From Harry Palmer to Austin Powers: A Spy-ography of Michael Caine
By Wesley Britton
Who's the Number One Film Spy of all time? Without question, Bond, James Bond. But who's the Number One Spy ACTOR of All Time? Ah, that's a different question.
Hmm. Sean Connery immediately springs to mind. Seven Bond films alone. He also had significant roles in Tom Clancey's Hunt for Red October and John Le Carre's Russia House (both 1990). He didn’t fare as well in outings like The Avengers (1998) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). All this places him in the first rank of moviehouse spies, far ahead of Roger Moore who also starred in seven 007 films along with a few "Saint" outings, only one of which can be considered espionage-oriented (being The Fiction Makers in 1966). Anyone else?
For my ticket price, one name stands out as being the man unquestionably involved in more quality spy projects than anyone else. Michael Caine. He turned out to be the spy for all seasons based on determination, talent, and a bit of luck. And perfect timing.
The Season for Spies
As every spy buff knows, the mid-60s was the zenith of interest in cinematic espionage. So actors like Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Michael Caine were part of a generation of actors caught up in the wave of Bond and Bond-inspired films that began with Dr. No (1962). As a result, Caine had 007 connections even before the spy boom. For example, he made friends with Sean Connery before either of them had film success, the two meeting and dining together when Connery sang in a chorus line for a production of South Pacific. According to Caine's autobiography, the producer Josh Logan wanted burly men for realism in the men singing "There is Nothing Like a Dame.” So the call went out for bodybuilders, which is what Connery was doing at the time. Shortly after, Caine and Connery worked together on a British TV film, Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Then, Caine recalled meeting Roger Moore in 1960 on a street outside a theatre. At the time, Caine was starring in the single drama for the BBC, The Compartment. According to Caine, the slightly older Moore, then famous in England for his leading role in the TV series, Ivanhoe, approached him and complimented his work in The Compartment. "After 30 years of friendship with Roger," Caine wrote in 1992, "I can still count the differences between us on one hand, several of which were apparent that first time we met. He was famous, handsome, elegant, and generous. I was obscure, ugly, scruffy, and mean. I have caught up with him since on at least two counts. And two out of four is not bad." (Caine 45) (note 1)
Several other Bond connections occurred that helped Caine's start in films. In 1964, he appeared in his first movie, Zulu, a film scored by Bond composer John Barry. Shortly after Zulu's premiere, Caine went to dinner at the London Pickwick restaurant. He later wrote that, "in the two minutes that changed my life," Bond producer Harry Saltzman was also in the Pickwick. Saltzman, of course, was half of the production team that had brought us Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and the next film then in the pipeline, Goldfinger. Looking for another project, Saltzman had bought the rights to the novels of Len Deighton and made it clear he wanted a spy quite different from Sean Connery. A thinking man's spy, a character who doesn't always get the girls, a secret agent nervous around guns. A spy who doesn't want to be a spy at all. Who would be this new secret agent?
Well, Saltzman had seen Zulu and called Caine over to his table. Saltzman--no master of small talk, in Caine's opinion--liked the acting in Zulu. He asked Caine not only to star in his forthcoming The Ipcress File, but if Caine was interested in a seven year contract. Yes, were Caine's answers. Had he read Deighton's first novel, The Ipcress File? Yes, Caine answered, halfway through the novel. Short answers to small talk that changed his life.
THE "WORKING CLASS" SPY
As it happened, Caine hadn't been Saltzman's first choice. That honor had gone to Christopher Plummer who'd opted to co-star with Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music instead. (later, Plummer worked with Caine and Sean Connery in 1975s The Man Who Would Be King.) After getting the nod, Caine found becoming Harry Palmer an exciting opportunity. During early preparations for The Ipcress File, Caine briefly roomed with composer John Barry. He remembers one night when he heard Barry banging on the piano all night, keeping him awake. In the morning, the actor learned he was the first person to hear the theme to Goldfinger.
