Michael Caine: An appreciation

Michael Caine - Get CarterAsk anyone to name some great British actors, and they might say Lawrence Olivier, Alec Guinness, John Mills, Richard Attenborough, or Anthony Hopkins. Pose the same question to younger respondents, and they could well come up with Jude Law, Clive Owen, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Eddie Redmayne. It is unlikely that any of them would think of adding Michael Caine to those lists, but in my opinion, they would be mistaken.

Acting in films since 1956, and still working today after around 120 roles, many of them as the star, Caine is perhaps one of those least appreciated in his home country, despite countless awards, including Oscars, and BAFTAs. He has almost become part of the furniture of cinema, hardly noticed in the crowd any longer. Yet his talent deserves recognition, and his skill and versatility mark him out from many who are better thought of.

He was born in London, in the same area that I come from, in 1933. After starting on a stage career in 1953, he changed his name from his real one, Maurice Micklewhite, to Michael Scott. He changed it again after being told that there was already an actor with this name. Inspired by a cinema sign showing the film, The Caine Mutiny, he became Michael Caine. After serving in the army for two years of the then compulsory National Service, he got film roles in 1956, with an uncredited part as a sailor, in Panic In The Parlour, followed by the role of Private Lockyer in the fine British war film, A Hill In Korea, in the same year. He was able to draw on his own experiences, as he had served in the Korean War. He went on to make fourteen more films, with parts mostly still uncredited, until 1964.

When Zulu was released that year, Caine appeared in the role of the upper-class army officer, Gonville Bromhead. Completely convincing in the part, and riding a horse as if he had been born on one, few would ever have imagined the working class roots and the carefully disguised London accent that would go on to typify much of his future career. Zulu made him an overnight star, and took him from the background squarely into the spotlight. The following year saw his first appearance as the spy, Harry Palmer, in his first of many outings in the same role, based on the character created by Len Deighton. The Ipcress File was a Bond-style film with all the gloss removed, and Caine’s Harry resonated with a public tired of flash and style, looking for substance instead. We began to see the sardonic side of Caine, and got a hint of the sexual overtones that would mark many later roles.

Michael Caine - The Ipcress FileA year later he gave one of the performances of his career, as Alfie Elkins, in the British comedy-drama, Alfie. This was Caine back to his roots. London locations, cockney accent to the fore, and his turn as the philandering, cheeky Alfie, talking asides to the camera, was a real tour-de-force. It was also an object lesson in great acting. Making something so difficult look so easy, and chatting in close up, made every cinema-goer feel that they knew the character or someone very like him. You have only to watch the lamentable 2004 remake, with Jude Law in the title role, to appreciate just how good Caine was.

In 1969, the British caper/crime comedy The Italian Job proved to be a worldwide success, with Caine starring as the gang leader alongside a raft of great character actors, and leaving us with one of the best endings ever produced in a modern film. His lighter side came out, and his personality shone through the numerous one-liners. His output remained constant after that, and there was rarely a year when he didn’t star in a film. Military roles suited him down to the ground, and we got to see him as soldiers and airmen in Play Dirty, The Battle of Britain (1969), and Too Late the Hero (1970). That same year, the serious historical drama The Last Valley, was released, with Michael giving one of my personal favourite performances, despite a somewhat stilted, and superfluous German accent.

I am already a long way into this article, and I am only up to 1970. This gives some idea of the long and varied career of this often overlooked actor. In 2015, his latest film, Youth was released to great critical acclaim, which means that somewhere, I have misplaced forty-five years of his life. Of course, I could go on to fill a book with his body of work. Other stand-out performances include the brilliant British crime thriller Get Carter (1971), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), The Eagle Has Landed (1976), and his Oscar-winning role in Woody Allen’s Hannah And Her Sisters (1986).

Michael Caine - Harry BrownSome have made much of his roles in bad films or box-office flops. Any interviewer normally tries to get him to explain his appearances in lesser productions, such as The Swarm (1978), Ashanti (1979), or Water (1983). Caine never rises to this, often saying that he works for money, and that even these admittedly poor films earned him enough to buy houses all over the world. A working-class man from poor roots will never turn down a well-paid job, he argues. It is not my intention to just list a catalogue of his many great films here, but few actors of his age and pedigree can compare. In 1998, he won the Golden Globe for his role in Little Voice, and went on the following year to win an Oscar for The Cider House Rules. From 2000 until 2008, he was in no less than twenty-one films, before being discovered by a whole new generation as Alfred the butler in The Dark Knight. In 2009, he starred as Harry Brown in the British thriller of the same name, and gave one of his other career-best performances. They just keep coming.

Following this, he has appeared in no less than fourteen more films, and is still working at the age of 82. His private life has been a tale of a happy marriage to Shakira since 1973, and his personal appearances on interviews, chat shows, and documentaries never fail to reveal a man unaffected by fame, wealth, or success. So the next time you are doing a list of great British actors, even if only in your head, please don’t forget the wonderful Michael Caine.

I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

31 thoughts on “Michael Caine: An appreciation

  1. I enjoyed your summation of his career. It is true to avoid a laundry list of so many great roles and films but you’ve noted what is so appealing about his star persona and some of those performances. He’s an old school star in the sense that he tells such great stories in interviews. US talk show hosts are often noted that British actors are easier to have on their shows maybe due to their theatre experience. With Caine I think it’s just because he is a personality.

