Fresh from starring in Alfie (1966), Michael Caine was lounging at the Beverly Hills Hotel when a helicopter landed in the garden. Out jumped John Wayne. “You're gonna be a star, kid," Wayne drawled, "But if you want to stay one, remember this: talk low, talk slow, and don't say too much."
Decades later, with more than 100 movie credits, Sir Michael Caine - the son of a cleaning lady and a London fish market porter - has his own philosophy for success: Use the difficulty. If there’s a chair in your way during a comedy scene, fall over it. If it’s a drama, pick it up and smash it. “Ask my children,” Caine said. If anything bad happens, “They go, ‘Gotta use the difficulty… What can we get out of this?’”
Michael Caine's top spy & gangster movies ranked
Born Maurice Micklewhite in 1933, Sir Michael Caine is a Cockney boy from the wrong side of the tracks who used his difficult upbringing to offer his unique take on an incredible roster of starring roles from the epic war movie Zulu (1964) to the adventurous The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and heist thriller The Italian Job (2003).
Fans of spy movies may know Caine only as Chester King from the Kingsman franchise but Caine has actually been burnishing his espionage credentials for decades. In celebration of his incredible career, we’ve ranked 15 of his top spy and crime thrillers.
15. The Marseille Contract (1974) aka The Destructors
A US drug agent (Anthony Quinn) stationed in Paris hires a hitman to bring down the head of a narcotics ring in The Marseille Contract. The assassin turns out to be his old friend John Deray (Caine). If you like your spy movies front-loaded with action, this one’s for you. The highlight is a car chase between a Porsche 911S and an Alfa Romeo on winding French roads - a scene that may remind fans of the sequence with Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 in GoldenEye (1995). (Prime Video)
14. The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
Jim (Caine) and Shack (Sidney Poitier) are on the run from South Africa's Bureau of State Security secret police but Shack hopes to return a diamond stash to the African National Congress in return for help. The film brought together two on-screen legends, with Poitier heaping praise on his co-star Caine: “When one has worked with him, one becomes aware that he is an extraordinary actor who borders on being truly great.” (Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV, Prime Video)
13. The Eagle Has Landed (1975)
German paratroopers disguised as Polish Allies go behind enemy lines to kidnap Winston Churchill in this WWII thriller. The all-star cast of The Eagle Has Landed includes Donald Pleasence (aka 007 villain Blofeld) and Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H, Eye of the Needle). Caine turned down the role of Devlin because he didn’t want to play an IRA member, opting instead to play a German officer with a slightly dodgy accent. (Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV, BBC iPlayer)
12. The Two-Headed Spy (1958)
In another epic WWII espionage flick, a 25-year-old Michael Caine stars as a Gestapo agent in a tense drama involving Alex Scotland (Jack Hawkins) who is working undercover on behalf of British intelligence. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-moment - Caine only has three lines - but it is fantastic to see him earning his acting chops. The movie has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes audience score so stream on. (Free on YouTube, Prime Video in the UK)
11. The Jigsaw Man (1983)
Inspired by the exploits of MI6-KGB double agent Kim Philby, The Jigsaw Man sees top British secret service agent Philip Kimberly defect to Russia where his appearance is changed by plastic surgery. Some nine years later, Kimberly returns to England on a KGB mission. (Prime Video, Microsoft)
10. The Whistle Blower (1986)
A Russian linguist (Nigel Havers) for the British intelligence agency GCHQ is found dead. Is it suicide or something more sinister? His father, Frank (Caine), investigates only to find Cold War paranoia and a government that may be willing to put foreign relations above human life. The Whistle Blower is a confident, focused story that creates a convincing world of paranoia. (Prime Video, free on YouTube)
9. The Black Windmill (1974)
British secret agent Major John Tarrant (Caine) goes rogue to track down a gang of arms-smuggling terrorists who have kidnapped his son. The return of the boy proves difficult when the gang demands a ransom in the form of diamonds which the agent has been holding as bait to trap a smuggling ring. But how do they even know about the jewels? Is there a double agent in MI6? Donald Pleasence teams up with Caine again to play Tarrant’s boss. (Amazon Prime, Netflix in some countries)
8. Mona Lisa (1986)
Mona Lisa is a neo-noir gangster film revolving around an ex-con named George (Bob Hoskins) who becomes entangled with a high-class call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson) although he must still answer to his boss (Caine). George gathers intelligence on one of Simone's wealthy customers and eventually agrees to help her find a teenage friend. It is a stylish thriller with a cast that shines. (Prime Video, Rokuten, BritBox)