Another roommate was actor Terence Stamp who had a friend who had a friend who stopped by with a noticeable Russian accent. Several days later, agents of MI5 came calling to find out if Caine was a friend of the Russian. Turned out, he was a Soviet agent involved in the notorious Profumo affaire. Caine learned the Communist spy returned to the Soviet Union where he was shot a few weeks later. Caine thought this interesting if unintentional research for his upcoming role. (note 2)
In many ways, The Ipcress File, the first "Harry Palmer” film released in 1965, established the formula for much of the success of Michael Caine. As discussed in my Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction (2005):
"Palmer was a working class hero pulled into the world of intrigue, Responsible to people outside of his class and whom he did not trust. According to Lars Sauerberg, Palmer's character was miles apart from those of both Fleming and Le Carre who both used gentlemen of one breed or another; Deighton used a spy with an ironic attitude about the world around him (1984 65).
“Palmer didn't wish to operate like a gentleman and said he didn't like chess as he preferred games in which it was easier to cheat. Unlike Commander Bond of the British Royal Navy, Palmer was a Sergeant in the Army. He preferred tea to alcohol. He didn't report to an Admiral but rather Colonel Ross who saw his agent as `insubordinate, insolent, and prone to criminal tendencies.' 007 and Palmer shared one interest--gourmet food, although Palmer was as interested in cooking as eating. One secret meeting with his boss was in a grocery store, the one area he showed mastery of. His one high-brow taste was for classical music, a devotion Bond never showed interest in." (note 3)
While he didn't make the connection himself, this role was an extension of what Michael Caine felt about the "Swinging London" of the 1960s. According to his 1992 memoirs, in every endeavor from music to fashion to film, the '60s was a time when the British working class came into its own--"We are here." The Cockney Michael Caine (born in south London in 1933) was ideal to play the rebellious "Everyman" undercover agent. He too came from the poorer working class and, at the age of 31, had waited a long time for success in acting. Describing himself as ambitious and tough (he'd seen London bombed in World War II as a child and had seen combat in North Korea), Caine had both a drive and experience that gave depth to his on-screen performances. During a turbulent decade when one generation openly resented what was known as "The Establishment," a fictional secret agent who reflected similar attitudes easily struck a cord in movie goers. As Harry Palmer, and in later spy films, Caine thrived as an intelligent loner who, while not happy about being pulled into nasty business, often outthought and outmaneuvered adversaries and superiors alike. In short, at the beginning of his spy career, Caine was perfectly cast for a certain kind of spy.
As all readers of Len Deighton novels know, the character in the "Harry Palmer" books had no name in the novels. According to the actor, Saltzman, Caine, and others working on the film sat around one evening thinking of a name for the film version. Saltzman wanted the spy to be an ordinary man able to disappear in crowds, so he should have an ordinary name. "Harry," suggested Caine--before realizing he might have offended his new boss. But Saltzman quickly agreed, saying the most boring person he'd ever known was named Palmer. So Harry Palmer began to shape.
Again in the early stages, Caine's own attributes helped define the character. Saltzman liked the fact he wore eyeglasses, saying most actors don't and didn't know how to use them in film. In addition, eyeglasses made people look more ordinary. Caine liked the idea of wearing eyeglasses as this was something that would be part of the character of Harry Palmer and would help the actor not be too closely identified with Palmer, like Connery was becoming with Bond. In future roles, Caine could simply take off his eyeware to be someone different.
In discussions with Len Deighton, it was decided to make Palmer a spy who seduced women by cooking for them. Combining the eyeglass image with cooking, the girl (Sue Lloyd) would take the glasses off--making Palmer a sexual male. Palmer's creator, Len Deighton, also helped influence the movie incarnation of the narrator of his books. As Deighton was writing a cooking strip appearing in the London Observer, copies of this strip were plastered on the walls of Harry Palmer's kitchen. One trick the spy used, cracking two eggs together with one-hand, was beyond Caine's ability. Viewers of the film might notice Palmer's hands have dark hairs in that shot and not the blond follicles of Michael Caine--they were the hands of Len Deighton.
The Harry Palmer Sequels
After the dual success of The Ipcress File and the comedy Alfie, 32 year old Caine returned to playing Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin (1966). (Alfie, surprisingly, had two Bond connections. Harry Saltzman helped get Caine the role and the director was Lewis Gilbert, later responsible for one Connery and two Roger Moore 007 outings.) The director for Berlin was Guy Hamilton, a former intelligence officer fresh off with his success with Goldfinger. In Caine's view, Hamilton was more at home with the shaken cocktails of Bond than the gritty realism of Berlin. (note 4) Caine thought the actual German city had a special, mysterious ambiance which wasn't captured in the movie. During filming, he recalled, East German guards deliberately flashed lights into the camera lens, forcing the crew to move from Berlin Wall locations. As Checkpoint Charlie wasn't available to the company, a set had to be built nearby.
