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New book charts Michael Caine’s remarkable movie career

Words by Rob Chilton

Sixty-five years after his big screen debut, we look back at this stylish, talented and loveable actor

An “essential presence in film” is how Michael Caine is described in a new book of images that record the actor’s life. Six Oscar nominations and two wins for The Cider House Rules (2000) and Hannah and her Sisters (1987) during a career that stretches across eight decades (eight!) make Caine a giant of modern cinema.

Born in London in 1933, Caine was captivated by the cinema and read biographies of movie idols as a boy. He started out in repertory theatre in the 1950s before landing his first film role in 1956’s A Hill in Korea. The cultural shift in the 1960s paved the way for Caine to establish his stardom in Zulu (1964), The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966).

Photo by Terry O’Neill Caine on the set of Get Carter, 1970

His work as Harry Palmer in the adaptation of Len Deighton’s spy novel The Ipcress File typified the way Caine approached the characters he played. “One of the appeals of Caine’s performances lies in the way in which he can acutely get at the fragility of the male ego,” writes James Clarke in the book, Michael Caine: Photographed by Terry O’Neill. “Caine once said of portraying Harry Palmer – and similar characters – that, ‘I’ve always played real people, because I was a loser. Until I started playing losers, I never became a success’.”

Clarke quotes film historian David Parkinson, who said of Caine’s portrayal of Palmer: “Demonstrating his knack for phlegmatic improvisation, Caine’s first starring role also revealed an ease with cerebral complexities, acerbic wit and cool insubordination that would become his 1960s trademark.”

Photo by Terry O’Neill Bob Hoskins approached Caine to appear in the 1986 film Mona Lisa

Caine’s costume and iconic Curry & Paxton thickly-rimmed glasses in The Ipcress File, plus his outfits in Alfie, helped the Brit gain a reputation for style, too. “In the early phase of his career Caine established his fashion credentials and what could rightly be described as a ‘cool Britannia’ sensibility,” writes Clarke, adding that his performances are “carefully calibrated, quietly pulling us into even the quietest moments on screen.”

Photo by Terry O’Neill Caine takes a nap during the filming of Woman Times Seven by Vittorio De Sica in Paris, 1967

The 223-page book is a visual journey through Caine’s lengthy career and a documentation of his close friendship with photographer Terry O’Neill, who died in 2019.

“Terry was a great friend,” writes Caine in the book. “He was a member of our Mayfair Orphans club (a small band of friends who had lost their mothers) and we would meet for lunch with Doug Hayward (the celebrated tailor), and Philip Kingsley (noted trichologist) often. He was the most charming and cheeky photographer who got the best photographs by making everyone totally relaxed for his iconic shots. He knew and understood his subjects, he got the best photos by putting everyone at ease and made them trust him with humour. Loved him dearly and miss him.”

Photo by Terry O’Neill Caine during the filming of Guy Hamilton’s Funeral in Berlin, in London, 1966

Clarke concludes, “Caine is a major figure, an iconic figure; not only on account of his affecting performances and film star aura, but also because his career is a lens through which to view the ebb and flow of British, European and American cinema.”

Michael Caine: Photographed by Terry O’Neill is published by ACC Art Books

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