This is an addendum to the post earlier in the week on my 10 favourite British gangster films (which you can read here), itself an homage to the 50th anniversary of seminal 1971 crime movie, Get Carter. Amid the responses to this piece was a recommendation I check out a 1970 film, The Reckoning. I’d vaguely heard of The Reckoning but hadn’t seen it and didn’t include it on that list because I didn’t think it was gangster film. And it’s not. But it is a really interesting piece of early seventies British cinema. A proto Get Carter that appeared a year earlier, it is similarly set in northern England and features as its key narrative a man who returns to the working class town of his youth on a mission of revenge.
Michael Marler (Nicol Williamson – best known for his role as Merlin in John Boorman’s 1981 film, Excalibur) is a hard living up and coming middle manager in a London firm that sells accounting machinery. He has fancy clothes, drives a Jaguar car, a beautiful home, and a beautiful trophy wife (Ann Bell), with whom he has a deceptively complex relationship. He is also an utter bastard. A flagrant womaniser, with no loyalty, who despises his managers at the company while at the same time sucking up to them.
As the film opens, the firm is facing a decline in sales due to the advent of computers. In the midst of fitting up a senior manager to take the fall for the problem, Marler gets a phone call that his elderly father has had a heart attack and is near death. He reluctantly jumps into his Jaguar and at a terrifying speed returns to the grim, working class northern English city of Liverpool, the place he fled from when he was 17, first into the army and then into business, and has seldom returned since.
Marler is too late to see his father, who dies just before he arrives. Paying his last respects to the corpse, however, Marler finds heavy bruising on the body. He does a bit of investigating and discovers the heart attack that killed his father was preceded by a vicious beating from a Teddy Boy in a Liverpool bar. It was not reported by the friends of his father who witnessed it because they hate the police, and his late father’s GP (played by Godfrey Quigley, who had a small role in Get Carter) has also hushed it up for a quiet life.
The discovery propels Marler to re-examine his existence since leaving Liverpool, his relationship with his father – a left wing Irish nationalist – and his working class roots. Having identified the young thug who beat his father up, Marler also feels honour bound to seek revenge. At first he shakes off this urge and returns to London. But his hatred for his English managers at the firm and the polite upper class social circle that his wife has gathered around them, quickly comes to the surface. His speech reverts to its earlier working class Liverpudlian tones and he punches out a senior business associate at a party organised by his wife, an action which threatens his career at the firm and leads him to the realisation that his English bosses have no loyalty towards him and keep him around mainly because they find his ruthless business sense useful. Marler eventually comes to the decision that he has no choice but to return to Liverpool and kill the man he holds responsible for the death of his father.
I won’t spoil the film by any much more about the plot. The Reckoning is based on a book by Patrick Hall. It was adapted for the screen by John McGrath who had a long career in British television, and directed by Jack Gold. The only other other film I have seen by Gold is Aces High, a strange 1976 retelling of R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, but set in a squadron of biplanes in World War I, rather than among the infantry as the play originally was.
Although it is a very different film, The Reckoning has several fascinating parallels to Get Carter. Both films are about men who have left their working class roots to become successful in London, and who are then forced to come home due to a family tragedy.
Liverpool, like Newcastle in Get Carter, is depicted as a tough, rainsweep working class town. And much like Jack Carter, Marler is uncomfortable in its bleak surrounds, the tiny council house that his family still live in, with its wood paneling and crappy flocked wallpaper, the dingy, smokey pubs they drink in, with their bad torch singers and cheap bingo games.
One of the most interesting aspects of Get Carter its depiction of changing class relations in English at the end of the 1960s. This includes the gradual emergence of the more internationalist conservative entrepreneurial class that would eventually propell Margaret Thatcher to victory a decade later, as well as the way in which economic change was slowly starting to flow into the regions, bringing with it developments such as new sexual relations and consumerism. The Reckoning is another excellent portrayal of how society and class relations were changing as England entered the 1970s.
Lastly, both films are very much about revenge. In this regard The Reckoning is in many respects more satisfying. Unlike Carter, Marler is now a middle class businessman and has no idea how to go about killing a man. As a professional gangster Carter is adept at dishing out violence. Marler is not and the process of deciding what he will do leads him to examine his masculinity and everything he has believed in up until now. As a result the eventual result of his actions is also much more cathartic. As Marler’s mum says to him when he is about to return to London the second time. “You’re a bad lad, Mick.”
He gives her a loving look and replies, “I always was.”