Michael Caine’s best films – ranked!

As The Italian Job gets a 50th anniversary re-release, we have painstakingly charted the charming hardnut’s 50 greatest performances, from Alfie to Zulu

50. Escape to Victory (1981)

There’s much to find risible about this Hollywooded-up footballers-against-the Nazis yarn, but Caine’s avuncular presence keeps it watchable, bridging the gap between Sylvester Stallone’s sub-Rocky histrionics and the sheepish line readings of the real-life footballers involved. Not nearly as awful as it could have been.

49. The Swarm (1978)

Probably the best – or least bad – of Caine’s late-70s-into-the-80s do-anything-for-money period, which included Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and Ashanti. The Swarm is actually pretty nifty: an insect-based carve-up from disaster-master Irwin Allen, featuring killer bees cutting a swathe through Texas. Caine is the prof who works out how to destroy them.

48. The Marseille Contract (1974)

A pretty straightforward rip-off of The French Connection, but entertainingly paying homage to the great French gangster movie tradition. Caine and co-star Anthony Quinn are namechecking leads Deray and Ventura, a killer-for-cash and American agent out to take down James Mason’s drug baron.

47. Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan’s ancestor worship has given Caine a late-career fillip. His role, as the boffin running a super-secret space agency in Nolan’s ambitious attempt to emulate Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a sort of autopilot-gravitas.

46. Pulp (1972)

Caine didn’t think much of Mike Hodges’ follow-up to Get Carter; it’s very much not the lean, mean neo-noir that they managed for Carter. Pulp regained some critical credibility in the 90s (not least because of its title similarity to Pulp Fiction) and its labyrinthine literary musings look more interesting now.

With Beyoncé and Mike Myers in Austin Powers in Goldmember.
With Beyoncé and Mike Myers in Austin Powers in Goldmember. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/New Line

45. Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

It was perhaps inevitable that Caine would show up in Mike Myers’ 60s-spy spoof: he plays Nigel, Austin and Evil’s dad, who is still the bum-pinching dinosaur of yore. Broad comedy mugging isn’t really Caine’s strength, but he gets through it fine.

44. King of Thieves (2018)

Caine issued a public call to be cast in a movie about the Hatton Garden job, and the result was pretty classy, compared with most of the geezer-gangster landfill of the past two decades. Caine skilfully brings out the inner desolation of his character even if the surrounding film’s attempt to humanise the robbers never quite hits high gear.

43. The Magus (1968)

Long considered a disaster – not least by Caine himself, who said he was forced into making it for legal reasons – this now comes across as the nuttiest of psychedelic period pieces, alternately baffling and flabbergasting. On some level Caine seems totally out of place, but that actually suits the bonkers material.

42. Dressed to Kill (1980)

Brian De Palma accumulated mucho trash points with this Psycho homage, even if its roll-up of dissociative identity disorder and trans-baiting, suspect back then, looks much worse now. But it was a real out-there choice for Caine, showing he was willing to break the boundaries of what was considered a safe role. Trigger warnings very much required nowadays.

41. The Fourth Protocol (1987)

One of Caine’s better attempts to resuscitate his Harry Palmer persona: a cold-war thriller adapted from a Frederick Forsyth novel that managed to beat the Berlin wall coming down by a mere two years.

With Hugh Jackman in The Prestige.
With Hugh Jackman in The Prestige. Photograph: Stephen Vaughan/AP

40. The Prestige (2006)

Caine played third fiddle to Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in Christopher Nolan’s fifth feature, as another avuncular mentor figure who is given the all-important clip-worthy montage that explains how magic tricks work. He gets the required feels, even if he is a bit overshadowed by Nolan’s directorial fireworks.

39. The Black Windmill (1974)

This should have been a stone cold classic: Caine in his early-70s pomp, Don Siegel directing, more gritty Harry Palmerisms. Caine holds the screen effortlessly (despite those ugly aviator specs he liked), but there’s something laborious about the spy-game thriller he’s been inserted into.

