Sir Michael Caine announces his retirement: we look back at the actor’s best roles

Following seven decades of stellar work, the 90-year-old British legend is calling it a day. Thank goodness, then, we have such a solid library of roles to enjoy time and time again…

Throughout the latter part of his career, Sir Michael Caine was never quite sure if the phone would ring again. There were the Christopher Nolan roles, in Batman (more on that below) and as a professor of architecture in Inception, and even a voice cameo in Dunkirk, but as he advanced into old age, he told numerous reporters that it would be the industry that retired him; when the phone stopped ringing, he could consider it P45 time.

Well, now, it’s official – and not because audiences don’t want him on screens anymore, either – at 90, the acting veteran has finally announced his retirement. “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?” he told BBC’s Today Programme earlier this week, referring to his latest movie, The Great Escaper, which is currently playing in cinemas, with a 79 per cent ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, no less.

Caine is one of the most recognisable actors of all time. Born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, in 1933, he began acting in the 1950 film Morning Departure, and would go on to help define the Swinging Sixties, with his distinctive cockney timbre helping secure his position as an icon.

Over seven decades, Caine produced some of the best of British and American cinema. Some, such as Zulu, perhaps haven’t aged so well. Others, such as A Bridge Too Far or A Muppet’s Christmas Carol are more ensemble pieces. And, while The Cider House Rules won Caine one of two Oscars, it’s perhaps not one you’re rushing to re-watch. With that in mind, then, here are some of his finest roles…

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Adapted from a Rudyard Kipling story, this John Huston-directed adventure sees Caine team up with his pal, Sean Connery, as the two play a pair of 19th-century ex-army officers setting out in search of riches, with Connery eventually revered as a god in nearby Kafiristan. All the nasty bits of British imperialism and colonialism are here (and the duo do eventually get their comeuppance), but it’s a joy to see Caine and Connery – two of Britain’s biggest stars, still – feed off one another. Caine framing the film as the crazed and destitute version of his character brings some melancholic fun to proceedings.

Harry Brown (2009)

The story of an embattled older gent living on a rough council estate came on the back of Caine’s second Batman appearance and was the first time he’d been front and centre in a film of his anyone saw since 2002’s The Quiet American. As a tough guy and sex symbol in his younger days, it’s fascinating to see Caine grappling with his diminished physicality. Underneath it all, though, Harry Brown maintains that cool military edge. “You have failed to properly maintain your weapon,” he icily tells a young toe-rag before dispatching him. Indeed.

The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005–2012)

As Alfred to Christian Bale’s Batman, Caine breathed life into what had largely been a thankless, punchline of a role. In return, Alfred put Caine back in business, but it’s his final turn, in The Dark Knight Rises, that seals the deal. For the first time, Alfred is allowed to show real emotion; his argument with Wayne over whether he should continue to be Batman – with Alfred arguing he’s set his bones too many times – is so good you’ll forget you’re watching a superhero film. Ditto, Alfred’s emotional reading from Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities over Wayne’s grave at the end of the film. This is how good Caine can be when we let him.

Alfie (1966)

Caine was red-hot in the 1960s, and this story of a womanising limo driver proves he can do heartthrob just as well as tough guy. Throughout the film, the misogynistic Alfie repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, trying to justify his actions. In Caine’s hands, he is, of course, thoroughly charming, even when he’s being an absolute bastard. Pub quiz trivia alert: Caine received his first Oscar nomination for this role, losing to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons.

The Italian Job (1969)

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Perhaps the most quoted and most spoofed Caine outing, The Italian Job cemented him as the face of British cinema. (Would he have cropped up as Austin Powers’s dad, 25 years later, otherwise?) For all the catchphrases, humming of the theme tune and that literal cliff hanger ending, it’s easy to forget that this is a bloody good film in its own right. Caine, cold and funny in equal measure, is on perfect form.

Get Carter (1971)

Things got darker in the 1970s, and cinema was not immune. In Mike Hodges’s debut, Caine stars as a (supposedly) Geordie gangster who returns home to the north east to investigate his brother’s death. This is Caine at his absolute coldest. It’s a brutal, nasty film, and he’s brilliant in it. Caine’s big sideburns, kipper ties and a lovely three-piece suit, accessorised with a shotgun, made for an iconic poster, too.

The Ipcress File (1965)

Caine’s pal, Sean Connery, kicked off the spy genre with Dr. No in 1962. By the time The Ipcress File rolled out in 1965, Bond was on his fourth outing, having recently deployed a jetpack to escape a cross-dressing villain, and battled an evil genius with an obsession with gold. Caine’s Harry Palmer, meanwhile, spends his time browsing kitchen gadgets in the local supermarket and being surly to his superiors. Harry Palmer is, in many ways, the anti-Bond, but he’s also a brilliant creation in his own right. Adapted from the pages of Len Deighton, in Caine’s hands, Harry Palmer is as dryly funny as he is intelligent, and deadly. He is, in many ways, the ultimate Caine role.

Want more film news? We ask whether or not Aaron Taylor-Johnson is about to be announced as the next James Bond…

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