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Michael Caine: His 10 best movie roles

We look back at Maurice Micklewhite's most notable movies from Alfie to Zulu

Actor Michael Caine poses for a portrait photograph in London, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)
Michael Caine has retired from acting. (Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Sir Michael Caine has announced his retirement from acting, aged 90, following the release of his final film, The Great Escaper.

It was 73 years ago when a young actor called Maurice Joseph Micklewhite first debuted in a side role opposite Richard Attenborough in the war film, Morning Departure. Seven decades later and the actor — now better known by the name Michael Caine — has become an icon of the screen.

British movie stars are actually a rare breed. And were very much so when a post WW2 diet of B-movie war flicks from the British Home Counties’ studio belt saw a wealth of British actors — Kenneth More, David Niven, Richard Attenborough, Jack Hawkins and Stanley Baker — all still representing a previous generation of stories and movie talent.

Read more: Movie stars who retired from acting

As the austere 1950s evolved into the colourful 1960s, a new batch of working-class princes were about to bring some angry young dollars to the box office – and become stars as well as actors. Leading that charge was Michael Caine.

Actor Michael Caine, 1st July 1964. (Photo by Alisdair MacDonald and Harris/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Michael Caine in 1964, the year that he starred in Zulu. (Getty Images)

Raised in London’s Southwark by a fish merchant father and cook mother, Caine details his life in What’s It All About? – his 1987 autobiography and one of the great books about being an actor — the Swinging Sixties, Hollywood in a Concorde era, and working for those breaks. And it nearly did not happen for Caine.

After a repertory theatre start in Sussex’s Horsham he struggled to find good acting roles. He gave himself a cut-off point when he would turn thirty, and was very much about to give up after bit parts in more British war and crime films proved fruitless.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (Disney/Park Circus)
Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol. (Disney/Park Circus)

And then he was cast in Zulu (1964). Directed by Cy Enfield, narrated by Richard Burton and blessed with the first of a rich array of scores by composer friend John Barry, Zulu saw Caine mimic the then Duke of Edinburgh with a plummy accent and one arm behind his back.

Britain had a new movie star – and one who was about to stand very tall indeed on both sides of the movie pond alongside his peers Sean Connery, Albert Finney, Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Tom Courtenay.

As Sir Michael celebrates his ninetieth birthday, we look back at just ten of his sizeable registry of movies to pick the best, most revered and maybe most guilt-loved.

Alfie | 1966

Jane Asher, British actress, looking up at Michael Caine, British actor, in a publicity still issued for the film, 'Alfie', Great Britain, 1966. The comedy, directed by Lewis Gilbert, starred Asher as 'Annie, and Caine  as 'Alfie Elkins'. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Jane Asher and Michael Caine in 1966's Alfie. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Never as buoyant, and mod-cocky, a film as its ground-breaking to-camera asides and Burt Bacharach’s classic title song suggests, Caine works with director Lewis Gilbert to deliver a deceptively clever, critical portrayal of a serial womaniser facing the errors of his morning-after ways in a very different, non-cool London of back street clinics, vulnerable women and bad men.

It gets overlooked just how Michael Caine embodied a post-war British anti-hero more than any of his peers - none of which could have made the complicated Alfie Elkins work as efficiently and emotionally as he does here. The film earned five Oscar nominations, including Caine's first best actor nomination.

Funeral In Berlin | 1966

An assailant stands in the shadows pointing a handgun at Michael Caine, British actor, wearing black horn-rimmed spectacles and a beige raincoat, in a publicity still issued for the film, 'Funeral in Berlin', Great Britain, 1966. The crime thriller, adapted from the novel by Len Deighton and directed by Guy Hamilton, starred Caine as 'Sergeant Harry Palmer'. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in 1966's Funeral In Berlin. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Whilst it is the first Harry Palmer movie The Ipcress File (1964) that 1960s movie fans remember first, its clever, wintry sequel Funeral in Berlin (1966) in the superior entry in the Harry Palmer series. It sees Caine and James Bond’s director (Guy Hamilton), producer (Harry Saltzman), production designer (Ken Adam) and composer (John Barry) excel while exploring a less glitzy side of espionage.

Its very real Berlin exists in a very real Cold War intrigue where the enemies from before become apt allies, and Caine’s anti-hero is a new mind tackling old adversaries.

The Italian Job | 1969

Michael Caine, British actor, wearing blue overalls and crouching down with a stack of gold bullion in a publicity still issued for the film, 'The Italian Job', 1969. The heist film, directed by Peter Collinson (1936-1980), starred Caine as 'Charlie Croker'. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Michael Caine as Charlie Croker in 1969's The Italian Job. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

A true caper of a treat that has become part of the red, white and blue of British pop culture, emblazoned across London 2012 and many a royal pageant. Caine is at his absolute best in Peter Collinson’s perfect heist modyssey.

Assisted by the best Douglas Hayward tailoring, Quincy Jones’ pitch perfect score, three Mini Coopers culled from the streets of London’s Swinging Sixties, and a pitch perfect performance from Caine’s Charlie Croker, The Italian Job will always kick those doors off with its Chelsea boots and ‘Rule Britannia’ wink at the audience.

Get Carter | 1971

Michael Caine, British actor, wearing a black raincoat and holding a black telephone receiver in a publicity still issued for the film, 'Get Carter', United Kingdom, 1971. The crime thriller, directed by Mike Hodges, starred Caine as 'Jack Carter'. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Michael Caine in 1971's Get Carter. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Just as his best pals Sean Connery and Roger Moore were living a jet-set life across Europe and California, North East England beckoned for Caine and one of his definitive roles.