38. Harry Brown (2009)

Surprisingly impressive entry in the feral-council-estate-kids cycle of the mid-2000s, mostly due to Caine’s fervent commitment to the role as he transforms from realist-misery pensioner to creaky-limbed killing machine. It’s still bit of a Kipper’s revenge fantasy, though.

37. The Cider House Rules (1999)

Caine won his second Oscar (for best supporting actor) for this Lasse Hallström adaptation of John Irving’s novel; he plays the ether-addicted orphanage director (and secret abortionist) Wilbur Larch. Caine is very good (despite his customary wobbly accent), but the social politics of the movie have dated horribly.

36. The Statement (2003)

Caine at bay is always an impressive sight, and here he gives it up in spades as an on-the-run wartime collaborator, protected by secretive church organisations from assassins who are out to get revenge. A well-made, if fundamentally old-fashioned drama, the interesting historical background underpins good work from Caine.

Funeral in Berlin.
Funeral in Berlin. Photograph: Allstar/PARAMOUNT/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

35. Funeral in Berlin (1966)

Greenlighting a sequel to The Ipcress File was as easy as winking, and hiring Goldfinger’s director, Guy Hamilton, showed which way the producers wanted to go. Perhaps that explains why this Berlin-set spy game is a touch stodgier than its predecessor: Harry Palmer should be lighter on his feet than 007.

34. Batman Begins (2005)

Caine wouldn’t work with just anybody, you know: Nolan already had three features under his belt, and had directed Al Pacino. But Caine coming on board this Batman origins film was a real coup for the director, as well as re-engaging interest of a new generation of filmgoers for the actor. The butler role – another kindly tough-nut – didn’t take the actor to new areas, but it is probably the one that will define his late-phase career.

33. The Last Valley (1971)

Who can honestly see Caine – or Hollywood – making something like this again? A cast-of-thousands epic set during the thirty years’ war, with Caine as the captain of a band of ruthless mercenaries who take over an untouched rural backwater in 17th-century Germany. Worth it if only for the sight of Caine in a spiked war helmet.

With Karl Malden in Billion Dollar Brain.
With Karl Malden in Billion Dollar Brain. Photograph: Cine Text/Allstar/Sportsphoto

32. Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

Caine wasn’t too keen on this third instalment in the Harry Palmer series, calling his suggestion to hire Ken Russell “a mistake”. Even if Russell never got around to outlining the actual plot too clearly, Caine is on good form, with all that trademark insolence present and correct.

31. Sweet Liberty (1986)

By the mid-80s Caine was firmly established as a top-notch ensemble player. Alan Alda’s slightly supercilious Hollywood comedy – in which Caine played a lothario film star – is a fine example of how Caine’s perfectly pitched charm could quietly dominate, even with high-grade performers such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Bob Hoskins on hand.

30. Miss Congeniality (2000)

Caine proved a good sport as Sandra Bullock’s beauty-pageant instructor in this cop thriller with radioactive levels of Bullock-patented perkiness. To his credit, Caine dials back the campness levels (lesser actors, no doubt, would have detonated the scale); it remains his most unlikely mentor-type role.

29. Blood and Wine (1996)

Caine’s career was at a low-ish ebb in the mid-90s, but this ensemble noir from Bob “Five Easy Pieces” Rafelson stands out. Sporting another dodgy tache, Caine is excellent in a small-but-key role as Jack Nicholson’s safe-cracking partner in crime, as they go after a diamond necklace. A fine showcase for Caine’s amoral-ruthless qualities.

28. Hurry Sundown (1967)

An interesting step away from the sardonic thrillers and swinging-60s material that had made Caine a star. A sweaty, deep-south melodrama for Hollywood heavyweight director Otto Preminger, Caine played a racist speculator trying to diddle sharecroppers out of their land. One of the first signs that Caine was aiming for something bigger.

27. Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)

By the mid-70s Caine was looking past lead roles: in this Sting-inspired period comedy he is well down the bill but still highly memorable, with more recent stars James Caan and Elliot Gould in the marquee roles. Caan and Gould are con artists aiming to beat Caine’s lordly bankrobber to a heist; fun stuff.

26. Too Late the Hero (1970)

If one film shows that Caine really knew how to handle military grade weaponry, it’s this: a re-run by Robert Aldrich of his own hit movie The Dirty Dozen, about a British unit cut down fighting the Japanese in the Pacific islands. As the only survivor of a risky jungle mission (reflecting the current war in Vietnam), Caine channelled his own combat experience in Korea; he looks pretty convincing.

25. The Hand (1981)

In an attempt to reinvigorate his Hollywood career after its late 70s downturn, Caine tried a bit of horror – then a modish option for actors on the slide. Caine chose wisely: this creepy little number about a comic book illustrator whose severed hand becomes an unstoppable killing machine was Oliver Stone’s first Hollywood film as director.

A Jane Bown portrait of Michael Caine in 1968, taken in his Grosvenor Square flat.
A Jane Bown portrait of Michael Caine in 1968, taken in his Grosvenor Square flat. Photograph: Jane Bown

24. Deadfall (1968)

Caine had already appeared in the cameo-stuffed The Wrong Box for director Bryan Forbes; two years later he was a bona fide leading man, and took the main role in Forbes’ arty caper thriller. Its sexual politics look a little crass today, but Caine’s heavy-lidded charm holds it together.

23. The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

A somewhat forgotten entry in Joseph Losey’s canon, very much in the Antonioni style – lush, chilly interiors, moody set pieces and quizzical meditations on sex and the creative process. Caine brings conviction to his role as a novelist and husband to Glenda Jackson, who is contemplating having it away with a drug dealer in a Baden Baden spa hotel.

22. California Suite (1978)

No doubt feeling the pace of keeping a leading-man career going into its second decade, Caine’s participation in this Neil Simon ensemble piece was one of his first attempts to diversify. It allowed him to stretch and play against type. Here he is a gay antique dealer, in a marriage of convenience to Maggie Smith’s Oscar nominee, but unwilling to conceal his sexuality.

21. Children of Men (2006)

Caine had a small but vivid role in Alfonso Cuarón’s ambitious dystopian satire; again, very much against type as an ageing hippy and dope farmer. Caine apparently based his scruffy long-haired character on John Lennon and – almost unrecognisable – happily farts and sparks up a fat one.

20. Play Dirty (1968)

A war movie of quite extraordinary cynicism , in which the British higher-ups betray their own men to the Germans for strategic purposes; an anti-establishment broadside that suited Caine’s late-60s mood perfectly. He plays posh: an oil executive attached to a unit of irregulars operating behind enemy lines in the north African desert. A real gut punch of a movie.

Youth. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito

19. Youth (2015)

If you can get past the male-gaze sleaziness of parts of Paolo Sorrentino’s melancholy fable, there’s a fine, wintry performance from Caine as an elderly composer spending time at a health spa for a check-up. As the title ironically indicates, this is all about the dying of the light, facing up to the end – and ruminating on the missed possibilities along the way.

18. Gambit (1966)

Like many of Caine’s 60s and 70s films, there’s a barrel-load of obsolescent cultural baggage to avert your eyes from – largely, in this case, stemming from the casting of Shirley MacLaine as a biracial showgirl called Nicole Chang. That said, this is otherwise a properly charming caper movie, with perceptible chemistry between him and MacLaine.

17. Little Voice (1998)

Caine largely swerved the Brit-cinema revival of the mid- and late-90s, but he did do this adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s stage hit about a painfully shy homebody with a fantastic singing voice. Caine, as her raddled manager Ray Say, is fine – until, that is, he is elevated to magnificence with Ray’s astounding onstage meltdown, belting out It’s Over and shouting obscenities at an unimpressed talent scout. Genuinely extraordinary.

