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Cockney Maurice Joseph Micklewhite Jr., aka Michael Caine, is a force of acting virtuosity. Featuring in 130 films over the last 69 years, he started with an uncredited role as a teaboy in the 1950 movie Morning Departure. While his late period work including Harry Brown, Youth and his collaborations with Christopher Nolan have been stellar, most recently he starred in 2018’s critically panned King of Thieves. This was alongside other acting greats like Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, and Ray Winstone. While the cast as usual shone, the movie was far too uneven to call enjoyable. But it does serve as part of a metaphor for Caine’s career: for every great moment there have been those god-awful wrong steps.
For every misadventure such as Jaws: The Revenge (1987), or On Deadly Ground (1994) there have been wondrous reinventions, like his Oscar-winning performances in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and The Cider House Rules (1999). Next year Caine will appear again in a Nolan outing. This is the crime thriller Tenet, where he will star in alongside Robert Pattinson, John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh.
The task of narrowing down such an illustrious career to just five movies may seem impossible. However, these are highlights from the first part of Michael Caine’s career, ones which lead him to the high regard in which he is held.
#1. Get Carter (1971)
In Mike Hodges’ 1971 movie, Caine rules supreme as gangster enforcer Jack Carter. It is a tale of vengeance as Carter returns to his Newcastle origins to investigate the death of his brother Frank. Gritty and steeped in violence, Carter exacts justice as he goes deeper into a world where he feels most comfortable. The backdrop of a working class city provides the atmospheric tension. It was the first time a British movie delved so far into the criminal underworld, setting a benchmark in the 70’s for what was to come in future cinematic adventures such as A Clockwork Orange and Dirty Harry. Although criticized heavily at times for the lack of remorse Caine had injected into his role, it still has gone on to be a film of cult popularity.
#2. The Italian Job (1969)
Remade in recent years, it is the original which is the very essence of the swinging 60s, and a high point of British cinema. Blowing the doors off entertainment for the past half-century, The Italian Job remains an enjoyable treat for those who love to immerse themselves in feel-good cinema. It follows the exploits of ex-con Charlie Croker (Caine) who has the details of the perfect heist in Turin, Italy. With the aid of a band of criminals, including the late Benny Hill, Croker uses three Mini Coopers to evade the authorities and escape with four million in gold. This all happens as they try to overcome the odds of the mafia and the Swiss Alps. With a soundtrack by Quincy Jones, Michael Caine shines as the wise cracking man with a plan, in the stylish time capsule to a simpler time.
#3. Sleuth (1972)
Again a movie remade in 2007, also starring Caine, the original impact of this 1972 marvel could not be recaptured. Even with Jude Law and in the hands of Kenneth Branagh, the edge of the Academy nominated performances of Laurence Olivier alongside younger Caine are too sublime in technique and charisma to re-imagine.
It unfolds as a two-man show, where Olivier as Andrew Wyke, a crime-fiction writer, invites his young wife’s lover, Milo Tindle (Caine), to his house. Wyke maintains he is bored with his wife and wants Trindle to run away with her, concocting a plan with Trindle in which he will “steal” some of Wyke’s jewelry, while Wyke will recoup his losses through insurance fraud. However, Wyke secretly plans to stage a robbery, thus giving him an alibi to shoot Tindle. The twists however, are sudden and the two lead actors boil over with enough talent to keep you hooked to the screen.
#4. The Ipcress File (1965)
This is stretching back to the very early days of Caine’s career. Yet, the grassroots of captivation were already sprouting. Taking on a Bond-like role, Caine plays Harry Palmer, an ex-criminal turned ministry of defense investigator. After some top scientists start to go missing, Palmer is put on the case to discover why. Although a slower paced effort than the 007 outings, this Sidney J. Furie hit surrounding national security, and espionage was received with open arms by the public. Caine’s superb understated performance made it a winner.
#5. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Two heavyweights collide with Sean Connery giving a stellar performance alongside Caine. The chemistry between the two actors makes this movie the jewel that it is. In this John Huston epic, we find Caine and Connery as Carnehan and Dravot, two ex-British army sergeants who become adventurers. They set out to Kafiristan to train soldiers to ward off neighboring villages with the latest rifles. When in battle, an arrow pierces Dravot’s (Connery) jacket, and he is unharmed, (due to his leather vest) both warring villages see him as a god. After a calling to the Sikandergul temple, Connery is pronounced God-King. The movie has its comedic moments, mostly from the cheeky cockney performance of Caine. It goes without saying that both he and Connery are extremely enjoyable to watch. They both hail this as their favorite cinematic moment.