Early in his career Michael Caine heard ‘no’ a lot.
Due to his cockney accent, thick glasses and poor upbringing, he was told he’d never make it as an actor. The strict class system was still in effect in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, and it meant Caine was rarely considered for roles because of his background.
Caine took gigs in the London theatre scene as well as bit parts on television where he met downtrodden writers, actors and producers, many of whom would emerge as major players in the British entertainment industry in subsequent decades.
After getting a major break in Zulu, Caine would embrace his cockney roots with two films that would defy the rules set by the snobby British establishment: The Ipcress File and Alfie.
Over a 2-year period, both films would define Caine as a performer, and they led to sequels, Academy Award nominations and major Hollywood roles.
Soon, it became hard to say ‘no’ to Caine.
The Ipcress File
Based on the novel by Len Deighton, the book drew the attention of one of the producers of the James Bond films, Harry Saltzman, who saw it as a gritty alternative to the escapism of 007. Saltzman even hired major players from the Bond films to work on The Ipcress File; editor Peter Hunt, production designer Ken Adam and composer John Barry.
As the novel got passed around, many noted the description of the lead character, Harry Palmer, sounded a lot like Caine. Palmer is described as a hard-living, working-class Londoner. So, it made sense to offer Caine the job.
Set in London, Palmer is hired to investigate a case for the Ministry of Defence that involves the brainwashing of scientists. Palmer has a dark past and suspects he’s the only man for the job because he’s expendable and his hunch is deadly accurate.
At the 1965 Cannes Film Festival The Ipcress File screened in competition for the prestigious Palme d’Or and it was a hit in Europe which led to four sequels. The British Film Institute listed The Ipcress File at number 59 in their list of the 100 British Films of the 20th Century.
The Ipcress File is the perfect example of British noir; it takes place mostly in grimy locations with lots of tough guys lurking in the shadows. Caine plays to his strengths as a performer and it’s exciting to witness the birth of the British screen icon, thick black glasses and all.
Watch The Ipcress File at SBS On Demand now.
The legend goes that Terence Stamp enjoyed success in the Broadway adaptation of Bill Naughton’s novel Alfie, but not enough to do it all again for film. The producers didn’t have to look far because the ideal man for the role was under the same roof as Stamp. Yes, Stamp and Caine were housemates.
Alfie is about a charming chauffeur who sleeps around but refuses to settle down. He’s selfish and disconnected but must reassess his outlook on life when one of his partners falls pregnant.
The Ipcress File laid the foundations for Caine as a leading man and Alfie builds a mansion on top of it. Caine gives an unforgettable performance, highlighted by the moments where Alfie breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience. The film addresses the sexual liberation of the ’60s but functions as a character study of the side effects of a vain lifestyle.
The film won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and earned five Academy Award nominations including Best Actor for Caine.
Caine’s career took off after Alfie and films like The Italian Job, Get Carter and Sleuth followed.
And the rest is history!
Watch Alfie at SBS On Demand now.