16. The Honorary Consul (1983)

Caine’s credentials as a heavyweight dramatic actor began to emerge in the early 80s; this, along with Educating Rita, helped him make the transition. Caine is magnificent as Graham Greene’s alcoholic British diplomat, venal but remorseful as he grapples with his own failings.

With Stanley Baker in Zulu.
With Stanley Baker in Zulu. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

15. Zulu (1964)

Caine’s casting in this, his first substantial film role, is the stuff of legend: called in to read for a working-class trooper, he emerged with the plum role of the officer-class Gonville Bromhead. Very much a passion project for the star, Stanley Baker, this heroic rendering of the battle of Rorke’s Drift has passed into Sunday teatime territory, even if many of its cultural assumptions look pretty shaky now. Caine made the most of the opportunity, though, in full damn-your-eyes mode.

14. The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

Of Caine’s vast back catalogue of second world war movies, this is probably the one that will endure. Adapted from a Jack Higgins novel, bearing a certain resemblance to Went the Day Well?, this has Caine as a sort-of good German leading a mission to infiltrate an English village and assassinate Churchill. It’s absorbing, well-crafted stuff, directed by John “The Great Escape” Sturges; Caine, as ever, finds a way to dominate the film through sheer power of performance.

13. Educating Rita (1983)

A real hit in the UK, this adaptation of Willy Russell’s stage play made a star of its female lead, Julie Walters, but also confirmed Caine’s transition to a dramatic actor of substance. As a character – a middle-aged, jaded alcoholic – Caine’s Open University prof is not all that different from the one in The Honorary Consul, released the same year; the narrative arc here is, however, rather more obviously redemptive and uplifting.

With Laurence Olivier in Sleuth.
With Laurence Olivier in Sleuth. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/20th Century Fox

12. Sleuth (1972)

A con artist movie in all but name, this saw Caine very much hold his own opposite Laurence Olivier – both were nominated for the best actor Oscar – as a cocky hairdresser duelling with Olivier’s jealous crime writer over who can freak out the other most successfully. Caine clearly liked the two-hander format, chalking up a string of impressive examples over the years, but this is the first, and one of the best.

11. Last Orders (2001)

An unlikely subject for a film: a carload of grumpy old men taking the ashes of their dead friend to be scattered in Margate. From this, as explored in Graham Swift’s Booker prize-winning novel, writer-director Fred Schepisi wove an inexpressibly moving tapestry of memory and good fellowship, loyalty and thwarted hopes. Caine is the dead friend, seen (obviously) in flashback; his ability to lead even the strongest ensemble cast (which included Tom Courtenay, Helen Mirren, Ray Winstone and Bob Hoskins) was never bettered.

The Muppet Christmas Carol.
With Kermit in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

10. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Another leftfield choice that showed Caine wasn’t afraid to take a chance: big stars didn’t do movies with puppets. This could easily have been a disaster, but Caine absolutely nails it as Scrooge; his customary total commitment to a role undeterred by the presence of Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest. It’s the seriousness with which he takes it that’s the key: Caine said he would play it like Shakespeare, and he did.

9. The Italian Job (1969)

Of all the roles Caine played, you get the feeling he felt most personal kinship – at least in the early years as an actor – with Charlie Croker, the upstart bank robber whose overseas multimillion-pound heist is reconfigured by the film-makers as a reassertion of national pride and the revenge of the Little Englander in the age of vanishing empire. In some ways even more of a Kipper fantasy than Harry Brown, the compensation here is a tremendous sugar rush of entertainment.

8. Mona Lisa (1986)

Caine made one of his rare 80s forays back home to play third fiddle to Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson in Neil Jordan’s undeniably haunting thriller. Even if he isn’t the main man, the role he plays – icily sleazy pimp Mortwell – is thoroughly memorable in its sheer nastiness.