Location shooting was a different challenge for the third Harry Palmer project, Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Directed by the more spectacle-oriented Ken Russell, some scenes were shot in Helsinki, Finland, and the crew had to be careful on the ice on the waters. Caine felt the plot was obscure and, by the time the film was finished, the story would befuddle Einstein. Still, the movie had its moments and one clever twist. In the 1950s, anti-Red films had red-blooded Yanks as valiant heroes fighting the Soviet tide. In Brain, the deranged American general was spouting the same old rhetoric, but was now a nutcase battled by the British and Russians together. Times were changing.
“A nice polish, but getting old. Just like you.”
(Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer describing a fellow spy’s car in Funeral In Berlin.)
In subsequent decades, Caine starred in other important spy films, even if he didn't always like the results. Without question, Caine's on-screen film success as a secret agent has been uneven. In 1974, he starred in director Don Siegel's The Black Windmill. Audience and critical response has been mixed regarding this tale of an espionage agent (Caine) who finds his government won't help when his son is kidnapped and the ransom is diamonds. The script was based on a book by Clive Egleton, Seven Days to a Killing.
In the same decade, Caine was part of the ensemble cast in The Eagle Has Landed (1976), a film based on the important Jack Higgins' novel. (The cast included Donald Sutherland, another actor who has a legacy of many memorable roles in spy films.) (note 5) While Eagle earned high praise when it debuted, time has not been kind to a script that left out much that made the source material a landmark in espionage fiction. In Caine's opinion, the movie, filmed on the banks of the Themes, wasn’t bad, but suffered from a disinterested director, John Sturges. Apparently, Sturges only accepted work when he needed funds to go deep sea fishing. He didn't stick around to help with the editing and post-production process, an important task for directors.
The Jigsaw Man
Of course, as the years went by, the roles had to change. In the '60s, Caine could be the "angry young man": by films such as The Jigsaw Man (1983), Caine was becoming an elder statesman in spycraft. In this lackluster film, Caine co-starred with fellow veteran Laurence Olivier in a story about a British-Russian double-agent sent to England to retrieve a list of Soviet agents he'd left behind years before. According to Pete Stampede, “one of the reasons why The Jigsaw Man turned out to be such a mess was that it ran out of money halfway through, one of the principal investors being Johnson Matthey, a subsequently disgraced merchant banking corporation. In Britain it went straight to video, one of the first
films to do so despite the cast, and I think this may have been to write it
down as a tax loss or something. Laurence Olivier collapsed during its
making and had a team of nurses on hand throughout.”
Most reviewers of the film point to the script and not the acting as the principal problem with the film. (note 6) In addition, considering when the movie was made, the annoying and glaring soundtrack sounds amateurish, like canned punctuation from a '70s TV movie. Still, there are some interesting aspects worthy of discussion. For one, when Caine's character, Philip Kimberly, is introduced, he's an English defector who was once head of MI6 now living in Moscow. Comparisons to the actual traitors in "the Cambridge Spy Ring" are obvious, and the names of Philby, Burgess, Blount, and the rest are invoked often in the first minutes. In another attempt at verisimilitude, Caine is asked to play a bogus defector named Kazinski who will return to England to find a dossier of agents Kimberly had left behind. To make the deception work, he goes through plastic surgery for the mission. This ploy is clearly based on several actual defections from 1985 when several Soviets supposedly defected before returning to their embassies. To play his part, we hear Caine doing two accents. One as the English gentlemen he once was and later as the Russian he's pretending to be.
Then the convoluted plot breaks up any suspense or clear development of the story. Is Kimberly working for himself or the Russians? His daughter, Penny (Susan George), helps him even after the Reds kidnap a friend they think is her to pressure "Kazinski" to complete his mission. Will Kimberly go to jail after he's been uncovered or escape to Switzerland to go into business for himself? And has Penny found love with the agent who's been spying on her for years hoping to find the dossier? Well, admittedly, these questions won’t matter for most viewers.
But even in the '80s, Caine could still be an "Everyman" secret agent. In the excellent The Holcroft Covenant (1985), Caine played a naïve architect who found himself in the middle of a plot to re-invigorate the Nazi movement. Again starring in a role created by a master story-teller--in this case, Robert Ludlum--Caine contributed to a project distinguished by fast-paced direction, witty dialogue, and largely fine performances by the supporting cast. He played the innocent civilian who triumphs by guile, a savvy knack for reading human behavior, and a clear streak of decency and belief in just moral values.
