This is Michael Caine in 1971 Brit noir gangster movie Get Carter. The premise – prodigal son returns home to avenge the slaying of his brother – is a hackneyed conceit, over-reliant on stock movements and generic posturing. Although I should add that expecting otherwise somewhat misses the point; this isn’t a film that sets out to reinvent the genre, or even to push against thematic conventions that vengeance and underworld imply. Rather, this is a movie whose potency is derived via execution (and not execution of the gangland variety), a movie that’s as much driven by setting, scenario and socio-economics as it is in thrall to narrative.
Set / filmed primarily on location in and around Newcastle, this is landscape as hinterland. Somewhere caught between the industrial and post-industrial, between a fatalistic proletariat pride and the dying embers of sixties urban reinvention – part ideological, part entrepreneurial – that saw former great manufacturing centres of northern Britain doused in concrete. It’s no coincidence that a pivotal scene takes place atop the unloved brutalist magnificence of the Trinity Centre high-rise car park, a concrete edifice that dominated the Gateshead skyline until demolition in 2010. Or that the finalé unfurls on a sandy coastline traumatised by a giant industrial conveyor belt, busy dumping pit waste directly into a blackened sea as Caine + shotgun perform the protagonist duties (the early seventies not being too hot on ecology).
It’s this attention to detail that gifts the production a sharply realised undertone, a sense of depth gleaned from these elements of social realism projected behind the boys with guns foreplay. Get Carter can’t help but reach our perception as something of a period piece, but this remains a film that works on several levels.
All of which is fine and dandy, but this is a music blog; if you wanted finely-crafted celluloid-related critique you’d be reading Sight & Sound. Because this is a film as much about the soundtrack and its application as plot, or dialogue, or backdrop. Composed by Roy Budd and (apocryphal or no) recorded for the price of a night out in modern-day Newcastle, this is a series of variations on a theme that are not only jacketed in quirkiness (I don’t usually associate gangsters in unprepossessing surroundings with funk-alligned jazz), but have subsequently edged towards the iconic, familiar echoes transplanted way beyond the limits of the film cannister or the DVD case (The Human League and Stereolab are just two of the acts who’ve covered / sampled the Get Carter soundtrack). This score is deliberately constructed around a central motif that’s seared across the entire movie; it’s a clever appropriation of sound that’s utilized to considerable effect, part subtle aide-mémoire, part incidental protagonist, retrospectively pivotal (a similar argument can be used for the various locations – a director’s skill lies in exploiting setting as character).
Below the words, perhaps the best-known segment of the soundtrack, a piece of music officially titled ‘Carter Takes A Train’ on my version of the OST album (incidentally one of the first albums to feature fragments of the parental film’s dialogue framing each movement). For my money, the effectiveness of a film score can be calibrated by two metrics; the enhancement of the cinematic experience, and being valued on its own merits. Budd’s soundtrack achieves both.
The Roy Budd Trio / Carter Takes A Train