Michael Caine: 10 essential films

From The Italian Job to Get Carter, we whittle down Michael Caine’s 120 film credits to a selection of 10 key titles.

David Parkinson
Updated:

The Italian Job (1969)

The Italian Job (1969)

Only two British actors have won two best supporting Oscars and, while Michael Caine could never claim to be as chameleonic as Peter Ustinov, he has proved to be every bit as durable. The movies made Caine, literally, as Maurice Micklewhite (aka Michael Scott) changed his name after seeing a cinema marquee advertising The Caine Mutiny (1954). During more than 60 years, he has racked up 120 feature credits since taking an unbilled bit in Sailor Beware! (1956). He freely admits: “I’ve made an awful lot of films. In fact, I’ve made a lot of awful films.” But, having been raised in prefab poverty, his approach to surviving in an unpredictable profession is infallibly pragmatic: “You get paid the same for a bad film as you do for a good one.”

It would be remiss not to mention such clunkers as The Swarm (1978), The Hand (1981), Blame It on Rio (1984) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987). But, as Caine avers, “you never know which is going to be a classic and which a stinker, not while you’re making it anyway.” And you don’t get to be one of only three actors to be Oscar nominated in five different decades (the others being Laurence Olivier and Jack Nicholson), or rank no. 11 on the all-time box-office chart, unless you’re good. And you only have to watch Caine in such unlikely roles as Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and F.W. de Klerk in Mandela and de Klerk (1997) to see just how good he can be.

Zulu (1964)

Director Cy Endfield

Zulu (1964)

There’s a very British irony about the fact that Michael Caine, who prided himself on his working-class accent, should find fame with an RP turn as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead in this iconic paean to imperialist derring-do. Caine had auditioned for the role of the cockney malcontent that went to James Booth, but director Cy Endfield felt the 6ft 2in actor held himself like an officer. A recalcitrant horse saw Caine replaced in his first scene by a prop man. But, even though he epitomised humanised stiff-upper-lip pluck in his red tunic, producer Joseph E. Levine cancelled Caine’s seven-year contract because he felt that he looked “like a queer on screen”. 

The Ipcress File (1965)

Director Sidney J. Furie

The Ipcress File (1965)

The supposition that Caine was gay carried over into Sidney J. Furie’s noirish adaptation of Len Deighton’s espionage bestseller, as its macho Hollywood backers were aghast that agent Harry Palmer wore glasses and cooked for women. But, having lost Christopher Plummer to The Sound of Music (1965), producer Harry Saltzman was convinced he had found the perfect fit for his streetwise antithesis to James Bond and rehired Caine for Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Demonstrating his knack for phlegmatic improvisation, Caine’s first starring role also revealed an ease with cerebral complexity, acerbic wit and cool insubordination that would become his 1960s trademark.

Alfie (1966)

Director Lewis Gilbert

Alfie (1966)

“I was a sort of Alfie,” Caine opined in later life. “We all were. We were young, rich, not bad looking and famous, who was going to turn us down?” Caine and Terence Stamp had shared digs at 64 Harley Street and 12 Ennismore Mews, and Caine only landed the role of the cockney Casanova after nearly persuading Stamp to reconsider his refusal to revisit the character he had played on Broadway. Speaking directly to the camera to share his cynical chauvinist wisdom, Caine became an overnight sex symbol. Moreover, he received the first of his six Oscar nominations, despite the harrowing abortion sequence sparking a US censorship row.

The Italian Job (1969)

Director Peter Collinson

The Italian Job (1969)

Caine helped define the British screen gangster with this cult caper and the grittier Get Carter (1971). There are many reasons to like Peter Collinson’s heist comedy, including the inspired casting of Noël Coward and Benny Hill among Caine’s cohorts, Quincy Jones and Don Black’s theme tune (‘Getta Bloomin’ Move On!’) and the set-pieces involving red, white and blue Mini Coopers and a bus perched on a precipice. But ask most Brits why this remains a firm favourite and they will doubtlessly reply in Caine’s familiar brogue: “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” What a shame they never got round to making the proposed sequel. 