However, Caine didn't like the film. He signed on as the director was to be John Frankenheimer, the man behind one of Caine's favorite films, The Manchurian Canidate. At first, James Caan was to play Holcroft but pulled out at the last minute. Caine was in wardrobe before he ever saw the script which he found incomprehensible. Well, sometimes actors aren't the best judge of their work.
Even when Caine played a professional spy, he typically demonstrated human dimensions in his characters. Such a classic performance was in novelist Frederick Forsythe's The Fourth Protocol (1987) in which Caine was pitted against future 007 Pierce Brosnan. Directed by John Mackenzie, who'd worked with Caine in Graham Greene's Honorary Consul, this suspenseful duel between professionals had Caine as the defender of his English homeland against the amoral plot by the Russians to heat up the Cold War. Again, Caine's character was more investigator than action-adventure hero who, in the last minutes, protests when Bronsan's KGB killer is shot and accuses his superiors of mixed motives. Even though he was associate producer for the film, Caine dismissed it in his memoirs precisely because it was a British film which "talked too much" and lacked the big-screen action so important to Hollywood success. Nothing else in his career could be more ironic--the James Bond films had long since been turned into special effects, minimal dialogue action escapism. Caine, the "thinking man's spy" in the guise of Harry Palmer, now wanted more Bond in his scripts.
Return of Harry Palmer
But nowhere was change more evident than in two 1995 films, Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg where Caine's Harry Palmer returned. Once, Palmer had been blackmailed into spying for Her Majesty's Government and he didn't like spying on weekends. Now, post-Cold War downsizing forced Palmer into early retirement. In Bullet, Palmer set up his own private investigation agency in Moscow, turns down the seductive wiles of a younger female spy, and mentors a young protegee played by Jason Connnery, son of Sean. (And possibly the son of Palmer, if Connery's on-screen supposition is correct). (note 7) Not quite the big-splash type of movies Caine mentioned in his discussion of The Fourth Protocol, but quite decent fare for spy buffs interested in plot, character development, and good casting.
The Quiet American
Far from the Bond breed of spy, Caine starred in the highly regarded 2002 remake of The Quiet American, the first Hollywood movie to be filmed in Vietnam with the blessings of the Communist government. In this second adaptation of Graham Greene's 1955 novel, Caine played the jaded journalist Fowler "in a performance that seems to descend perfectly formed. There is no artifice in it, no unneeded energy, no tricks, no effort. It is there." (Ebert) According to critic Roger Ebert, "The film is narrated by Caine's character, in that conversational voice weary with wisdom; we are reminded of the tired cynicism of the opening narration in the great film of Greene's The Third Man."
In commentary for the DVD release, director Philip Noyce said Caine was cast as Fowler because he was an actor who could bring humanity and trust to a character that could be a potential problem for audiences. After all, Fowler was an older, married man involved with a much younger girl (19 years old). Casting Brenden Fraser as the third part of the romantic triangle was problematic as, in the novel, Alden Pyle was largely a polemic figure who spouted off idealistic phrases without much character depth. When a bomb he plants kills innocent civilians instead of a military parade, Greene's Pyle simply believes the cause of democracy must include such "collateral damage." All involved said this was the major change between novel and film, giving Fraser a more rounded character so he could be something of an equal with Caine for dramatic purposes. Actual CIA agents were brought in to make him more flesh-and-blood. (note 8)
As it turned out, the first test screenings of the movie in New York took place the night before 9/11. Not surprisingly, Merrimax distributors became reluctant to release a film with violence that would turn off movie goers in the U.S. (In Viet Nam, ticket sales were destroyed not because of public disfavor, but because so many bootleg copies became available with poor quality videos being sold outside of theatres.) But Michael Caine intervened with Harvey Weinstein at Merrimax to show The Quiet American at film festivals where critical response was high.
The Mentor Spy
Would Caine ever get his wish fore a big-budget Bondian blockbuster? Well, to cement the role of mentor, Caine became the father in Austin Powers: Goldmember (2002), the third outing in Mike Myer's cross-generational spy parody. Critically panned from every direction, Goldmember only shows that Caine can do lightly what he once did with a straighter face.
