Roger Lewis

The man in the iron mask

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Michael Caine: A Class Act

Christopher Bray

Faber, pp. 358, £

Isn’t it peculiar when people change their name? John Wilson becoming Anthony Burgess, Peggy Hookham being borne aloft as Margot Fonteyn, or Richard Jenkins leaving Port Talbot as Richard Burton. When a person insists on being called somebody else we are witnessing an identity crisis. (Frank Skinner was Chris Collins until 1987. It is rumoured that as Chris Collins he still attends Johnson and Boswell conferences in Lichfield and presents academic papers.) The cocktail of vanity and self-loathing involved in renaming yourself is pungent and extreme — and helps to explain the career of Sir Michael Caine CBE, who was born in 1933 as Maurice Micklewhite, the son of a Billingsgate porter, and raised in a one-room flat off the Old Kent Road.

Has anyone ever gone to see a film expressly because Michael Caine is in it? (He’s hard to avoid, I know. The recent Batman Begins was a disappointment because I wanted the marvellous Michael Gough still to be Alfred, not Caine.) He is not really an engaging or attractive actor. (Sean Connery’s gleeful turn as Indiana Jones’s father would be quite beyond his range.) He always seems exasperated and sour — shouting and crying and baring his teeth in a monkey snarl. He pushes his face forward, ‘gives his voice a harsh cawing quality’, and his characters are the very reverse of relaxed or at ease with themselves or their surroundings. Whether he’s a cat burglar, sex-mad gangster, German paratrooper, transvestite mass murderer or portly Open University professor, Caine is incapable of being genial. He has pained eyes. Something is eating him, leaving us with the impression of a man who finds it hard not to be cynical and aggressive.

Bray is an excellent commentator on Caine because he refuses to hide the fact that he’s in two minds about his subject. Whilst he aptly and generously salutes Caine as a distinguished character actor, a veteran of the British cinema industry, he is also hard pressed to find much in the canon that is worthy of the highest praise. As Bray reels off the roll call of duds (‘possibly Caine’s worst picture ever …’; ‘… was never going to do anything to raise his reputation’; ‘the worst received movie of his career’; ‘turgid to the point of putrefaction’) we realise that there have been one or two photoplays too many involving spies, jewel thieves, prisoners of war, rubber sharks and killer bees.

The actor works hard, nobody denies this; but roles are reproduced as if at a treadmill — a ‘mechanised banality’, in Bray’s neat phrase. Caine appears to be wholly indifferent to quality. He enjoys any pay cheque that permits regular weekend breaks in Paris with Lady Caine, the former Shakira Baksh, an Indian model who came third in the Miss World comp- etition, 1967. What matters is that the high fees will allow him to buy and renovate a house, put in a pool, or invest in a restaurant with Peter Langan and Marco Pierre White — who both fell out with the actor because of his taste for retro-cuisine, steak and kidney pudding and spotted dick. Richard Harris quarrelled with him, too. Caine’s laconic disengagement sent him into a frenzy. Caine, said Harris, was ‘a master of inconsequence now masquerading as a guru, passing off his vast limitations as pious virtues’.

It is true that there’s absolutely no sense of romantic agony with Caine. Easy-going on Parky’s chat shows, heavy-going on the screen, he has a permanently dissociated manner. He hides behind his huge hornrims and puffs on a huge cigar. He doesn’t prance like O’Toole or transfix us with a cruel beauty, like Terence Stamp. (Nor has he ever shown off pompously and embarrassingly like the ghastly Richard Harris.) But despite his professionalism, I do wonder if he believes in himself as an actor? His bag of tricks — the finger-jabbing, yelling and irritability — suggests a person who is cross about his craft. His father was worried he’d turn out ‘a nancy boy’ and only on his deathbed (liver cancer, aged 56) did the old horny-handed Billingsgate porter offer any slight words of encouragement — ‘Good luck to you, son’, he said. Perhaps Caine does think acting is not properly a manly pursuit, particularly if you come from Bermondsey, a former 18th-century labyrinth that doesn’t exist any more. Caine’s London is now a wasteland of plate glass and immigrants.