Get Carter (1971)

Director Mike Hodges

Get Carter (1971)

Tired of being the ‘cockney Errol Flynn’, Caine leapt at the chance to headline Mike Hodges’ adaptation of Ted Lewis’s 1970 pulp novel, Jack’s Return Home. The role of a ruthless professional killer seeking vengeance for his brother and niece hit close to home. “Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood,” he later revealed. “I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.” But this unflinching blend of social realism and neo-noir also allowed Caine to settle a score with a domestic film industry that kept depicting gangsters as stupid or amusing: “I wanted to show that they’re neither.” Contemporary critics bemoaned the violence, nihilism and misogyny. But they failed to recognise that this was the British Yojimbo (1961). 

Sleuth (1972)

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Sleuth (1972)

Forming an intriguing ‘writer’ trilogy with Pulp (1972) and Deathtrap (1982), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s hit play is a marvellous mélange of plot twists, stylistic tics and in-jokes that joins Give ‘Em Hell, Harry! (1975) in being the only films whose entire casts were Oscar-nominated for best actor. Caine landed the part of hairdresser Milo Tindle after Albert Finney and Alan Bates fell away, while Shaffer accepted Laurence Olivier as cuckolded author Andrew Wyke after campaigning for the role’s stage creator, Anthony Quayle. Amusingly, Caine swapped parts for Kenneth Branagh’s 2007 remake opposite Jude Law, who had also fronted the 2004 reboot of Alfie.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Director John Huston

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Having impressed as a Thirty Years’ War mercenary in The Last Valley (1971), Caine teamed with Sean Connery for another treatise on idealism and the abuse of power in roles that John Huston had originally envisaged for Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable in the 1950s. Caine so relished working with Huston that he reckoned this would be “the only film I’ve done that will last after I’ve gone”. It was also his sole collaboration with wife Shakira, who had first caught his eye in a Maxwell House coffee commercial. Caine would reunite with Huston, however, for Escape to Victory (1981) to play the tubbiest player in West Ham history.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Director Frank Oz

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Following a run of tax exile misfires, Caine bounced back with award-winning performances in Educating Rita (1983) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). He also earned a Golden Globe nomination for this remake of David Niven and Marlon Brando’s Bedtime Story (1964), which had originally been written for Mick Jagger and David Bowie. They were “a bit tweezed” to have missed out on a con caper that tempted Eddie Murphy and John Cleese before Caine was paired with Steve Martin (who wanted to play the smooth operator rather than the chancer). Caine rates it “the funniest film I ever made”, but admitted “the crew never laughed once at anything”.

The Cider House Rules (1999)

Director Lasse Hallström

The Cider House Rules (1999)

Fresh from scooping a Golden Globe for Little Voice (1998), Caine took his second Oscar for a sensitive performance as an obstetrician running an orphanage in 1940s Maine that saw him attempt an American accent for the first time since Hurry Sundown (1967). He spent several weeks with vocal coach Jess Platt but realised that Wilbur Larch was “about as far away from who I am as you can get”. So he went deeper into the character than usual to achieve what he considers his best performance: “A lot of other actors could have played it better, but I could not have played it any better, which gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction.”

Harry Brown (2009)

Director Daniel Barber

Harry Brown (2009)

Caine has enjoyed a renaissance since realising “you can’t hang on to Mr Glamour”. Following another Oscar nomination for The Quiet American (2002), he attracted a new generation of fans as Alfred Pennyworth in the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) and landed the European Film Award for Youth (2015). But the tough streets of his hometown have kept calling him, with Mona Lisa (1986) and Shiner (2000) being followed by this controversial Gran Torino-style vigilante thriller, which took the 77-year-old Caine back to his Elephant & Castle stomping ground. Some branded it “pornography for Daily Mail readers”, but the calculating fury of Caine’s army veteran is chillingly authentic and shockingly effective.

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