Michael Caine occupies a unique position in film history. He’s one of the most important British film actors ever, but he’s always been a bigger a star in Britain then in the United States. For example, The Italian Job (1969) is a hugely popular film in Britain, but was a relative failure over here. Too many Americans only recognize Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, and many filmgoers don’t understand how influential Caine has been. Those who only him as Austin Powers’s dad, probably don’t know that Mike Myers modeled the entire Austin Powers character after Caine’s role in Alfie (1966), which was actually a good movie, despite the anemic remake starring Jude Law—who has now starred in two Caine remakes, and counting.
Or, those who recognize Caine as the voice of Finn McMissile in Cars 2— posted about here as being this summer’s best Bond film—might not know that character is also a send-up of another spy, Harry Palmer, who Caine played in four films.
Caine’s career has now reached its sixth decade, and has helped launch an entire subgenre of film and literature—the modern British noir. Along the way, Caine created a persona with a unique blend of toughness, sexiness and earthy realism that helped move British actors away from tights and sword fights and into suits and shotguns. In other words, he’s the missing link between Laurence Olivier and Jason Statham.
And it starts with his voice. Easy to mock, instantly recognizable, and all his own, Michael Caine almost never covers up his cockney, east London accent. When Caine hit the film scene like a shotgun blast in 1965, the biggest British actors were men like Olivier, Rex Harrison, and Richard Burton. Brilliant performers, but they were men who excelled on the stage or in roles that highlighted their aristocratic bearing and posh voices. It’s ironic, yet fitting, that Caine’s breakout year was also the year My Fair Lady was released. Caine proved that British actors didn’t have to speak “properly,” as Henry Higgins would put it.
Caine was proud of his working-class roots, and they bring an extra dimension to his films. The Ipcress File (1965) was Caine’s first performance as Harry Palmer, taken from the Len Deighton spynovels. Sean Connery had started playing James Bond three years earlier, and Caine’s early career seemed to purposefully try to distance himself from Connery’s and Bond’s persona. Palmer is a British spy who can’t afford to stay in posh hotels because he doesn’t make enough money. While Bond was jetting around the world with a limitless supply of cash, and a taste for the ultra-expensive, Palmer was mostly stuck in London, lurking in empty warehouses, and always asking his boss for a raise. Palmer is a broke civil servant, and while there’s always a few sexy spies for him to sleep with, he’s much grittier than Bond ever was.
This devotion to realism can be seen in most of Caine’s crime films, as well. Get Carter (1971) still surprises modern audiences with its brutality and Jack Carter’s rampaging viciousness. The film, directed by Mike Hodges (Croupier, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead) was based on the Ted Lewis novel Jack’s Return Home. The film turned the book into a bestseller, and Lewis wrote two more Carter books, which helped create the modern school of British crime novels.
Caine’s personal life and the persona he often presents on screen represent so much of what falls into the pulp or noir genre. He even starred in a movie called Pulp (1972), also directed by Mike Hodges, where he played Mickey King, a bored crime novelist who gets involved in a very bizarre murder mystery.
Growing up in east London, Caine was surrounded by poverty and crime. He’s said this background helped shape his performances, “The thing about gangsters in films these days is that they’re either funny or they’re stupid. Well, I’m sorry, but I’ve never met a gangster that’s either. And I come from something of a gangster milieu.” His gangsters are realistic and brutal because that’s the way he saw them.
Most of Caine’s characters in crime films aren’t only tough, they’re also incredibly dapper. It’s difficult to find a Caine film, from any decade, where he’s not wearing a suit—it’s part of what makes his aging-hippie role in Children of Men (2006) based upon P.D. James’ dystopian novel so much fun.
But to a British audience in the late 1960s, it must have been dissonant to see a well-dressed man with such a strong Cockney accent. His pairing of a working-class voice with an upper-class bearing is part of what set Caine apart from his contemporaries. His characters, and Caine himself to a certain extent, are working guys who have moved into a high-power world. He’s like a dark Horatio Alger.
From John Hurt and Terence Stamp in The Hit (1984), to Statham’s Turkish in Snatch (2000), to Ian McShane in 44 Inch Chest (2009), and the rest of the Guy Ritchie knock-offs, the British gangster is now dapper, well-dressed and vicious—something Michael Caine invented forty years ago.
I can’t think of a modern American actor who fused together such disparate parts of society to form an iconic persona. Maybe if George Clooney played the same characters he plays now, but with a thick southern drawl, then we’d have our own Michael Caine. As it is now, we should be grateful that Britain has let us borrow hers.
Richard Z. Santos lives outside of Austin and is enrolled in the MFA program at Texas State University. Once, he worked in Washington, DC, but now he doesn’t do much more than write and teach. He blogs at Paperclip People, and is working on his first novel—a crime thriller set in New Mexico.