What is the formula for Michael Caine's success in spy films? For one matter, he's had the luck to work in movies based on books by some of espionage's finest storytellers--Len Deighton, Graham Greene, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsythe, Jack Higgins. He's worked with top directors and stellar co-stars from Robert Duvall to Laurence Olivier. And, while not a classically trained actor, Caine has been a consummate professional praised by his co-workers, critics, and audiences.
That is, when the films were good, and they often were. But beyond the seemingly obvious, Michael Caine has been fortunate to find roles geared for an actor more suitable for believable, accessible characters instead of movies relying more on spectacle and stunts than scripts. Beyond those eyeglasses, a mind was at work whether ferreting out traitors in his own department in The Ipcress File or learning he was a pawn in a larger game as in The Holcroft Covenant. So I nominate him for the "All-Time Movie Star Spy" and hearby swear him to secrecy about this award. I wouldn't want to blow his cover. Mike Myers might be plotting a sequel.
1. In an e-mail to this author, critic Pete Stampede observed: “The Compartment was written by Johnny Speight, creator of TILL DEATH US DO PART, which later
became Americanised as ALL IN THE FAMILY. Set on a train, it was a
two-hander for Caine as a Cockney eccentric and Frank Finlay as an uptight
businessman, Caine verbally intimidating Finlay and eventually pulling a gun
on him. Speight and Caine later did a sequel, PLAYMATES.”
In later years, Connery, Moore, and Caine shared another characteristic beyond acting roles. They all became tax exiles when the British Parliament started taking 82% of their incomes. The top agents of Her Majesty's Secret Service couldn't afford to stay in the country.
2. One anecdote recounted in Caine's memoirs described a dinner with Roger Moore during Moore's reign as 007. Sitting at the next table was the Russian ambassador to England. The jovial diplomat sent Moore a plate of candies with a note reading, "From Russia With Love." In Caine's view, this act was perhaps a moment of thawing during the Cold War. At the time, the two actors wondered if the candies were poisoned.
3. In his memoirs, Caine recalled rows with director Sidney Furie who was temperamental and interested in unusual camera angles, including shooting up Caine's nose. Furie's pioneer work in camera placement such as shots from under cars and through lampshades heavily influenced similar techniques in the television series, Mission: Impossible. Beyond looking experimental, these angles conveyed the clandestine, eavesdropping nature of the spy business.
For many more details about Len Deighton and the Harry Palmer books and films, see my Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction.
4. Other Bond connections included Lewis Gilbert directing Caine in Educating Rita (1983). Caine worked with Harry Saltzman and Guy Hamilton again in the Battle of Britain (1969). Caine co-starred with Lois Chiles in Alan Alda's Sweet Liberty (1986), an actress best known for her role as Holly Goodhead in Moonraker (1979). In The Jigsaw Man, Charles Gray plays a supporting character: he'd been a British agent in You Only Live Twice (1967) and Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
5. See “Snarling and Skulking: A Spy-ography of Donald Sutherland” also posted at this website.
6. One such damning review of The Jigsaw Man was by Dennis Schwartz a "Ozus' World Movie Reviews" online. For him, acting wasn't the problem in the film but rather a "green banana" convoluted script. A synopsis of the story is in that review. Apparently, Caine thought so little of the movie that he didn't mention it in his autobiography. A surprising omission as, in the film, Caine worked with personal friend, Laurence Olivier. Later, Caine was one of those chosen to participate in the great actor's funeral. He describes their other effort, Sleuth, in great detail. So this film is one Caine would prefer to forget.
7. For more on both Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg, see my Spy Television (2004).
8. In Michael Caine's words regarding The Quiet American, "I was a secret agent, just like I assume Graham Greene was a secret agent." Caine could not have been speaking literally. Fowler was a spy for no one but rather a marginally employed reporter for the London Times. But Fowler acts in ways easily associated with undercover operatives, so the metaphorical description fits.
Britton, Wesley. Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction. Wesport, CT: Praeger, scheduled for fall 2005.
Caine, Michael. What's It All About? An Autobiography of Michael Caine. Stokes Films Ltd. 1992.
Ebert, Roger. "Review: The Quiet American." Feb. 2003. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2003302070304
Sauerberg, Lars. Secret Agents in Fiction: Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, and Len Deighton. New York: St. Martins. 1984.
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