This Caine was always able

No other actor matches Caine for dash, diversity and excellence

May 20, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Except for the retired Gene Hackman and the still-going-strong Samuel L. Jackson, no other actor has sustained as busy and diverse a career as Michael Caine. Almost from the beginning, he pulled off the feat of being an identifiable star -- his name alone evokes a Cockney zest -- and a character actor capable of anything.

Here's my pick of the best Caine performances from the score of them on view at the AFI-Silver's series, "Michael Caine: A Class Act," in order of their festival appearance. (But where, oh where, is the delicious "Quills"?)

"The Man Who Would Be King" (1975). At the time, it was a terrific in-joke: the Man Who Was James Bond, Sean Connery, teaming up with Michael Caine, the Man Who Was the Anti-Bond, Harry Palmer. But the two proved to be ideal partner. They detonated the elegant bluster and roustabout humor in John Huston's adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's beloved short story, about former British solders bamboozling the citizens of remote Kafiristan.

"Educating Rita" (1983). Caine performs an imaginative miracle as a sodden don who receives an emotional recharge when a working-class woman ( Julie Walters) applies her native wit to his lessons about literature. He brings tragicomic amplitude to the funny-sad story of a man who realizes his limits while his student is expanding hers.

"Dressed to Kill" (1980). In Brian DePalma's deliriously entertaining blood thriller, Caine gives a subtle, sly, and ultimately shocking performance as a debonair New York psychiatrist with a piquant philosophical air. (The plot concerns a psycho-killer stalking the shrink's patients.)

"The Quiet American" (2002). Caine creates transcendent art as a jaded British reporter based in Saigon when French control is breaking down. In his long career, Caine has never done a more wrenching piece of acting than in the sequence when he replays terrorist atrocities in his head: d waves of soul-sickness and shock sweep over his face.

"Last Orders" (2001). It's an unsentimental tribute to the lower-middle-class members of Britain's version of the Greatest Generation. Caine's father was a fish porter and died in the same hospital where Caine's character in this film does. One shot of him standing erect in his white master butcher's get-up and you understand his pride; one glimpse of him clapping a friend on the shoulders or sweeping his wife in his arms and you sense his need for conviviality and joy. It's the final feature and the proper capper to this inspiring retrospective.

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