When asked what he thought about “Jaws: The Revenge,” Michael Caine (born Maurice Micklewhite in London on March 14, 1933) famously said, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” That would seem to give the impression that Michael Caine’s career choices have often been driven by paychecks, but that would be a false one. While he’s done his fair share of bill-paying, the prolific British actor has, across a fifty-year career, remained one of the best-loved and most enduring stars we have, as well as a wonderful — and all too often underrated — actor.
Besides Jack Nicholson, Caine is the only actor to have been nominated for an Oscar in every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s (both are still awaiting a nod in the 2010s), and a man whose career runs from starring in the iconic “Zulu” in 1964 to 2012’s billion-dollar blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises,” taking in gangsters, Woody Allen, killer bees and the Muppets along the way. The actor celebrates his 80th birthday today, and though he shows no sign of letting up any time soon (he’s got the magician heist thriller “Now You See Me” and drama “Mr. Morgan’s Last Love” on the way later in the year), it seemed like a good time to celebrate one of our favorites. Check out our picks for Caine’s ten greatest roles below, and argue for your own choices in the comments section below.
And a very, very happy birthday to Sir Michael.
“The Ipcress File” (1965)
It took a few years for Caine to make his name — he described the first nine years of his career as “really, really brutal,” but finally got some big breaks on stage, taking over from Peter O’Toole in “The Long and the Short and the Tall,” and then appearing in the comedy hit “Next Time I’ll Sing To You.” His first starring role on film came with “Zulu” in 1964, the same year that he played Horatio to Christopher Plummer‘s Hamlet on the BBC, but Caine truly cemented his screen presence as anti-Bond Harry Palmer in Sidney J. Furle‘s still-thrilling 1965 adaptation of Len Deighton‘s spy novel “The Ipcress File.” He plays an army sergeant transferred to British intelligence, to help solve the “brain drain” of seventeen top scientists, who’ve been kidnapped and returned with their knowledge of technical matters gone. Palmer is a working class chap, forced to become a spy after being court-martialed for black market racketeering, and Caine plays him as if Jimmy Porter from “Look Back In Anger” had been drafted into MI5. And yet, in his own way, he can be just as suave as 007, womanizing and brawling, but there’s much more of an edge to him, as he carries a subtle resentment toward his higher-ups (who reprimand him for insubordination). And Caine gets better material than Connery ever did as Bond, impressive and heroic as he’s kidnapped and brainwashed over weeks, possibly even months. While the film isn’t as well known these days as it should be, the influence of Caine’s performance (which he’d later reprise four more times, to increasingly poor effect) certainly lives on: Daniel Craig‘s James Bond owes as much to Caine’s Palmer as it does to any previous 007s, and there’s a trace of him in Gary Oldman‘s George Smiley too.
The character of Alfie Elkins made Michael Caine’s career. Pauline Kael dubbed Caine and the role as “the swaggering Cockney Don Juan” and, although critics continue to argue over how to regard the film, all agree that Caine was marvelous. On paper, we shouldn’t like Alfie. He’s not so much misogynistic as much as apathetic, but that still doesn’t stop him from a multitude of meaningless flings and unwanted pregnancies all the while not taking any of it too seriously. At the end, we look for some character growth as Alfie asks, “So what’s the answer? That’s what I keep asking myself – what’s it all about? Know what I mean?” We either project our own hopes onto his existential query and/or leave knowing that he’ll continue to be “the sodding little spiv with a raucous charm” (as described in the 1966 Time review). Onscreen, Michael Caine plays the role with such bravado that we follow along with every “ain’t”, “innit”, and “bird”, from telling his pregnant girlfriend “Blimey, girl, you ain’t as ugly as I thought” to telling another “You’re not entitled to secret thoughts!” A sequel (1975’s “Alfie Darling,” with the little-known Alan Price taking over the title role) and remake (starring Jude Law, in 2004) have happened without Caine, and for all the original film’s lightweight qualities, that these projects are still hugely overshadowed is testament to the qualities of the star’s performance in the role that truly made him a phenomenon. Michael Caine is the only man, dead or alive, who could turn Alfie into the charismatic character we all know and love in spite of ourselves.
