Caine is able

Pub date January 30, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

The opening scene in a tragically forgotten 1968 swinging-London artifact called The Touchables — released stateside to universal catcalls — had four model-gorgeous "birds" breaking into an off-hours Madame Tussaud’s. Goal: stealing the object of their desire, a wax dummy of Michael Caine. This proves too fleet a diversion — the glamorous gang are soon off to their next plot-dominating caper, hijacking a handsome pop star to a countryside inflatable plastic pleasure dome for extended go-go dancing and S-M games. But it does make the point that in 1968, Michael Caine was a huge pop icon. And not just in the United Kingdom but also in the United States, where Beatlemania had temporarily made all things Brit — Twiggy, Tom Jones, even Herman’s Hermits — automatically crushworthy.

We’d certainly emulated and admired England all along, after that unpleasant colonial-separation business. But in the ’60s it was no longer a matter of aristocracy envy. Suddenly the Mick Jaggers and the Lulus and so forth made being working-class British cute and desirable and ever so "now." Caine was the first Cockney sex symbol — which made him a celebrity in America but a downright cultural sensation at home.

The Mechanics’ Institute’s February "Raising Caine" series revisits some of his defining roles, though only one ventures past 1972. The first selection, 1966’s Alfie, was his breakthrough. Casting him as a rascally ladies’ man who strings along women (from Jane Asher to Shelley Winters) while entertaining us with direct-camera-address commentary, it both celebrated the sexual revolution and delivered a reassuring moral spank-down.

Caine had earlier made a major impression in 1965’s The Ipcress Files as Len Deighton’s spy hero Harry Palmer, a scruffier, less impenetrably sophisticated alternative to Sean Connery’s James Bond. The movie’s sequel, 1966’s Funeral in Berlin, is second in the Mechanics’ retrospective. (The third Caine-as-Palmer feature, 1967’s Billion Dollar Brain, surrendered to Bond-style fantasy excess and a surprisingly prescient anti–Yank imperialism. Recently released to DVD after decades of difficult access, it’s worth a look.)

The resulting fad was weird but laudable: Caine landed on the average side of handsome (complete with spectacles), had bad hair, and spoke like a mensch. (Memorable quotes include "I’m the original bourgeois nightmare — a Cockney with intelligence and a million dollars.") When Connery ditched Bond, he had to prove himself as an actor. When the Palmer films and Alfie and such were finished, Caine just kept working — sometimes brilliantly but often indiscriminately, in movies that could only have dangled as lure the money he admitted was a deciding factor. The good ones include 1971’s Get Carter and Sleuth (which complete the Mechanics’ series along with the 1983 translation from the stage Educating Rita), John Huston’s 1975 Rudyard Kipling adventure The Man Who Would Be King, and Woody Allen’s 1986 Hannah and Her Sisters (for which Caine won his first Supporting Actor Oscar).

The bad ones? For starters, twin Irving Allen "disasters" The Swarm (1978) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979). Not to mention 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol … need more be said? Only that Caine has his cited On Deadly Ground (1994) costar Steven Seagal as the only person he’d never work with again. (Good choice!) Caine (it’s "Sir Michael" now, which he must find hilarious) hasn’t lost his touch, though. As an aged Cockney hustler in 1998’s Little Voice, he gives a climatic rendition of "It’s Over" that is the most lacerating deliberate bad singing this side of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia (1995). He was superb handling the more sentimental aspects of 1999’s The Cider House Rules (winning a second Oscar), in the underseen Brit ensemble classic Last Orders (2001), as the true protagonist of 2002’s The Quiet American, and as one brainy holdout amid the Orwellian future of Children of Men (2006).

So is he more served or subservient playing butler to Batman? (I’d say the former.) Caine is an excellent actor who always admitted that selling out was part and parcel of the trade. Sex symbol then, willing tool now (and also then), he never blew pompous public wind or truly embarrassed himself onscreen, even when the films embarrassed themselves. He once said, with bracing honesty, "You get paid the same for a bad film as you do for a good one." Either way, he earns the check.


Feb. 1–29, $10

Fri., 6:30 p.m.

Mechanics’ Institute

57 Post, SF

(415) 393-0100