7. The Quiet American (2002)

With The Honorary Consul, Caine had proved he could do Graham Greene, and the mood of compromise and self-reproach that it entailed. He is even better in this one, an adaptation of Greene’s excoriation of American exceptionalism in south-east Asia (a theme that proved unpopular in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, when the film was originally supposed to be released). Caine’s attention to detail as he summons up the mood of conflicted melancholy secured an Oscar nomination.

With Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
With Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photograph: Allstar/Orion/Sportsphoto Ltd

6. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Caine played a fair few charming upper-class rogues in his time – mostly for Hollywood, it has to be said – and this is arguably the best: a Riviera-based swindler who latches on to rich women and relieves them of their cash. The presence of Steve Martin as his partner/rival elevates this comedy to classic status and, if the twist ending with Glenne Headly isn’t exactly a surprise, it’s all beautifully managed.

5. The Ipcress File (1965)

This, more than Alfie, was the film that made Caine a star, and it is still absolutely terrific. Audiences got their first look at Caine’s deadpan, lizard-like charm, leavened with his then-modish street accent, which positioned him as a key player in the 60s culture wars. It also helps, of course, that it’s just a fantastically exciting thriller, with director Sidney J Furie going into overdrive; as well as being a stylistic counterpoint to the flashier Bond films, it’s also much less bloated.

With Shelley Winters in Alfie.
With Shelley Winters in Alfie. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount/Sportsphoto Ltd

4. Alfie (1966)

If Ipcress got Caine front and centre, Alfie was the film that came to define his onscreen persona, at least at first. As the blazer-wearing, permacheating roué of the title, Caine perfectly encapsulated the boundary-pushing moral mood of the time – though in truth, this is a film about the failures and bleakness of the permissive lifestyle. Caine might not have been an absolute natural in the role – Terence Stamp, who turned down the film after playing the part on stage, would possibly have been a little more so – but Caine’s slight awkwardness arguably makes for more interesting drama. And it’s hard to see how Caine’s confidence in the direct-address bits could have been better.

3. Get Carter (1971)

As the 70s dawned, Caine was incontrovertibly a big international star. His “coming home” to do a small-scale Brit gangster film was as much an event as Jack Carter heading back to Newcastle to sort out his brother’s killers. Conceived as a quantum leap forward in the way British organised crime was represented on screen – violent, nasty and businesslike – Get Carter emerged as a modern classic, with Caine a towering figure with a laser-like focus on getting the job done, both as a character and an actor.

2. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

In retrospect, this looks like the first of a stream of pass-agg breakup notes Woody Allen was sending to Mia Farrow: Caine’s role, of a man so disgusted by Farrow’s niceness he has to go off and have an affair with someone in the immediate family, is a cleverly disguised Allen surrogate (given Allen is also in the film, playing a discontented TV writer). Notwithstanding the tsunami of bile that has swept over Allen since, this remains a richly observed drama, Chekhovian in its sweep and a testament to why Allen was (and still should be) regarded as a great film-maker. As ever making only the most perfunctory attempts to do the relevant accent, Caine’s ability to dredge vulnerability out of himself resulted in a quite extraordinary, even revelatory performance; for once, an Oscar no one could argue with.

With Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King.
With Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia/Sportsphoto Ltd

1. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Characteristically for Caine, collaboration brings out his absolute best. His double act with Sean Connery, in roles originally intended for Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, is electrifying in absolutely the best way; this is arguably Connery’s career high, too. Who knows how the American actors would have played it, but with Caine on board it became another upstart fable, the put-upon worker drones managing – at first, at least – to outsmart the boss class to grab a little loot for themselves. Of course, The Man Who Would Be King is a near textbook example of be careful what you wish for; like The Italian Job, cliffs and gold play their part. There’s an extra resonance for contemporary audiences: this imperial-era study of the north-west frontier provides a lot of context for the current unrest in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (The naked racism on display, which undergoes a Kiplingesque modulation as the story progresses, is a similar eye-opener.) For Caine specifically, his screen charisma was never deployed better: crafty, resolute and empathetic.


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