“Get Carter” (1971)
Picking Caine’s single greatest, or at least most iconic, performance, would be an absolute fool’s errand. But if we really really had to, gun to our head, we’d probably go with “Get Carter,” Mike Hodges‘ brutal, outstanding 1971 crime pic, one of the best British films ever, featuring as magnetic a performance as Caine ever gave. He plays the eponymous Carter, a Newcastle-born, London-based gangster. He’s planning to run away with his boss’ girl (Britt Ekland), but is called back home for the first time in years when his brother is killed, seemingly in a drunk driving accident. Carter sets out to track down the man responsible, discovering all kinds of corruption, betrayal and insidious acts in the process. Caine stalks the north-eastern industrial wasteland like he owns the joint, burying his charm deep down; he’s magnetic, but never pleasant, getting up to some truly abhorrent acts, and coming across as nothing less than a Cockney Angel of Death. And when combined with the assuredness with which Hodges directs, and the bleak, almost existential feel of the script (right down to the ending), it adds up to something of a crime classic. Stay far, far away from the Sylvester Stallone-starring remake (which Caine cameos in); this one’s the real deal.
Still in his young rogue prime, Michael Caine plays Milo Tindle, a self-made successful hairdresser who is sleeping with the wife of the knighted and wealthy crime fiction writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier). Another character with shaky morals, Milo agrees to Andrew’s plan consisting of Milo “stealing” Andrew’s jewels and selling them while Andrew claims the insurance money. This starts a chain of “games” involving infidelities, theft, and murder. The film ends with Milo telling Andrew “don’t forget, be sure and tell them, it was all just, a bloody game.” Some critics, including Time’s Jay Cocks, believed that to appreciate this film you need a taste for the sort of crime fiction in which “all the detectives were titled” (to borrow a line from the film). Others disregard that criticism and consider the film, as Roger Ebert described it, as “a totally engrossing entertainment…funny and scary by turns, and always superbly theatrical.” Wherever you fall, Olivier and Caine stand out for the magnificent performances they brought out in each other while tackling the issues of age, impotency, and class through bloody cat-and-mouse games. Remade in 2007 with Caine aging up as Andrew and Jude Law taking the part of Milo, the original still remains supreme in the hearts of critics and audiences alike.
“The Man Who Would Be King” (1975)
Directed and co-written by John Huston, this film (based on the Rudyard Kipling short story) went through multiple rounds of potential actors over the years (Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, Robert Redford and Paul Newman). It was during the last round that Newman suggested Sean Connery and Michael Caine, and Huston went on to cast them in the two lead roles. As Danny Dravot and Peachy Carnehan respectively, Connery and Caine play two British soldiers who leave the army and become imperial-era Alexander the Greats in Kafiristan (modern-day Afghanistan). To give you a taste without ruining the adventure and plot, Danny tells a group of native recruits that, “A soldier does not think. He only obeys. Do you really think that if a soldier thought twice he’d give his life for queen and country? Not bloody likely. “ It’s a rip-roaring, old-fashioned adventure, but one that Huston gives a sort of post-colonial subtext, perhaps not intended by Kipling (it’s hard not to see a sense of ‘end of empire’ in the characters’ eventual fates). Caine and Connery have such great, immediately iconic chemistry that it’s a shame they never teamed up again. Biographical detail fans should note that Caine met his wife, Shakira Baksh Caine, while she was playing Sean Connery’s character’s local bride.
“Hannah And Her Sisters” (1986)
Back before Woody Allen’s Grand European Tour, when he still made films in New York, “Hannah and Her Sisters” was one of his finest, telling the story of three tightly knit sisters and their extended family in Manhattan. Caine and Allen might not seem like an obvious combination, but his storming turn as Elliot, husband to Mia Farrow’s Hannah, won him his first Oscar. A bespectacled middle-aged accountant, Elliot pursues his wife’s vivacious younger sister Lee (Barbara Hershey). As the affair commences, Elliot is not only a philanderer, but also caddishly blames his wife’s self-sufficiency and emotional strength for his wandering eye. Playing another character we should hate, Michael Caine makes us believe in Elliot and the earnestness of his torn feelings between Hannah and her sister. Elliot lacks the panache of Alfie and the dignity of Caine’s later roles, but we are forced to feel for Elliot as he searches for what he thinks is the answer (“For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom, I can’t fathom my own heart”) rather than viewing him merely as a middle-aged lech (“She looks so sexy in that sweater. I just want to be alone with her and hold her and kiss her…”). Almost thirty years later, Elliot still resonates with audiences, as Peter Bradshaw wrote in his Guardian review, “Caine’s performance, so fervent, so agonisingly dedicated, actually gains in force and touching sincerity with the years.”
