Total Recall

Definitive Michael Caine Movies

We look back at the roles that have helped mold the Youth star's career.

by | December 2, 2015 | Comments

A film and television fixture for decades, Michael Caine is one of Hollywood’s best and brightest (he’s earned an Oscar nomination at least once a decade since the 1960s), with an incredible list of credits as a leading man and a supporting player — and even a few minor roles, like his brief appearance in 2006’s Children of Men. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Caine’s also a published author, a chillout DJ, and a knight of the Order of the British Empire — and now, thanks to the debut of his latest film, Youth, he can add “subject of a Rotten Tomatoes Total Recall” to his list of accomplishments. Let’s take a look at Michael Caine’s definitive roles!

Zulu (1964) 96%


Caine scored his first starring role in this Cy Endfield production, which told the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift during the late 19th century Anglo-Zulu War. The culmination of a long and bitter border dispute, the war ultimately added another bloody chapter to British colonialism in the region, but not without months of the kind of struggle dramatized in Zulu — and the efforts of soldiers like lieutenants John Chard (played by Stanley Baker, who also produced) and Gonville Bromhead (played by Caine), who threw together a makeshift fort to make a desperate stand against the opposition. Though barely a footnote in American history books, Rorke’s Drift produced a number of decorated veterans for the British Army — and an early critical triumph for its freshly minted star. “Caine was just splendid,” applauded Dennis Schwartz of Ozus’ World Movie Reviews. “It is still one of his finest hours in film.”

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The Ipcress File (1965) 100%


Caine made his first — and, critically speaking, his best — appearance as Len Deighton’s rumpled spy Harry Palmer in this 1965 thriller, which gave fans of cinematic espionage a slightly more realistic alternative to James Bond. Emphasis on the slightly: Although Harry had to contend with more bureaucratic red tape (and got to play with fewer gadgets) than 007, his adventures still included a few of the fanciful elements that make a good spy yarn, like The Ipcress File‘s high-tech tape recordings and brainwashing baddies. Caine went on to play Palmer in two sequels and a pair of made-for-TV movies, but Ipcress was the one that helped him break out as a leading man: As Angie Errigo of Empire noted, “Caine, Zulu under his belt and Alfie ahead, is the cheeky working class but aspirational bright spark hero par excellence, captured at the exact moment he became a star.”

Alfie (1966) 96%


The quintessential swinging ’60s film, Alfie is undeniably a product of its time, and it can admittedly be hard to watch it in 2015 without thinking of Austin Powers or wincing at the dated lingo and/or fashions. But this adaptation of the Bill Naughton novel remains a classic for many reasons, chief among them Michael Caine’s impressively nuanced, Oscar-nominated performance in the title role. Alfie Elkins is a cad, plain and simple, but Caine made audiences root for him anyway by giving them glimpses of his humanity — and not only in the few scenes where he was called upon to show some real emotion, but throughout the entire film, as he slowly, subtly took the character on a journey from callow bachelor to… well, less callow bachelor. As Dan Lybarger put it in his review for Nitrate Online, “Caine’s terrific performance makes a viewer almost forget that the film is actually a condemnation of its character’s swinging lifestyle.”

Get Carter (1971) 84%


A stark, unflinching portrait of the lingering stain that violence can leave on a person’s life — even after they’re dead — Get Carter repulsed many critics when it was released, but behind all that ugly violence lurks a film whose sharp script, strong performances, and surprisingly thoughtful themes are impossible to ignore. The critics eventually came around, too; over time, Carter has come to be regarded as one of the best gangster movies ever made — and even one of Britain’s best films overall. In another actor’s hands, the role of the vengeful Jack Carter would have been a thuggish cartoon, but Caine infused his character’s homicidal rampage with palpable pain and sorrow. (For an example of how it could have gone wrong, watch Sylvester Stallone’s 2000 remake, which featured Caine in a supporting role. Or better yet, don’t.) He’d earned praise for earlier roles, but Caine really started coming into his own here; as Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Caine has been mucking about in a series of potboilers, undermining his acting reputation along the way, but Get Carter shows him as sure, fine and vicious — a good hero for an action movie.”

