2009 July 06 • Monday
"The rain rained."
That's the first line of Ted Lewis's novel Jack's Return Home, better known as Get Carter, the name of the succesful movie adaptation starring Michael Caine.
I love the movie but I always thought that Carter's train ride home in the beginning was much too cozy. There he is, sitting placidly with other passengers and reading Farewell, My Lovely.
A Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe novel? The book Get Carter is written in a laconic and often witty hard-boiled style that could be mistaken as Chandleresque, but Carter is no Marlowe. I can't imagine Chandler's boy-scout detective ever telling us something like "I punched his face until my fists got slippery. Then I turned him over and gave him some in his kidneys".
Carter goes down mean streets and is himself mean, meaner even than the streets. That's why he's alive and his brother, Frank, who was not mean, is dead. Carter became mean enough that he left the mean streets of Doncaster (Newcastle in the movie) for the meaner streets of London.
So the Carter of the book does not read Chandler on the train. Here's what he tells us about his rail journey.
Short sentences are Jack's usual way of expressing himself. Contemplating his brother's death, the reason for his return home, you can hear his thoughts speed up and get out of his control. This happens only a few times and Lewis uses semi-colons to suggest the acceleration of Carter's heart and mind.
Carter's brother Frank has died in a car crash. He apparently drank too much whiskey and lost control of his vehicle. Carter mulls over the fact that his brother never smoked.
That's the angriest semi-colon I've ever seen. I think these surges of emotion are the only places you'll find semi-colons in the book. Of course Frank has been murdered. A grief-stricken semi-colon appears when Carter, reflecting on a scene from his youth, notes Frank's meekness, how like a sheep among wolves he was.
Probably we should hear a single sob of rage and sorrow everytime Carter's thoughts use a semi-colon.
In another scene an absent comma tells us that Carter's voice suddenly becomes a lot less gentle, in the last line of this dialogue with Doreen, Frank's daughter (or Carter's daughter: another detail that complicates matters).
There's a big difference between "Yes, you do" and "Yes you do". A friendly chat officially becomes an interrogation. (Unless it's just a typo.)
The book goes much deeper than the movie into Carter's past and his complex relationship with his brother. Lewis builds tension for about 100 pages before releasing it with the first violent scene. From then on the gloves are off, as they say.
The movie benefits from excellent casting, locations, photography, the works. Also crucial to its success is the score by Roy Budd. Carter's theme, deployed in the opening train ride, is a masterpiece. Harpsichord, electric piano, bass and tabla play the catchy tune and then improvise. It's one of the greatest themes of all time. (Laika and the Cosmonauts covered it on their Amazing Colossal Band album.)
The rest of the music is perfectly suited to the seedy and corrupt world (really an underworld) of the movie. This was apparently Roy Budd's first film-scoring gig and I think it was probably his best.
Get Carter is the sixty-eighth Soundtrack of the Week.