  2. “Alfred, why didn’t you tell me you were once a British spy?”
    “To be honest, Master Wayne, I never found the right moment to work it into the conversation.”

    • Thanks for the comment, and the amusing picture too, Gregory.
      I have never actually watched any of the Batman films, so only remember the butler from the original Adam West TV series. He was played by a British actor too, Alan Napier.
      Best wishes, Pete.

  3. Who hasn’t seen Zulu, or The Italian Job for that matter, but you have to be a certain age! I recommended the former to one of my students who is interested in history…he loved it, but he never understood me when I said ‘Your only supposed to blow the bleeding doors off!’

    • You have a classy James Bond site there, Graham. I wish you well with it. After all, there are legions of Bond fans. Sadly, I do not count among those, and find them to be lamentable blockbusters. I did enjoy the books, but found the transition to screen to be unrealistic, and studio-bound in the main.
      Best wishes, Pete.

  4. Pete, I was introduced to Michael Caine by way of “The Italian Job” (I do love the clever “cliffhanger” at the end!), and have seen a number of films in which he starred or had a significant role. My favorite is one that may surprise you: Dr. Robert Elliott in “Dressed to Kill.” It was a great (albeit somewhat brief) turn in a classic De Palma film that I have watched countless times.

  5. The example of Michael Caine’s talent that always come to mind is the two versions of “Sleuth”. In 1972, Caine played Milo against Lawrence Olivier’s Andrew in what is essentially a two man play. Thirty five years later, Caine revisted “Sleuth”, this time playing Andrew against Jude Law’s Milo.

    By just about any standard, the 72 version is vastly superior, but leaving that aside, what I love is how Caine completely owns both roles. Sadly, the new version’s script is quite a bit different than the original, otherwise someone could cut the two versions together and have Caine vs Caine.

    • Thanks, Misha. I have to agree that the 1972 version of ‘Sleuth’ is far superior to the re-make. Caine also appeared in the lamentable Stallone version of ‘Get Carter’, playing the character of Cliff Brumby, a man he killed in the original. I would like to have seen your Caine opposite Caine, if the script could have been married together.
      Best wishes, Pete.

  6. Great article Pete. I remember watching Caine give a masterclass in screen acting several years ago. It WAS a master class, simple, clear and economical – just like most of his work over the years. David Thomson is a bit ‘sniffy’ about him – in the same way Anthony Burgess was about George Orwell – but I suspect he’s right when he says Caine is a supporting actor. Nothing wrong with that, and who is remembered more now: Burgess or Orwell?

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Ed. As for Caine being a supporting actor, he does a good job at that, for sure. However, I personally believe that roles in films like Alfie, Harry Brown, and Get Carter prove that he can lead in a film, appear in almost every scene, and make me want to watch it. I don’t ask for more than that in an actor.
      I watched that famous BBC TV ‘Masterclass’ too, and still recall his techniques to this day. I hope that they might show it again one day, so gainsayers can see that he has genuine talent.
      Best wishes, Pete.

  7. I’m the cat among the pigeons here. It could be Caine is least appreciated in his own country because he’s the least talented. I’m afraid he does absolutely nothing for me whatsoever. He’s a non-actor, as far as I’m concerned, who gives the same boring performance time after time. Only his acting in Alfie and Zulu makes me look up from the Radio Times and even then I have a problem with his ‘gentleman officer’ in the latter. Whatever he once had has long since disappeared. I have, in fact, been known to avoid watching a film if I see his name. Sorry, Pete. I know a lot of fellow actors who feel the same. He’s an institution certainly but a great? No.

    • Sarah, you are a very nice cat, and your opinion is much respected, as you know.
      On this occasion, I am going to have to politely disagree, and thank you very much for putting the opposite view with such conviction. Debate is always welcome, for or against.
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

      • We agree on so much, life would be very boring if we agreed on everything! I had to actively remember and come here to see if you’d responded. Perhaps you could ask James to add the ability for us to click a box to get reply notifications. Thanks!

        • I do get some reply notifications, but cannot respond to them through the sidebar. James has explained the reason before, something about not being part of the wordpress server or similar. I always have to remember to come and check too, as I only seem to get comments from certain people, not others.

  8. Excellent tribute, Pete. I became aware of Caine as Peachy Carnehan, and that will always be what I think of first. But reading this makes me appreciate how appropriate it is that the first Oscar came in Hannah and Her Sisters. Caine and Allen are consummate pros, simply turning out their product, often excellent, sometimes not, year after year after year. Though I didn’t care much for Youth, the scene of Caine’s aging composer conducting an imaginary symphony of cows, wind, and trees was among the highlights of 2015.

    • Thanks, Jon. I actually respect the fact that he ‘takes the money’, by exploiting the desire to cast him in bad films. For me, his frequent standout performances more than compensate for the duds. As you say, he is a Pro, not a ‘Luvvie’, and his resolve to not work on the stage, and not to be part of any ‘set’ of actors has left him on the outside of the British acting profession.
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

  9. Pingback: Michael Caine: An appreciation. | beetleypete

  10. Lovely to read a blog post celebrating the much loved, but as you say unjustly overlooked, Michael Caine. I’ve never understood why some of my film buff friends have dismissed him, or worse, when he has done such an incredibly wide range of excellent work. Their ignorance I guess.

    • Thanks for the comment, Tony. Many of my friends consider me to be a ‘film buff’, and I love much of Caine’s work. I think those that ignore him are ‘film snobs.’
      Best wishes from Norfolk. Pete.

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