Film: You're a big man. Are you in bad shape?

In 1971, Get Carter was ahead of its time. But will its revival now resonate with anyone other than Loaded readers?
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In 1971, British audiences more accustomed to getting a sunny view of Swinging London from the top of a double-decker bus were battered and bruised by the arrival of three British gangster movies. Love and peace were out. Hard men were in. Suddenly their favourite screen heroes were appearing in roles that ranged from the down-at-heel to the downright nasty.

Villain starred Richard Burton as a cruel, gay hood with a mother complex. Stephen Frears' Gumshoe saw Albert Finney's Liverpool bingo caller playing Bogart, while Mike Hodges' Get Carter sent Michael Caine's hitman back to his native Newcastle to revenge his brother's murder. Only one film from this unholy trinity is remembered today. But is Get Carter anything more than a cinematic thick ear? Has this stylish slice of Seventies' machismo survived beyond the ironic appreciation of the Loaded generation?

Part of Get Carter's "classic" appeal lies in its formal simplicity. Drawing on hard-boiled American fiction (specifically, Ted Lewis's homegrown pulp paperback, Jack's Return Home), Get Carter ditched the literary sense of filmed theatre that had cluttered other British films in favour of a spare, cinematic style. At the start of the film we know little about Jack Carter, and we don't learn much as we go along. Instead Hodges' minimalist screenplay simply follows a sharp-suit with a shotgun. As such Get Carter is an old story, an urban Western which sees a stranger riding in to town on a revenge quest. But in its frank approach to sex and violence, the film was ahead of its time. Jack Carter travels up to Newcastle reading Chandler's Farewell My Lovely, but the book's a throwback.

Conspicuously lacking in Philip Marlowe's chivalry, Carter marked a new breed of amoral anti-hero. In contrast to Britain's gallery of gentleman villains, Carter's bad guy strides across the screen like Lee Marvin in Point Blank or the iconic Clint of spaghetti Westerns.

The closest British cinema had come to such a cold-eyed killer during the 1960s was James Bond, but at least he was on Her Majesty's Secret Service. Carter's lethal blend of wit and sadism serves no one but himself. Trawling Newcastle's testosterone-soaked bars and betting shops, Carter uncovers the gang behind his brother's death and sets about dispatching them with some great lines. In one scene the implacable Carter tells his victim: "You're a big man but you're in bad shape. For me it's a full- time job. Now behave yourself."

And what's missing? Oh, just the small matter of a sexual revolution. Unlike Nicolas Roeg's psychedelic Performance (1970), in which James Fox's gangster is seen trying to rid himself of his straitjacket of machismo and join Mick and the girls in the jacuzzi of self-discovery, Get Carter presents masculinity as unproblematic. If he's not stabbing, shooting or throwing men off buildings, Carter is having sex with "easy" women before trying to drown them in the bath or bundling them into the boot of a car. In one memorable scene he calls up his girlfriend (and bosses' wife, Britt Ekland, and talks dirty to her down the phone while eyeing his able-and-willing landlady. Later, Ekland has her face smashed up after Carter's boss discovers their affair. Like Caine's conquests in Alfie, Carter's women are expendable.

"Everyone's expendable," counters Hodges, "but the women certainly aren't peripheral. If you want to pay the film its proper respect, it's actually about the corruption of a young girl. That's what drives Carter to revenge. The most extraordinary moment in the film is where Caine is watching the porn film, sees his niece Doreen and begins to cry."

So watching other women is fine? If anything, Carter's tears merely confirm Get Carter's misogyny, its dated division of women into virgins and whores. Carter subscribes to the traditional gangster code by ranking his family above all else (that Doreen may in fact be his daughter brings it even closer to home). Carter is as bad as the rest of them, but his cheap sentimentality is somehow supposed to transform him into avenging angel.

Today, Get Carter enjoys the iconic, "ironic" aura of a cult classic. Carter's macho front. The tarts in purple underwear. It's all a lost romantic landscape for today's Loaded lad. But scratch its flashy, sexploitation surface (served up neat in the 1972 blaxploitation remake, Hit Man) and the film has a realism that was to find its way on to the British screen in everything from The Long Good Friday to Prime Suspect.

Playing the hard man is one way to survive this dog-eat-dog world but, despite its infatuation with virility, Get Carter seemed to have room to be critical of machismo, to engage with it emotionally, in a way that's impossible today. So what does Hodges think of the "ironic" macho adopted by Loaded readers? "I absolutely loathe it. I hate the whole Lad culture. It's all a role. The horror is that this role is spreading like a virus. Do we really want to live in a world filled with male slobs?"

As for last year's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he has only this to say. "It's interesting because that was a kind of sado-farce. The gangster genre just seems to have turned into something to laugh at. Before, people took film seriously. Now it's pure entertainment."

As a hip, modern gangster film, Lock, Stock... sends-up Get Carter to produce a new take on Britishness (or at least Cool Britannia), but Ritchie denies any influence. "I didn't really get inspiration from Get Carter. We were just arsing around, taking liberties with reality. That was a very credible, realistic piece."

Surely both offer fantasies of masculinity? "Well, gangster films are about fellas being fellas, aren't they?" says Ritchie, rather proving my point. "They're not about fellas being hairdressers or make-up artists, so I suppose that's going to ruffle a few feathers with the fellas."

Fellas being fellas was certainly enough to ruffle Antonia Bird, director of the 1997 heist movie Face. She wasn't interested in emulating Hodges' classic. "I never thought of Face as a gangster movie" she says warily. "I was attracted by the fact that it was about these normal blokes." Although Get Carter was an influence on Ronan Bennett's hard-boiled script, Bird herself regards such British films as old fashioned. "I thought [Ronan's] script was quite old-fashioned anyway. My influences are more Martin Scorsese than Get Carter."

Still, Get Carter can't be completely out of date, since there's a remake planned with Sylvester Stallone. Somehow it seems unlikely to feature either Get Carter's misogyny or its eye for telling social detail. Instead there will be the old tale of the stranger riding into town in search of retribution. When it comes to Nineties' machismo, it's time to Get Sly.