Sleuth (1972) 96%


Caine went toe to toe with Laurence Olivier in this adaptation of the Anthony Shaffer play, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve). A seriously impressive pedigree, and it paid off on the screen: Caine and Olivier were the only credited actors in the movie, and Sleuth earned them both Best Actor nominations — something that had, to that point, happened only once before (the first? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). As with a lot of stage adaptations, Sleuth is extremely dialogue-heavy, but with actors this talented, that helps; over the course of its two hours-plus running time, the complicated rivalry between nobleman Andrew Wyke (Olivier) and struggling businessman Milo Tindle (Caine) deepens with every line. It’s such a rich story, Caine actually took Olivier’s role for Kenneth Branagh’s 2007 remake, starring opposite Jude Law. “It’s one of those works built around a gimmick that in fact requires a little cheating on the part of the filmmakers in order to succeed,” wrote Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain Xpress. “But it’s a good gimmick.”

The Man Who Would Be King (1975) 97%


John Huston waited more than 20 years to finish this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s short story about a pair of adventurers and their exploits in a remote Afghan village, trying to cast a succession of rugged duos (from Bogey and Clark Gable to Robert Redford and Paul Newman) before finally finding his leading men in Caine and Sean Connery. Blending anti-imperialist themes with swashbuckling escapism, The Man Who Would Be King charts the rise and fall of Peachy Carnehan (Caine) and Danny Dravot (Connery) as they dupe an Afghan village into thinking they’re gods, only to find that the natives aren’t quite as credulous as they seem. It was, in short, a slice of good old-fashioned adventure during a time when it had fallen out of favor — making King, in the words of Cole Smithey, “A must for every 10-year-old boy.”

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) 91%


Woody Allen lined up one of his strongest ensemble casts for the seven-time Academy Award nominee Hannah and Her Sisters, starring Caine as Elliot, the restless husband of Hannah (Mia Farrow) whose dissatisfaction with his marriage leads him into an entanglement with — you guessed it — Hannah’s sister (Barbara Hershey). It’s the kind of story Allen tells best, and Hannah is one of his strongest — and most successful — films, ultimately winning a Best Writing Oscar to go with its healthy $40 million gross. “No matter how passive a viewer you are, how much you attempt to dismiss it or judge its characters,” wrote Steven Snyder for Zertinet Movies, “Woody Allen reaches past those sleepy, cynical, or questioning eyes and makes you think as much as any film I’ve seen.”

Mona Lisa (1986) 97%


Writer/director Neil Jordan scored one of his earliest critical hits with 1986’s Mona Lisa, starring Bob Hoskins as George, an ex-con who is manipulated by his former boss, a gangster named Mortwell (Caine), into a relationship with a prostitute (Cicely Tyson) so Mortwell can take advantage of her “professional” connection to a rival. Caine is in singularly sleazy form here, but it was Hoskins, in a rare starring role, who walked away with a pile of trophies, including a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, and an Oscar nomination. Part love story, part grisly mobster drama, Mona Lisa didn’t make a ton of money at the box office, but it did earn the admiration of critics like ReelViews’ James Berardinelli, who wrote, “In an era when movies about love almost always invariably devolve into formulaic affairs, Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa stands out as an often-surprising, multi-layered achievement.”

The Quiet American (2003) 87%


The first time Hollywood took a crack at adapting Graham Greene’s bestselling novel, the result was a bowdlerized version that, much to his chagrin, stripped out the author’s distaste with American involvement in Vietnam. More than 40 years later, director Phillip Noyce filmed a much more faithful adaptation, starring Brendan Fraser as an idealistic CIA operative in 1950s Vietnam, Michael Caine as the jaded British journalist who crosses his path, and Do Thi Hai Yen as the woman who comes between them. What Noyce’s version lost in timeliness, it more than made up in script and cast — most notably Caine, who earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his work and was singled out in reviews from critics such as Eleanor Ringel Gillespie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Caine, who also starred in one other Greene adaptation, 1983’s The Honorary Consul, is the essence of almost all the author’s misfits, ” wrote Gillespie, summing him up as “a practiced cynic masking an aching romantic.”

