Michael Caine is one of Britain’s most recognized and accomplished actors of cinema. Since his start, Caine has garnered six Academy Award nominations, winning two of them, as well as a multitude of other acting accolades and, in 2000, was knighted by the queen. Over his 60-year career, Caine has appeared in well over one hundred films. As an actor he has played a diverse set of roles characters from brutal gangsters to sleazy con men and even a talking car. His commanding screen presence, adaptability and unique Cockney accent have helped him to become a lasting success.
Caine was born Maurice Micklewhite but at his agents suggestion changed it, using Humphrey Bogart’s film The Caine Mutiny as inspiration after he saw a poster advertising it at a local theater. He played small roles in films for a decade and went mostly unnoticed until he was cast as an officer in Zulu in 1964. Only a year later he got his first starring role in The Ipcress File and rose to stardom.
Since then Caine’s career has rarely faltered, with the exception of a bad string of films during the 90s. Lately he has mostly taken roles as a supporting character, including playing father figures in every Christopher Nolan film since Batman Begins. Unfortunately, Caine is over 80 years old and has announced his tentative retirement and will most likely be done with acting unless he is offered a project that he finds worthy.
This list is a look at the best performances Michael Caine’s career and shows his strength and versatility as an actor.
20. Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)
The film Zulu is about the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 that focuses on a British regiment stationed at a military hospital in Africa that becomes the target of a Zulu invasion. Michael Caine appears in his first major role as Lt. Gonville Bromhead, an upper class officer who is second in command of the regiment surrounded by a Zulu army.
The performance is Michael Caine’s first breakthrough role and although it is not as deep or complex of a character as many others on this list, it is still notable. This marked the first real challenge for Caine as an actor and pushed his boundaries. Growing up as a poor cockney kid in South London he did not have much in common with the posh officer he portrayed.
In fact, there has been speculation that if the director would have been English instead of American and had known about the biased social structure of Britain then Caine might never have landed the part. Still, he managed to create a realistic character and stood out in the film, showing his first signs of great talent.
19. The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallstrom, 1999)
The Cider House Rules, adapted from the John Irving novel of the same title, is a film about an orphan who leaves the orphanage in Maine where he was raised and goes to work in a cider house and experience life. Michael Caine plays Dr. Wilbur Larch, the head of the orphanage, which doubles as a birthing hospital where he is also the obstetrician.
For this role Caine does away with his cockney accent and puts on a convincing New England one. In the movie takes a special interest in the main orphan, played by Tobey Maguire. He trains him to be an obstetrician also but scares him away. Although Caine is not onscreen or the majority of the movie, he gives a touching performance as a conflicted man trying to do everything he can for the forgotten children under his care. For this role he was awarded his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
18. Dressed To Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)
De Palma’s thriller Dressed To Kill focuses on a prostitute who is the only witness to a murder of a frustrated housewife and becomes the target of the killer. Dr. Robert Elliot, played by Michael Caine, was the victim’s therapist who becomes entangled in the case when one of his unstable ex-patients is believed to be the killer.
This stylish and controversial film addresses many complex issues like sexual promiscuity, transgenderism and multiple personality disorder. Because De Palma focuses more on craft and technique than storytelling, the narrative is not always clear and logical. Even so, the result is a fun and exciting thriller, in which Michael Caine shines as the troubled therapist who knows more than he lets on. Also starring Angie Dickinson in a revealing role, Dressed To Kill is an overlooked gem in both Caine and De Palma’s career.
17. The Ipcress File (Sidney J. Furie, 1965)
This classic British spy film features Michael Caine in his first starring role as the hardened agent Harry Palmer, a role he has reprised four time since. The film has Caine investigating the reason behind the sudden phenomena coming over Britain’s top scientists, causing them to stop work and research.
Made as an antithesis to the James bond films, The Ipcress File shows the more realistic and gritty side of espionage. Caine plays a smart secret agent who has real life problems like competition with other spies and lives in South London. He is not a careless playboy who gets whatever he wants which was the common portrayal of spies at the time. Caine would later parodied this star-making role in Austin Powers in Goldmember where he plays Austin Powers’s secret agent father.
Winner of the BAFTA award for Best Picture, The Ipcress File set a new standard for serious modern spy films.
16. The Dark Knight Trilogy (Christopher Nolan, 2005-2012)
Although Nolan’s trilogy [Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)] is heavily centered around Batman/Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale, Caine’s character of Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne’s butler, is extremely important in developing Wayne’s character and inner struggle. Having taken care of him since birth, Alfred is Bruce’s oldest friend and the only other person who knows his alternate identity.
Caine’s Alfred is always grounded and sees clarity when Batman may have lost it. He simultaneously acts as Bruce’s friend, father figure and accomplice. For most of the trilogy, he seems to be the only person who cares about Bruce Wayne at all. Caine acts as the balancing force that keeps Batman focused and functional.
Much more than just comic book movies, The Dark Knight Trilogy stands as one of the greatest film series of the past decade and one of the best incarnations of the Batman character.
15. Without A Clue (Thom Eberhardt, 1988)
In this twist on Sherlock Holmes, Michael Caine plays actor Reginald Kincaid who is hired by Dr. John Watson, played by Ben Kingsley, to portray the fictional Sherlock Holmes from Watson’s stories for publicity. They solve crimes by having Kincaid pretend to investigate crimes while Watson actually solves them.
Both starring actors are in top form here, far outdoing what the script and story deserved. The movie which has a forgettable plot and weak development, is saved by Caine and Kingsley’s performances and their chemistry together. Caine’s Holmes is completely clueless and bumbling while Kingsley’s Watson is an uptight genius who can’t stand Holmes’s antics but is forced to work with him because he needs his fame in order to be taken seriously.
Without a Clue is an entertaining and often funny comedy that, if nothing else, shows how great acting can save a movie.