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Michael Caine: The 10 Best Performances

by The Playlist Staff
March 14, 2013 3:54 PM
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Michael Caine

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"
"The Ipcress File"
"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.

"Alfie" (1966)
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
"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.

“Sleuth” (1972)
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.

Man Who Would Be King
"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.

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  • Freddie | March 23, 2013 12:37 PMReply

    Secondhand Lions is an underrated performance that deserves mention but Little Voice should probably be in the Top Ten.

  • Charles G | March 19, 2013 1:31 AMReply

    Great choices. And I concur with those who mention Little Voice, Educating Rita and A Shock to the System. Those are both in my Top 10...Honorable mentions to Dressed to Kill and The Hand. That's right, I said it. It's a guilty pleasure but Caine gives a gripping and intense performance in that early Oliver Stone movie.

  • GERARD KENNELLY | March 16, 2013 12:27 PMReply

    SLEUTH remake

  • Billy | March 15, 2013 6:11 PMReply

    I enjoyed him with Elizabeth Taylor in X, Y and Z... certainly not a very good movie, but they were good.

  • Larry | March 15, 2013 11:42 AMReply

    Zulu and Second Hand Lions are both great examples of his talent!

  • Jamie | March 15, 2013 11:05 AMReply

    A good call re Blood and Wine but i must stick up for the often overlooked Honorary Consul,,not the Film but caine'e perfromance. Faultless. A case could be made that it's his best perfromance in a Graham Greene adaption above the excellant Quiet American which was a far better movie. The less said about Richard Gere's English Doctor the better!! But Caine ( Bafta nominated for it remember) is sublime..

  • mark | March 15, 2013 10:36 AMReply

    One of my favorites is Second Hand Lions.

  • Warren | March 15, 2013 10:16 AMReply

    I'd put "Gambit" and "the Italian Job" on the main list here. Two great movies and Caine performances.

  • Johnny | March 14, 2013 7:14 PMReply

    I loved Michael Caine in The Trip

  • eamon | March 15, 2013 1:00 PM

    HAHAHA Awesome reference.."She was only 16!!"

  • Edward Copeland | March 14, 2013 5:29 PMReply

    It's perfectly justifiable to omit his Oscar-winning work in The Cider House Rules. I love Caine, but his in-and-out, wandering New England accent certainly didn't help the hatchet job that John Irving did on his own great novel. While he's very good in The Dark Knight Rises, there are many better choices for his 10 best performances. I'd swap Sleuth out for something else as well. Two lead possibilities: his work in 1982's Deathrap or 1990's A Shock to the System. Two great supporting turns (and kudos for bringing up Children of Men because I would have if you didn't) as possible substutitions: His hysterical turn in 1998's Little Voice (which actually nabbed him a Golden Globe for which, as always, he gave a great speech while accepting) and 1996's Blood and Wine, a mixed bag of a movie but which Caine, Nicholson and Judy Davis were all great in.

  • Davey | March 14, 2013 4:38 PMReply

    Definitely one of the greatest actors alive. I think "Muppet Christmas Carol" deserves at least an honorable mention--he's such a good Scrooge, and gives a completely human, believable, honest, committed performances against a supporting cast of puppets. It's incredible to watch.

  • TrvthHvrtz | March 14, 2013 4:32 PMReply

    I am wondering why "Children Of Men" is on that list, because Caine has just a minor role in that zynical film.
    Instead of "Children Of Men" I would put "Jack The Ripper" on that list. Well, just a miniseries made for TV where Caine plays Chief Inspector Fred Abberline, but in my opinion one of the most impressive performance in TV-history!

  • brace | March 14, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    Little Voice is cute little neglected movie. Caine was great in it.

  • GERARD KENNELLY | March 16, 2013 12:30 PM

    little voice :)


  • MAL | March 14, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    When I saw the headline, the first role that came to mind was the heavy in Mona Lisa. He lost all of his charm and pulled out a lizard of a man in his most frightening performance. There is a scene in which he is furiously berating Bob Hoskins' character and yet he lets you know he is restraining an even more explosive nature boiling under the surface. It is an electrifying performance in which he has never been more shamelessly vile.

  • Dan | March 14, 2013 4:48 PM

    THANK GOD you mentioned Mona Lisa. My favorite Caine performance. Though it wouldn't quite have the same effect if it weren't for all the performances that came before it and established his presumed screen persona before he blew it away in that.

  • ColonHell | March 14, 2013 4:24 PMReply


  • Will | March 14, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    I think his performance in The Prestige is the best one he gave for Nolan (and probably Nolan's best too) and one of his finest performances in general. It nicely plays on his personas from previous films and his performance is nicely nuanced so that you never know too much in terms of his true motivation. That comes mostly from his performance rather than the writing I think.

  • Patrick Walters | March 14, 2013 4:14 PMReply

    Little Voice, 1998
    A Shock to the System, 1990
    Mona Lisa, 1986

  • Chris | March 14, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    Let's not forget:

    An interesting role in "Blood and Wine" (1996)

    The father in a strangely very believable father-son couple in "The Weather Man"

    and almost better father-son couple in "Austin Powers in Goldmember" (the real winner from 2002, let's be honest).....not but really the two other roles I listed should be appreciated.

  • Joaq | March 14, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    Great post. I'd say the biggest omission here would be his underrated/under-seen performance in the black comedy A Shock to the System from 1990. Always loved that one. Cheers!

  • James | March 14, 2013 3:59 PMReply

    Michael Caine did not meet his wife Shakira while making "The Man Who Would Me King" with her, he met her earlier. The story is quite famous. He saw her in a coffee commercial directed by Ridley Scott and thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. He contacted the people who did the commercial, got her info, and wooed her and they fell in love and remain married to this day. :) Sweet story.

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