Friday, July 20, 2007

A Structural Analysis of Get Carter (1970) by Alastair James John Atkinson

This paper will provide a structural analysis of the film Get Carter (1970). To fully comprehend this notion however it intends to review two principles of structural analysis of film and use the film to illustrate these points.

All structural analysis of texts, are able to illustrate the notion of an omnipresent narrative, that is the ever presence of a narrative. No matter how obvious this proposal seems, it must be comprehended that everything possesses a narrative, everything from a leaf or coloured wall, to the most intricate film or book. Each possess a narrative, each possess a different narrative, and the importance each narrative holds is in many ways representative of the importance placed upon it by the reader or enunciator of that narrative.

Kuhn (1994), in her book Women's Pictures; Feminism and Cinema, proposes the notion that the meaning of a text lies within the reception of that text. She notes that texts do not exist without a receiver. Meaning is arguably gained therefore at that point of reception and must lie with the enunciator of the reading. Anything that a receiver receives possesses meaning and thus a narrative, the essential nature of that narrative is another question.

The term narrative is essentially synonymous with the term story; a narrative essentially is a story, and it is the interpretation of this story that provides meaning. Structural analysis of narrative therefore is an analysis of the structures present within a narrative.

Having noted this, the flip side of the coin is that structural analysis presents nothing more than a mode of analysis; a tool which possesses specific elements, which when applied to a narrative are able to provide meaning.

The element of Structural analysis is as varied and as complex as most other means of analysis. This paper will concentrate upon an analysis of the film Get Carter (1970) by looking at the DISTRIBUTIONAL and INTEGRATIONAL functions within its narrative.

However, these ideas are illustrated the paper will firstly outline some fundamental elements of the concept of distributional and Integrational analysis of film.


It is important to define what it is one is analyzing. Structural analysis within this filmic rubric is the analysis of the functional units of a text. It is logical therefore to argue that if this is the case, a text must be made up of units. The varying importance of these units illustrates the segments of the narrative which are either vital or secondary to the overall plot. BARTHES terms this as follows:

‘...a unit has been taken as any segment of the story, which can be seen as the term of a correlation. The essence of that function is, the seed that it sows in the narrative planting an element which will come into fruition later.’

Barthes defines this by noting that different functions within a text are important at differing levels. He classifies these levels to be DISTRIBUTIONAL and INTEGRATIONAL levels. Barthes notes that they ‘...correspond to what Propp refers to as functions’.

The importance of these distributional functions can be divided into two groups, CARDINAL or (NUCLEI) FUNCTIONS and CATALYTIC FUNCTIONS. The most important of these being the Cardinal functions; as the term suggests, the catalysers provide an important felicitator of the narrative; providing openings for cardinal functions to function. That is, a unit of the text that plays a vital role within the plot. For example, when Jack Carter finds a gun and cartridges on the top of a cupboard in his murdered brother’s house it is plausible that this gun will play a role within a future unit of the narrative; and indeed it does. However, the degree of importance this function serves within the narrative, at this primary stage, is not clear.

The establishing of the gun within the narrative may now be seen as an important element to the narrative. Supporting this CARDINAL FUNCTION is the CATALYSER which serves to provide a forum for the cardinal function to exist within the narrative unit.

Barthes notes that all catalysers imply the existence of cardinal functions; however, the existence of cardinal functions does not imply the existence of catalysers. That where there is one cardinal function, there must always be another to reciprocate the meaning; to give meaning to the original cardinal function.

This is illustrated within Get Carter (1970) when Jack forcefully enters the houses of both Cliff Brumby and Mr. Caneer. Both sequences play a role in the development of the narrative. Jack is seen to be forceful, willing and capable breaking the law and also known to the characters he meets.

It is now understood then that within a narrative there are present both CARDINAL and CATALYSER Functions. One can see that the catalysers are, as the term suggests, a developer for further units within the narrative. These CARDINAL and CATALYSER functions are DISTRIBUTIONAL functions.

