And a very, very happy birthday to Sir Michael.
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.
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.
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.