortless.
While there's unlikely to ever be a consensus when it comes to Michael Caine's best role, I suspect many people wouldn't have chosen Get Carter. It's a relatively obscure gangster film that it seems many haven't seen, and Caine plays a character that's easy to dislike. That's the beauty of the performance though -- Caine takes this unpleasant person and draws us into his world. For a time we understand Jack Carter -- and we come out of the experience appreciating our own lives that much more. That Caine can make this killer who's seemingly beyond redemption relatable and identifiable is the reason it counts as his best role.