Today is the 88th birthday of the great actor and British cultural icon, Sir Michael Caine!
As I did with Chuck Norris earlier this week, I want to commemorate Michael Caine’s birthday by sharing ten of his essential roles. Since 1950, Michael Caine has appeared in over 130 films and countless TV productions. Trying to narrow his long and prolific career down to just ten films is not easy, nor is it really necessary. All of Caine’s films are worth watching, even the ones that he made during the period where he basically accepted every part that he was offered. Because he’s so prolific and because so many of his films are already well-known and regarded as classics, I’ve decided to focus of listing ten of his lesser-known but no less essential roles.
- A Hill in Korea (1956, directed by Julian Aymes) — This nearly forgotten war film is significant because it featured Michael Caine in his first credited screen role. (He had appeared in three previous films but wasn’t credited.) A veteran of the Korean war, Caine was hired to serve as a technical advisor and he was given the small role of Private Lockyer. Years later, Caine would say that, “I had 8 lines in that picture and I screwed up 6 of them.” The film is a standard war film and Caine is barely onscreen but everyone had to start somewhere and this film did allow Caine to appear opposite Stanley Baker, Robert Shaw, and Harry Andrews.
- Billion Dollar Brain (1968, directed by Ken Russell) — In 1965, Michael Caine shot to stardom by playing the working class secret agent, Harry Palmer, in The Ipcress File. Caine went on to play Palmer in four more films. Billion Dollar Brain finds Harry trying to keep a computer and a mad millionaire from starting World War III. This was Ken Russell’s first major feature film and, through not as flamboyant as some of his later films, Billion Dollar Brain still feels like Harry Palmer on acid. Caine gives a typically good performance, as does Karl Malden in a key supporting role. Caine’s future Eagle Has Landed co-star, Donald Sutherland, has a small, early role.
- Zee and Co. (1972, directed by Brian Hutton) — Caine is married to Elizabeth Taylor and having an affair with Susannah York. This is the type of movie that probably could have only been made at a time when studio system veterans like Elizabeth Taylor were trying to prove that they could keep up with the new wave of filmmakers and stars. Providing proof of his acting abilities, Caine somehow keeps a straight face and gives a credible performance while Taylor emotes all over the place. The end result is loud, vulgar, and undeniably entertaining.
- Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (1979, directed by Irwin Allen) — I’m including this film as a stand-in for all of the films that Caine made strictly for the money. It’s a ludicrous film but hard not to enjoy. Michael Caine plays a tugboat captain who, with the help of Sally Field, attempts to salvage the cap-sized Poseidon before the luxury liner finally sinks. Also showing up: Telly Savalas, Slim Pickens, Peter Boyle, and Billion Dollar Brain‘s Karl Malden.
- Mona Lisa (1986, directed by Neil Jordan) — The same year that Michael Caine appeared in his Oscar-winning role in Hannah and Her Sisters, he also played a gangster named Mortwell in Mona Lisa. Caine is chillingly good in a rare villainous role.
- The Fourth Protocol (1987, directed by John MacKenzie) — This underrated spy thriller features Michael Caine as a world-weary British spy who has to stop KGB agent Pierce Brosnan from detonating a nuclear device. This is a well-made spy thriller and it’s interesting to see Caine (who started his career as the anti-James Bond in the Harry Palmer films) acting opposite future Bond, Pierce Brosnan.
- Without A Clue (1988, directed by Thom Eberhardt) — This genuinely funny comedy stars Caine as Sherlock Holmes and Ben Kingsley as Dr. Watson. The catch is that Holmes is actually a clueless actor who was hired by Watson to pretend to be a great detective. When Prof. Moriarty targets Watson, Holmes is forced to actually solve a case on his own. Caine and Kingsley make for a surprisingly good comedy team.
- A Shock to the System (1990, directed by Jan Egleson) — In this very dark comedy, Caine plays an executive who, sick of being passed over for promotions and criticized by his wife, decided to just kill everyone who annoys him. This is one of Caine’s best performances and this underrated film’s satire feels just as relevant today as when it was released.
- Blood and Wine (1997, directed by Bob Rafelson) — This underrated neo-noir gave Michael Caine a chance to act opposite Jack Nicholson. The two iconic actors bring out the best in each other, playing partners in a jewelry heist gone wrong.
- Is Anybody There? (2008, directed by John Crowley) — In this low-key but emotionally effective film, Caine plays an elderly magician who is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Having entered a retirement home, he befriends the son of the home’s manager and the two of them search for evidence of life after death. Though the film didn’t get much attention in the States, Caine described it as a favorite in his most recent autobiography, Blowing The Bloody Doors Off. 75 years-old when he appeared in the film, Caine proved that he could still take audiences by surprise and create an unforgettable character.