The Dark Knight Trilogy


Bruce Wayne might be an unimaginably wealthy businessman who lives a double life as the crime-purging vigilante Batman, but he wouldn’t be able to get much done without the dependable service of his long-suffering butler, Alfred Pennyworth — and when Christopher Nolan took over the franchise with 2005’s Batman Begins, he turned to Caine to embody the character with his unique ability to project an aura of good breeding, street smarts, and a quick, understated wit. Though not one of Caine’s larger roles, Alfred is an integral part of the Batman mythos, and his part in the franchise placed him alongside talented actors such as Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, and Heath Ledger — whose bravura performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight was a crucial element in the positive reviews the movie earned from critics like Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who wrote, “Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, The Dark Knight goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind.”

  • TomNewYorker

    My 10 Favorite Michael Caine Movies are
    1-The Dark Knight Trilogy
    3-Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
    4-Austin Powers In Goldmember
    5-Get Carter
    9-Now You See Me
    10-Secondhand Lions

    • HMS

      My reply to your post.
      1-2nd move was the best, the 1st was just okay and 3rd was better than the 1st
      2-haven’t seen it yet but most definitely will
      3-good call
      4-Michael Caine was one of the few parts of that movie I liked
      5-good call
      6-good call
      7-haven’t seen it yet but most definitely will
      8-haven’t seen it yet but most definitely will
      9-good movie and also liked Michael Caine’s character, happy to hear he will appear in the sequel and glad that they are even making a sequel
      10-haven’t seen it and might give it a shot
      This post wasn’t to criticize yours as people have different opinions. I’m mostly curious why you didn’t list The Man Who Would Be King (or any of the others listed in the article except Get Carter and Alfie). Is it because you’ve never seen them? The Man Who Would Be King would be my number one and you should give it a shot if you haven’t seen it yet.

  • HMS

    The Cider House rules should have been listed since Michael Caine won an Academy Award for his performance. If only ten movies were to be included, I would have replaced Batman with The Cider House Rules.


      Totally agree with you.

  • Donafugata

    Caine can’t do posh so his phoney accent rather spoils his performance in Zulu.

    He is at his best when playing characters near to himself, no-one else in 1967 could have made a better Alfie. For the same reason he is magnificent as Carter.

    He’s brilliant as Harry Palmer. Although huge social change was on the way, during the mid 1960’s the British class system was still very dominant. Palmer does nothing to hide his contempt for his “superiors”, those who would have been telling the non-commissioned men what to do during the war and during their national service. He knows he’s smarter than them and has acquired “taste” but is trapped by his working class roots and cannot escape.

    He is brilliant in The Quiet American, not a character role but utterly sympathetic.

  • Micah Milton

    What about the Italian Job?

  • Christian de la Mora

    What about Inception, The Cider House Rules, The Prestige, Interstellar?

  • nico_la

    Um excuse me, THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL?????? Best Scrooge to ever take the screen!

  • Phil Schumm

    You’re way off the mark by leaving The Muppet Christmas Carol off of this list. Caine gave the definitive performance of the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge besting all who came before and all who have taken on the role since. It is a must see in the extensive Caine cannon and a film I pull out and watch Christmas after Christmas – yes the most classic of classic holiday movies.

  • zak1

    Very well chosen list.

    One correction, though – Mona Lisa starred Cathy Tyson, the British actress, not Cicely Tyson, who was a major American actress in the 70s.

    Other points that come to mind – thinking of Get Carter and Alfie, it’s striking how far a popular mainstream film in those days would dare to alienate us from its protagonist.

    Also – Caine was one of the best Horatios I’ve ever seen, in a 1963 filmed version opposite Christopher Plummer’s Dane and Robert Shaw’s Claudius.

  • Rover

    Humph, what kind of list is this without ‘Educating Rita?!’

  • DRM

    hehe..saw Shock to the System while at USMA. Now that is a beautiful movie about taking control of your life..must see for all who want to kill their boss..and then some. That shoudl be high up on teh list. Zulu was amazing. Batman movies..who cares..

  • Apalachicola

    I haven’t seen some of these. On my list. I think he is superb.

    That said, I’m upset Dirty Rotten Scoundrels didn’t make it.

  • Casper Petersen

    I think it’s very difficult to make such a list. Those listed are really good. But I miss some too.

    One of his recent movies I like it a lot, is Harry Brown.

    (from Denmark)

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