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988)
An unofficial remake of “Bedtime Story” starring David Niven and Marlon Brando, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” follows two very different conmen on the French Riviera as they are wined and dined by rich female tourists. Unlike others on this list, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is strictly a comedy (and one that makes you wonder why he doesn’t go broad more often), but like in the other films, Caine plays a real cad. Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is a suave and sophisticated con artist who seduces gullible but not wholly innocent women and relieves them of their wealth. Lawrence’s modus operandi involves convincing these women of a certain age that he is an exiled prince who needs funds to rally his troops and reclaim his birthright. In Caine’s portrayal, Lawrence is catnip for these bored, too-rich-for-their-own-good women with his dashing looks and classic charisma – stealing their hearts and their wallets. Lawrence’s financial future is threatened by the appearance of Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), a small-time crook who has taken an interest in the very same women Lawrence is after – “A poacher who shoots at rabbits may scare big game away.” Whether battling over an American soap queen or teaming up to get rid of a mark, Caine and Martin are a laugh riot. In the end, it turns out that Lawrence’s heart is as golden as his bank account, and we have fallen in love with Michael Caine all over again, even as a thief, liar, and con man. Martin might get the most uproariously funny scenes (particularly in his moments as Prince Ruprecht), but Caine’s the perfect, ultra-suave foil for him, and gets almost as many laughs.
“The Quiet American” (2002)
The second adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, the film is set in 1952 Vietnam, and sees Caine play Thomas Fowler competing with an American CIA agent (Brendan Fraser) for the love of local beauty Phuong (Hai Yen). As Fowler, Caine plays an eyewitness to the development of the Vietnam War and used Greene as inspiration in developing his character, telling the BBC that, “I didn’t know him very well, but I knew a great deal about him. […] I knew a lot by proxy. I just copied something of the way he [Greene] spoke, and his movements. They were very small.” He did it so successfully that the film garnered some success and a few nominations in spite of having been shelved for a year in the wake of 9/11 and cries over supposed anti-American sentiments. But Caine trudged on and succeeded where many others would fail. His role here is among his most complex and textured performances, and deserves a look by anyone that might have skipped it first time around.
“Children Of Men” (2006)
After seeming to settle into the position of highly respected older British supporting actor (see “Cider House Rules” and “Batman Begins“), Michael Caine shook things up by playing an aged hippy in “Children of Men.” Taking second seat to the main plot of Theo’s (Clive Owen) attempt to save humanity through a miraculously pregnant woman, the star plays Jasper, a former political cartoonist who spends his days smoking weed and listening to tunes in the woods. Even as the world is crumbling around him, Jasper says, “Pull my finger!” Although a minor part, the actor steals a few scenes (“Your baby is the miracle the whole world has been waiting for”), providing real levity in an otherwise tough film (playing air guitar to Aphex Twin), and pathos in his heroic last stand. In “Children of Men,” Caine’s versatility is tested and he comes out on top yet again.
“The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
In his twilight years, Caine has become the unexpected muse of one of the biggest filmmakers in the world: he’s featured in the last five of Christopher Nolan‘s films (and has apparently been promised a role in his next, “Interstellar“) proving a reliable, sly supporting hand from “Batman Begins” to “Inception.” They’re all fine performances (even one as brief as in “Inception”) but perhaps Caine’s finest Nolan hour so far came in last year’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” Of all the relationships Bruce Wayne has had throughout Nolan’s trilogy, none have been as important as that with Alfred, his most important father figure. As the man who raised him, and promised his parents to look out for the young man for the rest of his life, Alfred has grappled with Bruce’s desire to save Gotham even as it so very often comes at the risk of his own life. And in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Alfred reaches the limit of what he can stand by and watch Bruce do. With his body battered, spirit waning and public image still tarnished, Bruce is very much on the path of martyrdom early in the movie (and seemingly pretty much suicidal), something the world-wise Alfred recognizes all too well, and he will have no part of it. When he announces to Bruce that he can no longer in good conscience be with him — and reveals at the same time the contents of Rachel’s letter from “The Dark Knight” as a last resort to get Master Wayne to move on from his plans to return as Batman — it’s a crushing scene. And Caine is absolutely shattering in it, delivering one of the best pieces of acting in the entire trilogy, and giving the film a much-needed emotional core, the trilogy a lovely arc for Bruce and Alfred.
Honorable Mentions: Possibly the biggest omission here is “The Cider House Rules,” the film that won Caine his second Oscar. It’s as fine a turn, but perhaps one of those Oscar wins that’s for a breadth of career achievement rather than the specific performance itself. That said, it did allow Caine to give one of the all-time greatest Oscar speeches, which you can watch below.
Other performances we considered, but didn’t quite have time for include “Gambit,” “The Italian Job,” “The Eagle Has Landed,” “California Suite,” “Educating Rita,” “Last Orders,” “Is Anybody There?” and “Harry Brown.” Any others you feel deserve a mention? Let us know below.
– Diana Drumm, Oliver Lyttelton