Michael Caine: His 10 best movie roles
We look back at Maurice Micklewhite's most notable movies from Alfie to Zulu
On 14 March, 2023 Sir Michael Caine turns 90, and it's a moment worth celebrating.
It was 73 years ago when a young actor called Maurice Joseph Micklewhite first debuted in a side role opposite Richard Attenborough in the war film, Morning Departure. Seven decades later and the actor — now better known by the name Michael Caine — is still going strong and is about to star opposite Glenda Jackson (his co-star in 1975’s The Romantic Englishwoman) in The Great Escaper.
British movie stars are actually a rare breed. And were very much so when a post WW2 diet of B-movie war flicks from the British Home Counties’ studio belt saw a wealth of British actors — Kenneth More, David Niven, Richard Attenborough, Jack Hawkins and Stanley Baker — all still representing a previous generation of stories and movie talent.
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As the austere 1950s evolved into the colourful 1960s, a new batch of working-class princes were about to bring some angry young dollars to the box office – and become stars as well as actors. Leading that charge was Michael Caine.
Raised in London’s Southwark by a fish merchant father and cook mother, Caine details his life in What’s It All About? – his 1987 autobiography and one of the great books about being an actor — the Swinging Sixties, Hollywood in a Concorde era, and working for those breaks. And it nearly did not happen for Caine.
After a repertory theatre start in Sussex’s Horsham he struggled to find good acting roles. He gave himself a cut-off point when he would turn thirty, and was very much about to give up after bit parts in more British war and crime films proved fruitless.
And then he was cast in Zulu (1964). Directed by Cy Enfield, narrated by Richard Burton and blessed with the first of a rich array of scores by composer friend John Barry, Zulu saw Caine mimic the then Duke of Edinburgh with a plummy accent and one arm behind his back.
Britain had a new movie star – and one who was about to stand very tall indeed on both sides of the movie pond alongside his peers Sean Connery, Albert Finney, Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Tom Courtenay.
As Sir Michael celebrates his ninetieth birthday, we look back at just ten of his sizeable registry of movies to pick the best, most revered and maybe most guilt-loved.
Alfie | 1966
Never as buoyant, and mod-cocky, a film as its ground-breaking to-camera asides and Burt Bacharach’s classic title song suggests, Caine works with director Lewis Gilbert to deliver a deceptively clever, critical portrayal of a serial womaniser facing the errors of his morning-after ways in a very different, non-cool London of back street clinics, vulnerable women and bad men.
It gets overlooked just how Michael Caine embodied a post-war British anti-hero more than any of his peers - none of which could have made the complicated Alfie Elkins work as efficiently and emotionally as he does here. The film earned five Oscar nominations, including Caine's first best actor nomination.
Funeral In Berlin | 1966
Whilst it is the first Harry Palmer movie The Ipcress File (1964) that 1960s movie fans remember first, its clever, wintry sequel Funeral in Berlin (1966) in the superior entry in the Harry Palmer series. It sees Caine and James Bond’s director (Guy Hamilton), producer (Harry Saltzman), production designer (Ken Adam) and composer (John Barry) excel while exploring a less glitzy side of espionage.
Its very real Berlin exists in a very real Cold War intrigue where the enemies from before become apt allies, and Caine’s anti-hero is a new mind tackling old adversaries.
The Italian Job | 1969
A true caper of a treat that has become part of the red, white and blue of British pop culture, emblazoned across London 2012 and many a royal pageant. Caine is at his absolute best in Peter Collinson’s perfect heist modyssey.
Assisted by the best Douglas Hayward tailoring, Quincy Jones’ pitch perfect score, three Mini Coopers culled from the streets of London’s Swinging Sixties, and a pitch perfect performance from Caine’s Charlie Croker, The Italian Job will always kick those doors off with its Chelsea boots and ‘Rule Britannia’ wink at the audience.
Get Carter | 1971
Just as his best pals Sean Connery and Roger Moore were living a jet-set life across Europe and California, North East England beckoned for Caine and one of his definitive roles.
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A deeply bleak gangster film granted a Britpop renaissance in the 1990s, Mike Hodges’ 1971 Get Carter drops the mod bounce of The Italian Job and Gambit for cold revenge, Roy Budd’s blistering main theme and possibly Caine’s first real middle-aged role.
Sleuth | 1972
A precursor to the similarly twisty and theatrical Deathtrap (1982) — where Caine famously screen-kisses Superman the Movie’s Christopher Reeve — Joseph L, Mankiewicz’s labyrinthine two-hander allows the actor to prove he had a better, more incisive control of movie acting than his legendary co-star, Laurence Olivier.
As the latter’s crime-fiction prankster tries to outwit Caine’s Milo Tindle in a house of games mansion of murder and adultery, Caine definitely works harder for his Academy Award nomination.
The Man Who Would Be King | 1975
John Huston’s rich, Boy’s Own take on Rudyard Kipling’s novella about a pair of scoundrel soldiers on the make in colonial India and Afghanistan created a movie pairing victory with Caine alongside good pal Sean Connery to create one of both their career’s best moments.
The wilful flip of Zulu’s cautious Bromhead: Caine’s cocky, London-centric Peachy Carnahan opposite Connery is movie pairing perfection, with both leads later proving how much the film and its experience meant to them when they turned up at the bedside of an ill director Huston in full 1880s costume.
Educating Rita | 1983
The studios originally pondered Paul Newman for the role of alcoholic English literature lecturer Frank opposite Dolly Parton’s Rita. However, by reuniting with Alfie director Lewis Gilbert for another cinematic adaptation of a play, Caine struck gold opposite Julie Walters. A quieter role for the actor and one he graciously steps back from to allow Walters and Willy Russell’s writing to shine, the life-weary Frank as the Pygmalion mentor struggling with his own addictions earned Caine his third Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Mona Lisa | 1986
Many of Caine’s bad boy gangsters in a Michael Caine London are etched with a wink and a charm, and a perfect suit.
His support role stint for director Neil Jordan as violent London pimp Denny Mortwell is a rare presentation of real darkness in a very real 1980s Soho. Pre-dating Pretty Woman by four years, Caine’s spin as a vice world kingpin is the film’s uneasy spine.
Jaws: The Revenge | 1987
Aside from John Mackenzie’s The Fourth Protocol and winning his first Academy Award (for Supporting Actor in Hannah and Her Sisters), 1987 was marked by two major Caine moments. One was his genuinely groundbreaking, incisive and stellar BBC masterclass, Acting In Film.
The second was his role as Hoagie Newcombe in Jaws: The Revenge. Okay. This is no Get Carter. Or even Blame it On Rio. Yet, when starring in a second sequel to a 1970s watery mega-hit (the other being 1979’s Beyond the Poseidon Adventure), Caine proved he had zero problems plumbing the movie depths for the cash. And that is oddly respectable.
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It is a strange, rushed, and clinical Jaws movie. However, Caine acts everyone off screen, he gets the fun of it all and has a gem of a line with “When I come back, remind me to tell you about the time I took 100 nuns to Nairobi!”
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels | 1988
Spoofing his own Riviera trappings and social circles, Caine almost took the role of a debonaire gentleman thief opposite rogue robber Steve Martin without a script because he would get to live alongside great pals Roger Moore and lyricist Leslie Bricusse in the south of France.
With a straight man poise, he lets Martin steal every gag and every pratfall, whilst delivering a laser precision masterclass in comedy snobbery.
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