Pale Fire

Michael Caine and the secrets of long-term movie stardom
by Michael Atkinson  posted April 28, 2010
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Michael Caine was a movie star from the very beginning—the moment the world spied him as the greenhorn lieutenant in Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964). He’d spent eight years doing bit parts before that, but the instant he commanded the screen by himself, we all knew he was who we wanted to watch, and we've hardly stopped for a moment in the 46 years since.

It's not easy to figure why—the vagaries of movie stardom are a factor of mass psychology to which no serious study has yet been devoted, as far as I know, but practically the entirety of our culture is subject to it. We know talent is no guarantee of anything; sometimes mere beauty creates a short-lived nova, and more often a measure of gravity, looks, and personal energy allow an actor to hold the public stage for a number of years. But occasionally, a man or woman will stride onto our movie screens and without moving a muscle hold our attention the way gravity holds a moon in orbit, and these individuals often have careers that last half a lifetime. As a result, we grow up with them, age with them, correspond our own passages with theirs, and much of what we think we know about movies, acting, drama, and (dare we say) human expression we learned by osmosis in their presence, standing alongside them, absorbing their rhythms, getting so familiar with them that it’s sometimes a secret shock to realize that they do not know us back.

I cannot, for example, remember a time without Michael Caine—he was one of the first presences I became aware of watching movies on broadcast TV in the ’60s and ’70s, rivaled only by Boris Karloff, Charlton Heston, Vincent Price, and John Wayne. In that first decade of his post-walk-on career, Caine was the steel-gazed Everyman in a drizzly Cold War Europe of cobblestone alleys, black leather gloves, enormous eyeglasses, tiny cars, and nefarious black-box goings-on, from The Ipcress File (1965) to Get Carter (1971) and beyond. Sidney J. Furie’s low-key espionage brooder The Ipcress File was Caine’s first starring role, and immediately Caine revealed a superhuman ability to project intent and delayed action and plot-fueling intelligence without seeming to show us anything at all.

Caine’s not famous for being an under-actor, but in the ’60s that’s what he was, a watcher, an incisive modern man who internalized his emotions because they made him vulnerable. His judicial outbursts added pepper to the pot—no one could holler with his eyes still half-lidded as stunningly as Caine, as when he barks “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” when a cohort obliterates a van in The Italian Job (1969), a delivery that was voted in 2003 by readers of The Daily Telegraph to be the greatest “one-liner” in film history. Or when Caine, as a Kipling freebooter in the India of The Man Who Would Be King (1975), replies to a bureaucrat’s criticism in startling high dudgeon, moving only his mouth: “Detriments! Detriments, you call us? Well, I want to remind you that it was detriments like us that built this bloody Empire—and the izzat of the bloody Raj!”

When Caine was in the first of his several primes, his combustible combination of cool self-confidence and splenetic rage was hypnotic—he outclassed the fussy Laurence Olivier in the gab–duel that was Sleuth (1973) and provided the otherwise garish X, Y & Zee (1972) with a dazzling gravitas threatened only but scarily from without by Elizabeth Taylor’s unstoppable harpy. I’ve never gotten over Caine’s esprit and ready-steady-go immediacy in Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, an unashamedly male-centric slab of colonialist hokum that nevertheless retains a high-shelf spot in its director’s filmography by sheer dint of its zest and the eloquence with which it limns the joy of masculine camaraderie. (There’s a theme you rarely see stumped for.) Caine’s firehose of attitude, verbal vinegar, and steel nerves makes that film feel urgent and fun in ways that don’t date, and a teenage boy can do a good deal worse than look upon Caine’s Peachy Carnehan and be inspired to seize the world with a grinning battle whoop.

Caine has persevered in his career so doggedly that it has the shape of a well-lived life, from wary-hungry youth to all-business middle age to patriarchal serenity. The middle period, sort of beginning with Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and proceeding into the ’90s, remains troublesome, Caine becoming in those years a running gag of ubiquity, appearing in too many films, too many of which were deplorable. (Reportedly, he’d moved to Hollywood in 1979 to escape England’s steep taxes.) But it’s our mistake, when we fret over the shape and quality control of an oeuvre rather than individual films, something working actors rarely do, preferring like the rest of us at our jobs to believe only in the task at hand and the next one coming down the pike. Like Christopher Walken after him, Caine seemed to simply like working (often making four films a year, like an old studio contractee), and anyway, amid the disaster films and trite comedies, he gathered Oscar nods, took on Graham Greene and Paul Theroux, and grounded what are arguably Neil Jordan’s and Woody Allen’s best films (Mona Lisa and Hannah and Her Sisters, respectively).

Caine is one of the medium’s handful of seminal figures, in that he did not fall into a category of star but defined his own. Who is or has ever been like Michael Caine? (Even Bogart, Brando, James Mason, and Lee Marvin had types.) The Cockney elisions, the careful communicativeness, the suddenly goofy grin, the deadeyed stare, the commanding physical grace—he is his own brand. Caine has gotten less fiery as he’s gotten older, of course, and in the process has become the best line reader working in English-language movies, rivaled only by Robert Duvall. (Unfortunately, their only pairing, 2003’s Secondhand Lions, gave them little of interest to say.) This may register as faint praise, but in today’s American film culture, where actual human beings are becoming less and less necessary, an actor who can handle bricks of dialogue without speechifying and make witticisms bounce like superballs may be our salvation.

Caine’s become ubiquitous again as the sole sign of humanity in the Batman franchise, among other high-concept blockbusters, but look at him doing Greene again, in Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American (2002), personifying in precise terms the entire spirit of tired, last-legs European colonialism, an idea of global culture slowly buried by the march of history, a Peachy Carnehan who went into the foreign service and wound up wizened and cynical and heartbroken. Caine had earned his iconicity, and no other British actor alive deserved the role and the regal sadness that came with it. Of course he made it look effortless—which may be the secret key to his tireless fascination, and genuine, long-haul movie stardom in general. Nothing in our lives seems terribly easy, so we may be drawn like babies to the reassurance of movie personas for whom life and drama and narrative crisis are challenges, but challenges met with fortitude and calm. This is a quality many are called to feign (as action heroes do, simplistically and tediously), and only a few distinct personalities possess in their bones. Caine’s energy boiled up from his foundation, like an athlete’s, and we have never doubted his conviction or savviness. 


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Michael Caine in The Ipcress File, directed by Sidney J. Furie
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April 28, 2010 Sir Michael Caine, Icon


Michael Caine  |  stardom  |  Retrospective  |  Hollywood


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Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct