Praising Caine: Michael Caine Performances You May Have Missed

Michael Caine: Ten movies with Michael Caine Thespian, producer, author, acting guru, restaurateur, raconteur, knight: During a career that has spread over six decades, Michael Caine has been these—and more.

It’s obvious that the former Maurice Micklewhite, who turned 80 on March 14, loves to work. He’s amassed credits over 150 productions, mostly in films but also television, and there are no signs of slowing down. Even though his screen time is often now spent in supporting roles, he’s typically been good for two or three films a year over the last ten years. No matter how a given film turns out—and there are some genuine dogs on Sir Michael’s resume (Bewitched, Jaws: The Revenge, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, Mr. Destiny, or The Swarm, anybody?)—the presence of the Cockney Citizen Caine tends to class the proceedings up a bit.

We all know the landmark roles in which he left indelible impressions: the self-centered playboy Alfie (1966); the bespectacled egghead secret agent Harry Palmer in three features and a few TV movies; the gangster investigating the mysterious death of his brother in the brutal crime yarn Get Carter (1971); Peachy, the soldier of fortune who, along with pal Danny (Sean Connery), tries to dupe an Afghani tribe into believing they are gods in The Man Who Would Be King (1975); the rock star manager having an affair with his wife’s sister in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1985); Dr. Wilbur Larch, the pro-choice orphanage patriarch in The Cider House Rules (1999);  and the trusted butler Alfred in the Christopher Nolan Batman adventures.

Then there are roles in films, not as well known, in which the two-time Oscar winner has excelled. Here is a list of ten fine performances you may have missed in which the master has done yeoman work.

Harry Brown (2009): In his mid-70s, Caine did a Charles Bronson, going all medieval in this Death Wish-type revenge drama. He’s a lonely ex-British Marine who decides to do something after his wife dies, and his best friend and chess partner is murdered, in his crime-saturated neighborhood. A man at the end of his life taking on the dirtbags, and not caring what is in store for him: this is Sir Michael’s Gran Torino.

Flawless (2008): A solid heist movie with a familiar retro feel offers Michael as a kindly old janitor who joins diamond company executive Demi Moore in an elaborate heist of some valuable jewels from their mutual employer. There are political (the diamonds were mined in South Africa) and social (Moore has been passed over for a promotion) themes here, but it all really comes down to the crime, shifting alliances and surprise twists, well played by all, and well-orchestrated by director Michael Radford (Il Postino, White Mischief).

The Quiet American (2002): In Phillip Noyce’s superb adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, Caine turns in the type of commanding performance you know he’s certainly capable of, although he rarely gets roles so substantive in this stage of his career. He plays a world-weary, well-connected British reporter based in Saigon during the late 1950s, during the French Colonial era of Vietnam. A medical aid worker (Brendan Fraser) from the States arrives in the region, and they become fast friends; soon, thought the journalist discovers that his new chum may have involvement with espionage, as well as his own mistress. The film, which features some anti-American sentiments true to its source material, saw its share of problems upon its release, which happened to be shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Caine, who had just won his second Academy Award for The Cider House Rules, lobbied hard with distributor Miramax to get it in theaters in time for the Oscars. Then 68, Caine lost a substantial amount of weight and dyed his hair to play the 55-year-old character, essayed by Michael Redgrave in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1958 version of the novel.

Little Voice (1998): Caine won the Golden Globe for Best  Actor in a Musical or Comedy for his wonderful turn as an aging theatrical agent who takes the young, painfully shy, emotionally fragile lead character (Absolutely Fabulous co-star Jane Horrocks) under his wing. She’s from a small British seaside town and passes her days signing classic songs of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. Ever the opportunist, Caine, who is dating her mum (Brenda Blethyn), thinks she could become a star and make him rich. This adaptation of the play from Mark Herman (Brassed Off) was crafted expressly to Horrocks’ unique talents.

Blood and Wine (1996): Jack Nicholson! Jennifer Lopez! Michael Caine! A movie with such a cast—plus the always interesting Stephen Dorff and the sublime Judy Davis –going totally overlooked? Directed, no less, by Bob Rafelson, who collaborated with Nicholson on Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and The Postman Always Rings Twice?  The noirish tale features Caine as a sneaky British hood recruited by married wine store proprietor Nicholson to swipe an expensive necklace from nanny girlfriend Lopez’s employer.  Perpetually coughing and possessing a surprising streak of violence, Caine has no problem acting suave in one scene, then beating Nicholson with a golf club in the next.

A Shock to the System (1990): An extremely dark and spot-on satire on the yuppie lifestyle and Wall Street movers and shakers features Caine as a marketing executive who gets passed over for a promotion at his Manhattan firm, and then goes on a killing rampage, which infuses him with energy and new zest for life. Called by one astute critic as “Hitchcock meets E.F. Hutton,” the nasty, insightful allegory, is a precursor of sorts to American Psycho, and Caine’s character is an older Patrick Bateman without the Phil Collins music.

Mona Lisa (1986): One of Caine’s assets is his effortlessness in playing the extremes of dignified and sleazy within the same role. Here he’s the epitome of the latter, as the mobster who dispenses lonely ex-con Bob Hoskins to act as an escort for young prostitute Cathy Tyson. Director Neil Jordan’s poetic look at a sleazy underworld universe, and the lost souls caught up in it, shows how effective and nasty Sir Michael can be when called upon.

Silver Bears (1978): A breezy crime tale, with Caine as a veteran financier who sets up a Swiss bank to launder mob loot. Complications abound as mob boss Martin Balsam gets son Jay Leno involved, Italian prince Louis Jourdan appears, and Caine’s successful utilization of a silver mine for a front attracts unwanted attention. Tom Smothers, Joss Ackland, David Warner, and Stephane Audran also star in this international production helmed by Czech director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way).

Play Dirty (1969): Based on a true story, this British variation on The Dirty Dozen—the last film helmed by Andre de Toth (House of Wax, Pitfall)—showcases Caine as an oil company engineer out of his element, as he has to lead a motley team of ex-cons 400 miles behind enemy lines in North Africa to demolish a fuel depot. To add more tension to the proceedings is the imposing mercenary (Nigel Davenport) who wrangles with Caine for control and the fact that it’s learned that British military brass are using Caine and company in the mission.

The Italian Job (1969): If you mention the title of this film to most people, they will recall a 2003 movie with Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron, as well as those neat little Mini-Coopers.  Contemporary filmgoers may not realize that this version is a reworking of a delightfully daffy heist adventure released more than 30 years beforehand. Caine plays a swinging conman who spearheads an elaborate heist of gold bullion from a bank in Turin. Caine and his associates (including Benny Hill) use computers and Mini-Coopers (yes, they’re here, too) to pull off the daring theft.  All this, and one of the greatest open-ended endings in history!