For the 52nd and final review in my yearlong journey through the They Shoot Pictures Top 1000, I decided it was time to shake things up a bit. Inscrutable art films and dreary social dramas are all right, but we're going out with a bang: a nasty, occasionally sleazy British gangster picture starring a young Michael Caine at his flintiest, 1971's Get Carter.

Co-produced by the actor after a string of flops had knocked off all the luster that he'd picked up in the mid-'60s, thanks to such films as Zulu, The Ipcress File and Alfie, the story of Jack Carter, a London gangster who travels to Newcastle to investigate the shady circumstances around his brother's death, wasn't just meant to revitalize Caine's sagging career - he and his producing partner Michael Klinger (who took all the on-screen credit) were hoping to give a boost to the very concept of the British gangster picture, which by that point had slipped into stodgy irrelevance, like pretty much all British genre filmmaking around the start of the '70s. It would be a flat-out lie to say that Get Carter reinvented the wheel, but it was the first time that this combination of urban realism and nihilistic violence had been seen in the UK, and it did indeed lead to a whole new generation of crime stories with cockney accents - let all those who've enjoyed Mona Lisa or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Shallow Grave or Sexy Beast, or any of the dozens of other crime films set in Britain's post-industrial decay bow down before Get Carter, without which those films might very plausibly not exist.

Unlike many of its descendants, though, Get Carter is simple, almost brutally so. The story is as straightforward as it could be: Carter wants to find out who killed his brother and why; he does so; he exacts his revenge on those responsible. Even the conspiracy that he uncovers isn't particularly complex, except in the number of similar pasty white British thugs that it involves. There's actually a very beautiful structural elegance to the screenplay, thanks to this utter simplicity: writer Mike Hodges (who also directed) adapted Ted Lewis's novel Jack Returns Home to be a story in two parts, essentially, the first of which gives no indication at all what the second shall be, though the second half follows inexorably from the first. Essentially, the first hour or so of the film gives every indication of being a plotless mood piece: Jack goes to somebody he knows knew of his brother, asks them questions, finds no answers, and leaves. Certainly, it's satisfying just on the level of watching a tough guy maneuver through the rundown shithole that is Newcastle, particularly given how great Caine can play a tough guy, but then the second half comes along, and Carter learns that just about every single person that he's interacted with so far has been lying, or at least heavily misleading him. So back he goes, to each and every one of them, except this time he's extremely pissed. This is a strange and marvelous way to build a story: like Chekhov's dictum of introducing a gun in the first act, this is an hour of guns and an hour of gunshots. Or to use a different image, the first hour is scene after scene of Carter being wound up, and the second hour is him unloading. Viciously.

Hodges, making his cinematic debut after some TV movies that impressed Caine and Klinger to no end, proved to be a flat-out genius for this sort of material, and it's a tremendous shame that he never got to make good on the promise of this film (he came closest with Croupier, the film that put Clive Owen on the map, but everything in between was getting fired from The Omen II and lots of TV work, and the director-proof Flash Gordon). Because Jesus, is his eye for urban action ever strong. I't all but impossible that the films influenced one another, but Get Carter reminds me of nothing more than William Friedkin's The French Connection: slightly over-exposed exterior footage of men running artlessly through dirty streets. There's nothing remotely high-energy or shiny in this film of lowlifes chasing and murdering other lowlifes: there is nowhere for the audience to run and hide, delighting in the stylistic excesses of the film in order to keep the nastiness at bay.

I take it back: there are stylistic excesses, but they're not the kind that your Guy Ritchie or Danny Boyles like to fool around with. What the film does have is fairly adventurous editing by the standards of the early 1970s (on two separate occasions, the film uses a quick series of cuts - close, closer, closest - in place of the de rigeur period-appropriate zoom lens; something we've seen plenty of times before and since, but offhand I can only think of one or two other examples from around the same time), and even more adventurous sound design. Yes, sound design, which is the kind of thing you only tend to notice when it's extremely bad or extremely good. In this case, it's the key to my very favorite scene of the film: Carter has found a reel of film that basically explains everything he needs to know, and the explanation is tremendously upsetting. The scene cuts between him and the woman he's just slept with in the bath (just as he's learning that she's lied to him like everyone else), without a single word of dialogue: instead, the sound of the projector grows slowly louder every time we see Carter, cutting out completely when we see the woman. That horrible rattling projector sound therefore never becomes white noise, but always falls hard on the ear and coupled with Caine's tremendous facial acting, keys us in on exactly how worked up we're supposed to be over this turn of events. It's the midpoint of the film - the single scene upon which the rest of the story pivots - and thanks to a little judicious cutting and aggressive noise, it hits with the impact of a jackhammer to the spine.

I picked that scene because, like I said, it's my favorite; but you could do the same with plenty of other moments in Get Carter. It's a ridiculously well-constructed crime thriller. And thanks to Caine's intensity, and Hodges's direct way of shooting and cutting action (credit due, I suppose to cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky and editor John Trumper), Roy Budd's funky and dischordant score, and all the other little things that go to make up a film's mood, it's just the shock to a moribund genre that the producers wanted it to be. Early on, Hodges shows Carter reading Raymond Chandler; a cute misdirect. Because Jack Carter is nothing like a Chandler hero, he's a violent thug who happens to be our protagonist, and whose company is kind of terrifying at points. Get Carter paved the way for generations of savage gangster movies that followed, and its finest triumph may be that it's still more immediate and brutal than almost any of the films that it inspired.