Tony Black on screen legend Michael Caine…
His recent political leanings aside, Sir Michael Caine remains one of the surviving legends of British and indeed American cinema of the last fifty years, and this weekend’s Going in Style–a heist caper directed by none other than Scrubs‘ Zach Braff–sees him share top billing with fellow aged legend Morgan Freeman for what seems the first time in a while. Over recent years the iconic British figure–known for his slick Cockney accent which bore fruit with numerous catchphrases in more than one seminal British film–has become more widely known to audiences as a character actor, heavily used in Christopher Nolan’s body of work since appearing as Alfred Pennyworth in Batman Begins.
So began a certain career resurgence for the man born Maurice Micklewhite under the sound of bow bells, but as Sir Michael–now into his 80’s and still going strong–takes the lead once more, it feels prudent to take a glance back at some of his older roles, both those unforgettable and some which quite possibly may have passed many of us by.
No appreciation of Michael Caine can pass by without getting arguably his most iconic role out of the way – as Charlie Crocker in 1969’s The Italian Job. To some degree, much like James Bond for Sean Connery or Indiana Jones for Harrison Ford, it’s a role and a film which has become synonymous with Caine across his entire career, despite being one of his first major starring roles as a lead player.
It remains such a deep part of British cinematic pop culture, with its retro-60’s stylistics, fleets of Mini’s racing through Turin, Caine’s most oft-quoted catchphrase “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”, songs like ‘The Self-Preservation Society’ becoming embedded in English football culture, and that unforgettable cliffhanger ending which gave birth to “Hang on lads, I’ve got an idea…”, arguably his other great line. It’s hard to imagine a picture more Sixties than The Italian Job and perhaps only Connery himself can outshine Caine as the singular cinematic representation of that decade.
If The Italian Job really did blow the doors off his career, transforming him into an icon, then throughout the Sixties he had already cemented himself as one of British cinema’s leading men thanks to a surfeit of varied roles in films which have also remained in the memory. 1964’s Zulu, if more of a larger war picture and ensemble, nonetheless saw Caine as Bromhead deliver the memorable “wait ’til you see the whites in their eyes lads”. 1965 saw him for the first time essay the role of Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, based on the novels by Len Deighton (he would play this part over a 30 year span).
Oddly enough this saw Caine perhaps intentionally go the other way diametrically from the glitz & glamour of Bond, with Palmer a dour agent in a dark & gritty world of espionage. What it established was a chameleonic element to Caine as a performer as a leading man, able to switch from a darker, lethal tone to suave, cheery and crafty as we saw as Croker and indeed earlier in 1966’s Alfie, where he addressed the audience directly as a serial womaniser. He was all at once a sex symbol, leading man and skilled character actor right from the off, a combination rare in many of the screen idols of his day.
Get Carter, from 1971, is almost as seminal as The Italian Job but at completely the other end of the spectrum; a dark reflection of the pop decade he made his name in, his ice-cold role as a London gangster in the stark North East avenging his brother’s murder showed Caine had the chilling menace more brooding actors such as Richard Burton had brought to bear. Yet across this decade and the next he managed the same trick, balancing these darker roles with ensemble pieces such as 1976’s The Eagle Has Landed or 1977’s A Bridge Too Far or engaging the debonair womaniser, memorably opposite Olivier in 1972’s Sleuth which in many respects feels like the evolution of his Alfie character.
As the gloomy 70’s gave way to the brighter 80’s, so too did Caine start to have a little more fun as he entered middle age, with roles such as parts in 1981’s Escape to Victory opposite no less than Sylvester Stallone, Bobby Moore & Pele, against Steve Martin memorably in 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and even Jaws: The Revenge in 1987 which he comically joked was awful but it bought him a lovely house in the Bahamas.
During the 80’s he also started a trend that would linger in places working with auteurs; he teamed up with Woody Allen in 1986 for an Oscar-winning turn in Hannah and Her Sisters, and one of his best roles of that decade was opposite Julie Walters in Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of Willy Russell’s wonderful play Educating Rita in 1983. There seemed to be a marked move away for Caine from the bigger epic ensemble pictures to either the lighter comedies or singular auteur driven projects, a trend that would continue across his career to date beyond the odd exception.
It’s telling one of Caine’s most well received roles later in life was as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, which remains for many one of the best takes on Charles Dickens’s most beloved character on celluloid. He too sent up his Sixties persona to great effect in 2002’s Austin Powers: Goldmember, playing Mike Myers’ super spy dad Nigel to delightful effect. People now knew Caine has another string to his varied bow – comic timing.
The 00’s saw a bit of a career resurgence for Sir Michael after a fairly quiet 90’s in truth, perhaps at a point he wasn’t sure where he fitted in the cinematic landscape – perhaps too old to be the action man and not old enough to be the grandfather. Arguably it was his collaboration with two great auteurs where he started to find his niche once more – for Alfonso Cuaron as a somewhat hippy outcast in Children of Men‘s dark future landscape in 2006, and around the same time a multitude of supporting roles for the aforementioned Nolan from 2005 onwards – The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar, and of course as Alfred in the Batman trilogy where he lent a stately heart with a river of deadliness bubbling beneath.
Caine in many ways became the heart and soul of those pictures, gave them added weight, and his measured performances for Nolan were acclaimed enough to see him rise to top billing occasionally once again, memorably channeling that 70’s grit for the powerful, sobering Harry Brown in 2009. Caine’s ability to cross class lines in his characters, not to mention skirting both sides of the Pond, remained in force as he journeyed toward an old age where he seemed to find himself in his performances again. He became what he always had been – a character actor inside a leading man.
In recent years, building up toward this week’s Going in Style, Sir Michael has continued to work like a man half his age, often in event pictures as well as measured character pieces – one month he may show up in Kingsman: The Secret Service or Now You See Me 2, the next he might be bouncing off Harvey Keitel in Youth or romantic pieces like Mr Morgan’s Last Love. Having just turned 84 years of age, his versatility and work rate remain hugely impressive and one senses he’s not likely to give up the day job for some time yet. Let’s hope not, as for all Michael Caine has made plenty of real stinkers over the years, he also deserves his position as one of the last, great British stars of the Sixties working regularly today. He really does keep on going in style.