Except it was never Caine’s London, of course, but Maurice Micklewhite’s. He was a blond scholarly lad who suffered from rickets and an inflammation of the eyelids. During the war he was evacuated to King’s Lynn and began acting in a local Methodists’ church hall. He enjoyed all aspects of set design and construction, lighting and curtain-pulling. After Nation- al Service with the Royal Fusiliers in Korea (‘rats, flies, mosquitoes, clap-ridden whores’ — it reminded people of Wales), Caine worked in rep in Lowestoft. Here he made an early marriage to Patricia Haines. They had a daughter called Dominique. This family split up and Caine was compelled to appear before the Magistrates’ Court in Marlborough Street on a charge of failing to pay child maintenance.

A film career was slow to evolve. Caine had uncredited walk-ons in Norman Wisdom vehicles and Peter Sellers pictures. He played prize-fighters and traffic policemen on television. His breakthrough came with Zulu, in which he was cast as an upper-class officer, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. His awkwardness and anxiousness as a toff, doing his duty and grappling with eight-foot-tall, spear-chucking Bantu tribesmen, remains a stealthy performance. The callowness is affecting and led to the role of Harry Palmer in any number of Len Deighton adaptations.

Deighton’s Cold-War thrillers are period pieces now; Sixties London is as remote as the England of George III. But Caine’s bespectacled secret agent, dining off cornflakes and flung into convoluted espionage japes, is a useful antidote to the fantasy of James Bond. (Caine looks like a cross between a young Peter Sellers and Marcello Mastroianni.) Bray appreciates Caine for his ‘moments of sly cheek’; Harry Palmer is ‘tough and tender, noir-ish and nerdy’, and the persona was polished for the title role in Alfie. Alfie talks to the camera and takes us into his confidence, like Olivier’s hunchbacked Glou- cester. He is seemingly chummy and flits from girl to girl with ease; actually he is exploitative and cynical. (Goodness is represented by Humphrey the unprepossessing bus conductor, who picks up the emotional pieces — a great and underrated performance by Graham Stark. )

The bleakness also appears to good effect in Get Carter, set in Newcastle, where Caine’s ‘slightly stiff walk is eloquent of time and its depredations’, rather than, say, piles. Despite his London roots, Caine embodies a northern coldness. He is uncouth and self-possessed, too, in The Man Who Would Be King, Mona Lisa and The Italian Job (‘You’re only meant to blow off the bloody doors!’), amongst dozens of others. When the cable channel version of Jekyll and Hyde was broadcast in 1990, my three-year-old son came into the room and asked, ‘Which one is he now?’

It would be interesting if Caine could answer the question. Who is he really or indeed mainly? When he received his knighthood in 2000, the Queen dubbed him Sir Maurice Micklewhite. ‘I always kept my real name. When I go home, I leave Michael Caine the film star with the costumes, the wigs and the props in the studio.’ (Is this true? Does Shakira address him as Maurice? Does Parky when they are in the green room? ) And yet there we have it — he sees himself not as an actor, but as a film star, with all the ephemerality and lack of substance this implies. Hence, my favourite Caine movie i s Sleuth, with Laurence Olivier. Whatever the plot of the film may be about, the joy for the audience is in witnessing this clash or duel of acting styles. Olivier’s character is audacious, crafty, lethal; so is Olivier. When he reduces Caine’s Milo Tindle to a nervous wreck it is Caine himself crying these big hot sticky tears, Olivier who has won. ‘When he’s not at your feet,’ said Caine, ‘he’s at your throat.’ Sleuth is one of the very few films where Caine is compelled to respond and react to another person in a scene, without recourse to hectoring and sullenness. But then it was back to the killer bees.