This month sees the release of new Michael Caine film Youth — which is thankfully one of the veteran Londoner’s better films. His performance as a conductor living out a bittersweet retirement in Switzerland has deservedly garnered great reviews and scooped several awards (though scandalously no Oscar nomination).
So while he’s on form, we thought it a good time to look back at the career of Rotherhithe’s Maurice Micklewhite (as was). There have been some era-defining performances as well as some proper shockers, the weird thing being that sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. So here’s our guide to the very best and the bloody worst of Sir Michael Caine.
The Very Best
Oscars: Caine has been nominated six times and won twice as Best Supporting Actor. His first was in 1987 for playing a pretentious accountant who hankers after his wife’s sister in one of Woody Allen’s better social comedies Hannah And Her Sisters. His second was for his warm-hearted abortionist, if you can imagine such a thing, in 1999’s The Cider House Rules.
Not shouting: For our money, Caine’s finest performance has been as a journalist adrift in pre-war Vietnam in The Quiet American. The opening features little more than Caine whispering Graham Greene’s sublime prose, but it’s utterly hypnotic and after watching it you may well find yourself unconsciously booking a flight to Saigon.
Getting drunk: One of Caine’s most memorable performances was in Educating Rita, where he was so convincing as a soused English professor you could practically smell his whisky breath. In fact, many of his greatest moments have included a bottle within easy reach. As Caine once remarked: “The best research for playing a drunk is being a British actor for 20 years.”
The nerdy superspy: Caine’s break-out role was as unlikely secret agent Harry Palmer in 60s classic The Ipcress File. He managed to look as cool as the Cold War itself despite wearing a beige rain mac and NHS-specs as he stumbled towards the mysterious manila folder of the title. He reprised the character in four diminishingly interesting sequels, then enjoyed sending himself up as Austin Powers’ dad in Goldmember.
Being a nasty bastard: Never shy of playing cruel or cold-hearted, some of Caine’s best characters have been his meanest. In Mona Lisa, he is a truly rancid crime boss, while in Get Carter, his revenge mission up north allows him to do unspeakable things to the Geordies. He’s also spun comedy gold from his dark side, such as his Scrooge in The Muppets Christmas Carol or the oily conman in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, especially when posing as Dr Emil Schaffhausen and teaching Steve Martin a lesson:
The Nolan Years: After a prolonged spell in the cinematic wilderness, Caine was rediscovered by Christopher Nolan who put him in every film he’s made since Batman Begins. He’s been terrific in them all, even making Bruce Wayne’s butler seem like a worthwhile part. We hope he’s also got a plum role in Nolan’s just-announced Dunkirk, about the evacuation of British soldiers during the second world war, which would nicely tie Caine’s career back to the all-star war epics he made early in his career.
The Bloody Worst
American accents: Caine has great range, but he’s never been very adept at shedding his natural Cockney. So be prepared to gnaw on most of your fist as you watch him trying to do Texan (at least that’s what we think he’s trying to do) in Hurry Sundown. And if that’s not enough, here he is getting as mad as hell in the Steven Segal directed eco-actioner On Deadly Ground (probably because he’s in it) and he's not much happier here either:
Dangerous creatures: Say what you want about the crappier flicks Caine’s wound up in, you can never accuse him of not bothering. In The Swarm he’s impressively furious throughout as he tries to deal with killer bees surging across America (see clip below). Then in Jaws The Revenge he manages to pull off one of the best worst apparent death scenes as a psychotic great white shark comes straight for him. Caine later commented: “I have never seen the film, but by all accounts it was terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
The bottom of the barrel: It’s hard to be definitive about the very worst Michael Caine film since there are a few too many stinkers to choose from. We will suggest however that it’s hard to beat Michael Winner’s dog’s dinner of a comedy, the ironically-titled Bullseye! Here Caine competes with Roger Moore for the dishonours in a farce so unfunny, it’s practically a horror.
Playing himself: It turns out everyone can do a My Cocaine impression apart from the man himself.
Letting Jude Law play him: It’s still a mystery why Law insisted on trying to be Caine in two excruciating cover version performances: Sleuth and Alfie. Together they make up a charmless offensive that should be left rotting from a gibbet as a warning to cocky young actors. Here you can compare Caine in London making a philanderer seem quietly tragic and then the man who would be Caine floundering as he tries to comprehend what it’s all about.
If you have any other suggestions for his other greatest and grisliest films, let us know in the comments below.