The news that Michael Caine is retiring from acting has hit me like a tonne of gold bars.
I grew up with his films – usually watched on the sofa with my dad – and they’re like old friends: ‘Zulu’, ‘The Ipcress File’, ‘A Bridge Too Far’, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’, ‘Educating Rita’. ‘The Italian Job’, naturally. At uni, I watched ‘Get Carter’ so often I wore out the VHS.
Good, bad or ‘The Swarm’, I love them all. My critical faculties go into cold storage when it comes to his work. I am willing to argue that ‘Escape to Victory’ is a misunderstood masterpiece, even if to the untrained eye it seems that everyone involved is new to acting.
You probably have actors like that in your life: they can pitch up in an absolute turkey and it’s basically Christmas. That’s Caine – and his films – to me.
And they say never meet your heroes but I’ve interviewed the man twice and he was a delight on both occasions, playfully self-aware (he told me that daughter had got him to record her voicemail: ‘You’re only supposed to leave a bloody message’) and clearly still having to pinch himself at what his life delivered for him – even half a century on.
On the first occasion, he was promoting the ropey vigilante thriller ‘Harry Brown’ (one of the few exceptions to my turkey rule). As it happened, there was a press junket for the ‘Entourage’ movie taking place in the same hotel at the same time. ‘What’s that?’ he asked when I mentioned it. I explained that it was an HBO show about a rising star navigating Hollywood, hanging out with his mates and dating a lot of models. ‘Oh yeah, I know it,’ he said, grinning at the memory. ‘It reminds me of when I was young.’
His rep as a cheeky cockney and poster boy for the Swinging ’60s has drawn a lot of focus from just what a terrific actor he is – even with those six Oscar nominations – and he’s continued to add layers to his game even in the twilight years. His latest and, as it turns out, final performance in OAP-on-a-mission movie ‘The Great Escaper’ is an absolute floorer. Opposite the late Glenda Jackson as a married couple who have survived the buffeting of time, it’s like watching the curtains fall on a whole era of British cinema.
It’s an emotional thought that the era is finally over. To mark the occasion, here’s five of my favourite Caine on-screen moments that I’ll be sharing with my daughter on the sofa when the time comes.
1. ‘A ruby the size of a tangerine’ – The Dark Knight (2008)
Caine’s late career renaissance as Christopher Nolan’s talisman has been a real joy and cockney Bat-butler Arthur Pennyworth in the Brit’s ‘Batman’ trilogy is its finest expression. He’s there to deliver the key speech in the trilogy’s outstanding film, ‘The Dark Knight’, alerting Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to the true nature of his adversary, the Joker, with the immortal line: ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn.’ There’s just something about the gravitas he brings to the word ‘tangerine’ that makes it an all-timer for me.
2. ‘We must try something a little more stringent’ – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
It’s not quite true to say that Caine hasn’t done much comedy, because he’s nearly always been doing comedy (except in ‘Get Carter’). But Frank Oz’s conman caper, in which his snobby English trickster Lawrence Jamieson vies with Steve Martin’s gauche chancer, Freddy Benson, to rip off an American heiress (Glenne Headly), is one of his rare pure comedy roles – and it’s so much fun. My favourite scene sees Benson pretending to be a paralysed war hero to win the girl’s heart, and Caine’s conman quickly adopting the identity of the fictional ‘Dr Emil Schaffhausen’ to check on the extent of his injuries – with an improvised whip. ‘Well, you won’t be feeling Mr Piggy then?’
3. ‘I’d advise you to keep him downwind at all times’ – The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
For all its extraordinary cast – Donald Sutherland, Jenny Agutter, Larry Hagman (!), Robert Duvall – ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ is not getting into the Criterion Collection anytime soon. And Caine’s performance as Kurt Steiner, the Luftwaffe’s one cockney, was never going to add to his Oscar wins. But I love the righteous fury of his face-off with a murderous Nazi general in defence of a fleeing Jewish girl. ‘He reminds me of something that I occasionally pick up on my shoe in the gutter,’ he snarls. ‘Very unpleasant on a hot day.’ No one delivers an insult quite as witheringly.
4. ‘I am going to cook you the best meal you have ever tasted in your life’ – The Ipcress File (1965)
There’s a scene in Sidney J Furie’s still-electrifying London spy thriller ‘The Ipcress File’ in which Caine’s jaded spy Harry Palmer wheels a trolley around his local supermarket, impressing a girl with the tantalising promise of a gourmet home-cooked dinner. And then, as I remember it, buying a can of button mushrooms and some tinned tomatoes. Seriously, Ainsley Harriott couldn’t do anything with that. But back in 1965, a man cooking dinner was basically a revolutionary act, and Caine’s iconic character was there storming the barricades.
5. ‘You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job’ – Get Carter (1971)
Still one of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen, ‘Get Carter’ was a brave career choice for Caine – the kind of role that, done wrong, can put audiences off an actor for good. But while even he can’t make vengeful London gangster Jack Carter sympathetic, he does make him cool, in a psychotic kind of way. Alongside telling his beaten-up mate to ‘get yourself a course in karate’, Carter’s slap down of corrupt businessman Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley) is a compelling argument that, if he’d wanted to, he could have spent his career playing memorable villains. That ‘goodnight, Mrs Brumby’ on the way out is iconic.
Read ’s review of ‘The Great Escaper’ here.
‘Get Carter’ and ‘Zulu’ both appear on our list of the 100 Best British Films Ever Made.