Read more: Caine says Jack Nicholson talked him out of retiring in the 1990s

A deeply bleak gangster film granted a Britpop renaissance in the 1990s, Mike Hodges’ 1971 Get Carter drops the mod bounce of The Italian Job and Gambit for cold revenge, Roy Budd’s blistering main theme and possibly Caine’s first real middle-aged role.

Sleuth | 1972

DECEMBER 10:  Actors Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine perform in a scene from the movie
Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine perform in 1972's Sleuth. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

A precursor to the similarly twisty and theatrical Deathtrap (1982) — where Caine famously screen-kisses Superman the Movie’s Christopher Reeve — Joseph L, Mankiewicz’s labyrinthine two-hander allows the actor to prove he had a better, more incisive control of movie acting than his legendary co-star, Laurence Olivier.

As the latter’s crime-fiction prankster tries to outwit Caine’s Milo Tindle in a house of games mansion of murder and adultery, Caine definitely works harder for his Academy Award nomination.

The Man Who Would Be King | 1975

Sean Connery and Michael Caine in a scene from John Huston's classic 1975 movie, 'The Man Who Would Be King'. (Photo by Screen Archives/Getty Images)
Sean Connery and Michael Caine in a scene from John Huston's classic 1975 movie, The Man Who Would Be King. (Getty Images)

John Huston’s rich, Boy’s Own take on Rudyard Kipling’s novella about a pair of scoundrel soldiers on the make in colonial India and Afghanistan created a movie pairing victory with Caine alongside good pal Sean Connery to create one of both their career’s best moments.

The wilful flip of Zulu’s cautious Bromhead: Caine’s cocky, London-centric Peachy Carnahan opposite Connery is movie pairing perfection, with both leads later proving how much the film and its experience meant to them when they turned up at the bedside of an ill director Huston in full 1880s costume.

Educating Rita | 1983

Actors Michael Caine and Julie Walters on the set of the film 'Educating Rita' at Trinity College, Dublin, August 10, 1982. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection). (Photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images)
Michael Caine and Julie Walters on the set of the film Educating Rita in 1982. (Getty Images)

The studios originally pondered Paul Newman for the role of alcoholic English literature lecturer Frank opposite Dolly Parton’s Rita. However, by reuniting with Alfie director Lewis Gilbert for another cinematic adaptation of a play, Caine struck gold opposite Julie Walters. A quieter role for the actor and one he graciously steps back from to allow Walters and Willy Russell’s writing to shine, the life-weary Frank as the Pygmalion mentor struggling with his own addictions earned Caine his third Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Mona Lisa | 1986

Many of Caine’s bad boy gangsters in a Michael Caine London are etched with a wink and a charm, and a perfect suit.

His support role stint for director Neil Jordan as violent London pimp Denny Mortwell is a rare presentation of real darkness in a very real 1980s Soho. Pre-dating Pretty Woman by four years, Caine’s spin as a vice world kingpin is the film’s uneasy spine.

Jaws: The Revenge | 1987

Ellen Brody, Michael Cain. and Lance Guest in Jaws: The Revenge. Universal Studios
Ellen Brody, Michael Cain. and Lance Guest in Jaws: The Revenge. Universal Studios

Aside from John Mackenzie’s The Fourth Protocol and winning his first Academy Award (for Supporting Actor in Hannah and Her Sisters), 1987 was marked by two major Caine moments. One was his genuinely groundbreaking, incisive and stellar BBC masterclass, Acting In Film.

The second was his role as Hoagie Newcombe in Jaws: The Revenge. Okay. This is no Get Carter. Or even Blame it On Rio. Yet, when starring in a second sequel to a 1970s watery mega-hit (the other being 1979’s Beyond the Poseidon Adventure), Caine proved he had zero problems plumbing the movie depths for the cash. And that is oddly respectable.

Read more: Caine wouldn't work with Woody Allen again

It is a strange, rushed, and clinical Jaws movie. However, Caine acts everyone off screen, he gets the fun of it all and has a gem of a line with “When I come back, remind me to tell you about the time I took 100 nuns to Nairobi!”

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels | 1988

Michael Caine styling Steve Martin's hair in the mirror in a scene from the film 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels', 1988. (Photo by Orion/Getty Images)
Michael Caine styling Steve Martin's hair in the mirror in a scene from the film 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels', 1988. (Orion/Getty Images)

Spoofing his own Riviera trappings and social circles, Caine almost took the role of a debonaire gentleman thief opposite rogue robber Steve Martin without a script because he would get to live alongside great pals Roger Moore and lyricist Leslie Bricusse in the south of France.

With a straight man poise, he lets Martin steal every gag and every pratfall, whilst delivering a laser precision masterclass in comedy snobbery.

The Great Escaper | 2023

Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson in The Great Escaper. (Pathe)
Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson in The Great Escaper. (Pathe)

Caine announced his decision to retire from acting following the release of The Great Escaper, which he stars in with the late Glenda Jackson.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme in October, he said: "I keep saying I'm going to retire. Well I am now."

The actor added: "I've figured, I've had a picture where I've played the lead and had incredible reviews... What am I going to do that will beat this?"

As it is to be his final film it seems only fitting that The Great Escaper be given an honourable mention here. It follows the true story of Bernard Jordan, a Royal Navy veteran who escaped his care home in order to attend the 70th anniversary of D-day.

Watch: Michael Caine addresses Oscar controversy