7. Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972)
Mankiewicz, classic Hollywood director of timeless films such as All About Eve and Cleopatra, brings Anthony Schaffer’s screenplay of his two person Tony Award winning play to the screen. The film stars Laurence Olivier as successful mystery writer Andrew Wyke who invites his wife’s secret lover Milo Tindle, played by Michael Caine, over to talk. The situation quickly evolves into a twisting, highly complex game of death.
Caine’s more reserved performance of a confident young playboy compared with Olivier in his most eccentric role on screen created a perfect balance that sets the two characters as natural rivals. For their incredible work, both actors were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Caine also appears in Kenneth Branagh’s 2007 remake of the film where he plays Wyke opposite Jude Law, but the original is a much better film in terms of both storytelling and acting.
6. Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983)
Educating Rita is an adaptation of Willy Russell’s play of the same name that resets the Pygmalion story in modern day London. Michael Caine stars opposite Julie Walters, in her first leading film role, as the central pair of teacher and student. Walters plays Rita, an uneducated working class wife who goes to Caine’s Dr. Frank Bryant to teach her about literature in order to make her life more fulfilling. Caine’s performance as the drunken careless professor whose life is reignited by Rita earned him his third Academy Award nomination and Caine has stated that it is the role he is most proud of.
The film itself is a standard retelling of the story, driven almost completely by the two central characters. Critical consensus is uneven regarding the film, due to the added side stories and characters, not present in the play. Even though the cluttered plot somewhat distracted from the point of the film, the two lead actors make the Educating Rita a quaint but emotional experience.
5. The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975)
Legendary director John Huston helms this film based on a short story of the same title by Rudyard Kipling. The film stars Michael Caine and Sean Connery as two British officers from the Indian Army who, not wanting to return to their dreary lives in England, set out on an adventure into Kafiristan (Afghanistan) to steal treasures from primitive tribes. They find a tribe who treat them as gods, but tensions rise between the two as greed, women and power intervene.
Caine and Connery, real life friends, give brilliantly fun and entertaining performances which make their eventual breakdown all the more powerful. The film also stars Caine’s real life wife, Shakira, and Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling who is working as a reporter in India. The Man Who Would Be King, nominated for four Academy Awards, was seen as somewhat of a return to form for Huston and a send up to the exciting adventure tales of early Hollywood and past Huston films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
4. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Frank Oz, 1988)
Michael Caine butts heads with comedy superstar Steve Martin in this hilarious comedy about two con men fighting for control over a section of the French Riviera full of rich gullible women. Caine’s role as the charming Lawrence Jamieson is his funniest and most polished comedy performance of his entire career. Martin and Caine’s characters are both likable and despicable and their chemistry together onscreen is great.
Based on the 1964 film Bedtime Story featuring Marlon Brando and David Niven, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels outdoes the original by maintaining a fun and juvenile, while still smart, sense of humor. Famed Muppeteer and portrayer of Yoda Frank Oz directs this film perfectly by keeping the story and structure together but letting the actors develop their characters in their own way. Although much lighter fare than many of the films on this list, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of the most charming and entertaining.
3. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
One of Woody Allen’s best ventures, this ensemble film follows three stories that intertwine and revolve around the three main sisters Hannah, Lee and Holly. Caine plays Elliot, Hannah’s husband who falls in love with her free spirited sister Lee, starting up an affair due to his unfulfilling marriage. The other two arcs feature Diane West, in an Academy Award winning role, as ex-drug addict Holly and Woody Allen in one of his most neurotic roles as Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband.
Caine’s role as Elliot, which earned him his first Academy Award, is also his most human and relatable as the conflicted and unfaithful husband who loses himself in his midlife crisis, which is helped, no doubt, by one of Allen’s greatest scripts. Rounding out this all star cast is Mia Farrow as Hannah, Barbara Hershey as Lee as well as Max Von Sydow, Carrie Fisher, John Turturro and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in supporting roles. One of both Allen’s and Caine’s definitive films, Hannah and Her Sisters is an engaging poignant masterpiece.
2. The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)
The Italian Job is one of Britain’s most celebrated films of the 60s, encapsulating the culture and feel of the era as well as telling an exciting heist story. Michael Caine stars as the recently released playboy gangster Charlie Croker who learns of a stash of Chinese gold in Italy and forms a team to steal it. The film also stars two other national treasures, the playwright Noel Coward and comedian Benny Hill, as members of Caine’s gang.
Caine’s character is, on paper, not as complex as many of his other roles, but he makes Croker his own by adding depth and making him a demanding and arrogant but still likable lead. This has become Caine’s most iconic film role in Britain, even though it never made it big in America. It’s also the role that has graced us with his most memorable quotes like “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” and the closing line “Hang on lads; I’ve got a great idea”. Remade decently in 2003 with Mark Wahlberg, the original is a very intelligent heist film culminating in a thrilling cliffhanger.
1. Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971)
Mike Hodges’s quintessential British gangster film features Micheal Caine in the lead role as London thug Jack Carter who travels back to his hometown to investigate the death of his brother. He discovers a web of lies connecting his brother to underground criminal empires, leaving a bloody trail of revenge fueled violence behind him. Unlike many of the gangsters Caine has played, Carter is not at all charming or goofy, but brutal. His raw, unflattering performance gave the film a grittiness unmatched in British cinema of the time. Caine’s remorseless and sudden outlashes make his antihero one of the most frightening ever.
Get Carter, although somewhat unappreciated when it first came out due to its excessive violence, has developed a large following and heralded by critics and directors as a pioneer of dark British cinema. BFI ranked the film 16th on its list of Top 100 British films and magazine Total Film named it the greatest British film ever. It was filmed in a style similar to a documentary in order to capture the realism of the story and Jack Carter’s character. Get Carter is an emotionally gripping revenge movie made great by the most powerful and stirring performances of Michael Caine’s career.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.