The second principle Bathes concerned himself with were the INTEGRATIONAL functions of a unit within the narrative. These, also, play an equally important role as the distributional level functions, however, perhaps not as obvious. The INTEGRATIONAL units comprise of what Barthes terms as the INDICES and INFORMANTS. The INDICE concerns, not a complementary or consequential act, as within the distributional units, but:

‘...a more or less diffuse concept which is never the less necessary to the meaning of the story: Psychological Indices referring’ to the characters, date regarding their identity, notations of atmosphere...’

Within the film, some of these INTEGRATIONAL units are show within the title sequence.’

The INTEGRATIONAL level, as with the DISTRIBUTIONAL level, can also be split into two groups. Firstly, there is the INDICE, of which we are already aware, and secondly Barthes recognises the element termed as the INFORMANT. The primary distinction between INDICE and INFORMANTS is that the INDICE refers to the character of the narrative agent, in the case of Get Carter (1970) Michael Caine’s character, Jack Carter, the atmosphere or indeed a philosophy held by either the narrative or the narrative agent. For example, within the opening sequence of the film, we see Jack acting as a gangster, the sexual triangle between Jack, Anna Fletcher (Britt Ekland) and Gerald Fletcher (Terrence Rigby) and Jack’s decision and undertaking of his decision to take the train to Newcastle. In effect the sequence not simply indexes Jack and his desire to go to Newcastle, but also that Newcastle is a rough, grim place where only tough people can survive. The sequence continues to inform the viewer not only of Jack's taste in literature (the crime thriller that the film itself was loosely based upon, 'Farewell My Lovely', by Raymond Chandler), but also Jack's use and knowledge of Narcotics. The sequence automatically provides us with important information about the character of Jack; information which is played upon later within the film.

Informants, on the other hand, serve to identify or to locate the narrative or narrative agent in time and space. The Informant always serves to authenticate the reality of the referent; that is, the idea or thing that a word symbolises. An informant brings with itself, instant information about the narrative or narrative agent. For example, one is able to recognise Mr. Caneer as a rich and powerful man, through the presence of his bodyguards. The Bodyguards instantly bring to the narrative, the information that Mr. Caneer is someone who needs the use of bodyguards. In addition to this we see a Land Rover vehicle, repeatedly, at a distance. Jack notices this vehicle therefore the men in the land-rover show us that Jack is already being watched and perhaps pursued.

Barthes comments upon all four elements of distributional and Integrational analysis:

"...Nuclei (cardinal) and Catalyses, indice and informants (again the names are of little importance), these, it seems, are the initial classes into which the functional level units can be divided. This classification must be completed by two remarks. Firstly, a unit can at the same time belong to two different classes: to drink whisky (in an airport lounge is an action which can act as a catalyser to the cardinal notation of waiting, but is also, and simultaneously, the indice of a certain atmosphere (modernity, relaxation, reminiscence, etc.). In other words, certain units can be mixed, giving a play of possibilities in the narrative economy... ...and secondly, it should be noted that the four classes described can be distributed in a different way."

Within the final conclusion of the film we find out that Jack’s brother was indeed murdered, that he did not drink whisky and that during his murder he was forced to drink a complete bottle of whisky. We might now be able to see that the scene showing Jack finding the gun is not a cardinal function at all, but a catalyser to the final sequence in which jack uses the gun to force Eric Paice to drink a complete bottle of whisky, before killing, not by shooting, but by beating to death, the murderer of Jack's brother. The whisky too is a catalyser; contributing throughout the plot to the final sequence in which jack takes his pound of flesh only to have it taken away moments later when he himself is killed.


1. ) Random sequences cannot illustrate a definite meaning of a text.

Individual sequences may provide a different meaning to that which a full screening will provide.

2. ) Meaning cannot be acquired, nor functions correctly identified, until after the total narrative has reached a conclusion.

Propp analysis is able to illustrate meaning of a text whereas meaning within this form of analysis still remains with the individual, and thus open to interpretation.

Propp analysis is able to illustrate meaning of a text as it is seen, whereas Distributional and Integrational analysis can provide a retrospective analysis. Any meaning taken during the flow of a text may have to be altered each time a new sequence is shown.