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Michael Caine: The 10 Best Performances

by The Playlist Staff
March 14, 2013 3:54 PM
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Hannah And Her Sisters
"Hannah And Her Sisters" (1986)
Back before Woody Allen’s Grand European Tour, when he still made films in New York, “Hannah and Her Sisters” was one of his finest, telling the story of three tightly knit sisters and their extended family in Manhattan. Caine and Allen might not seem like an obvious combination, but his storming turn as Elliot, husband to Mia Farrow's Hannah, won him his first Oscar. A bespectacled middle-aged accountant, Elliot pursues his wife’s vivacious younger sister Lee (Barbara Hershey). As the affair commences, Elliot is not only a philanderer, but also caddishly blames his wife’s self-sufficiency and emotional strength for his wandering eye. Playing another character we should hate, Michael Caine makes us believe in Elliot and the earnestness of his torn feelings between Hannah and her sister. Elliot lacks the panache of Alfie and the dignity of Caine’s later roles, but we are forced to feel for Elliot as he searches for what he thinks is the answer (“For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom, I can't fathom my own heart”) rather than viewing him merely as a middle-aged lech (“She looks so sexy in that sweater. I just want to be alone with her and hold her and kiss her…”). Almost thirty years later, Elliot still resonates with audiences, as Peter Bradshaw wrote in his Guardian review, “Caine's performance, so fervent, so agonisingly dedicated, actually gains in force and touching sincerity with the years.”

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988)
An unofficial remake of "Bedtime Story" starring David Niven and Marlon Brando, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" follows two very different conmen on the French Riviera as they are wined and dined by rich female tourists. Unlike others on this list, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is strictly a comedy (and one that makes you wonder why he doesn't go broad more often), but like in the other films, Caine plays a real cad. Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is a suave and sophisticated con artist who seduces gullible but not wholly innocent women and relieves them of their wealth. Lawrence’s modus operandi involves convincing these women of a certain age that he is an exiled prince who needs funds to rally his troops and reclaim his birthright. In Caine’s portrayal, Lawrence is catnip for these bored, too-rich-for-their-own-good women with his dashing looks and classic charisma – stealing their hearts and their wallets. Lawrence’s financial future is threatened by the appearance of Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), a small-time crook who has taken an interest in the very same women Lawrence is after – “A poacher who shoots at rabbits may scare big game away.” Whether battling over an American soap queen or teaming up to get rid of a mark, Caine and Martin are a laugh riot. In the end, it turns out that Lawrence’s heart is as golden as his bank account, and we have fallen in love with Michael Caine all over again, even as a thief, liar, and con man. Martin might get the most uproariously funny scenes (particularly in his moments as Prince Ruprecht), but Caine's the perfect, ultra-suave foil for him, and gets almost as many laughs.

Quiet American
"The Quiet American" (2002)
The second adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, the film is set in 1952 Vietnam, and sees Caine play Thomas Fowler competing with an American CIA agent (Brendan Fraser) for the love of local beauty Phuong (Hai Yen). As Fowler, Caine plays an eyewitness to the development of the Vietnam War and used Greene as inspiration in developing his character, telling the BBC that, "I didn’t know him very well, but I knew a great deal about him. […] I knew a lot by proxy. I just copied something of the way he [Greene] spoke, and his movements. They were very small." He did it so successfully that the film garnered some success and a few nominations in spite of having been shelved for a year in the wake of 9/11 and cries over supposed anti-American sentiments. But Caine trudged on and succeeded where many others would fail. His role here is among his most complex and textured performances, and deserves a look by anyone that might have skipped it first time around.

Caine Children Of Men
"Children Of Men" (2006)
After seeming to settle into the position of highly respected older British supporting actor (see "Cider House Rules" and "Batman Begins"), Michael Caine shook things up by playing an aged hippy in "Children of Men." Taking second seat to the main plot of Theo's (Clive Owen) attempt to save humanity through a miraculously pregnant woman, the star plays Jasper, a former political cartoonist who spends his days smoking weed and listening to tunes in the woods. Even as the world is crumbling around him, Jasper says, “Pull my finger!” Although a minor part, the actor steals a few scenes (“Your baby is the miracle the whole world has been waiting for”), providing real levity in an otherwise tough film (playing air guitar to Aphex Twin), and pathos in his heroic last stand. In "Children of Men," Caine’s versatility is tested and he comes out on top yet again.

Michael Caine, TDKR
"The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)
In his twilight years, Caine has become the unexpected muse of one of the biggest filmmakers in the world: he's featured in the last five of Christopher Nolan's films (and has apparently been promised a role in his next, "Interstellar") proving a reliable, sly supporting hand from "Batman Begins" to "Inception." They're all fine performances (even one as brief as in "Inception") but perhaps Caine's finest Nolan hour so far came in last year's "The Dark Knight Rises." Of all the relationships Bruce Wayne has had throughout Nolan’s trilogy, none have been as important as that with Alfred, his most important father figure. As the man who raised him, and promised his parents to look out for the young man for the rest of his life, Alfred has grappled with Bruce’s desire to save Gotham even as it so very often comes at the risk of his own life. And in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Alfred reaches the limit of what he can stand by and watch Bruce do. With his body battered, spirit waning and public image still tarnished, Bruce is very much on the path of martyrdom early in the movie (and seemingly pretty much suicidal), something the world-wise Alfred recognizes all too well, and he will have no part of it. When he announces to Bruce that he can no longer in good conscience be with him -- and reveals at the same time the contents of Rachel’s letter from “The Dark Knight” as a last resort to get Master Wayne to move on from his plans to return as Batman -- it’s a crushing scene. And Caine is absolutely shattering in it, delivering one of the best pieces of acting in the entire trilogy, and giving the film a much-needed emotional core, the trilogy a lovely arc for Bruce and Alfred.

Honorable Mentions: Possibly the biggest omission here is "The Cider House Rules," the film that won Caine his second Oscar. It's as fine a turn, but perhaps one of those Oscar wins that's for a breadth of career achievement rather than the specific performance itself. That said, it did allow Caine to give one of the all-time greatest Oscar speeches, which you can watch below.

Other performances we considered, but didn't quite have time for include "Gambit," "The Italian Job," "The Eagle Has Landed," "California Suite," "Educating Rita," "Last Orders," "Is Anybody There?" and "Harry Brown." Any others you feel deserve a mention? Let us know below.  

- Diana Drumm, Oliver Lyttelton

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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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