The Best Michael Caine Movies You've Probably Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we take a look at some of the best Michael Caine movies you probably haven't seen.)

Most actors go their whole careers without starring in a film destined to stand the test of time. Michael Caine, though, has more classics on his resume than most actors have films in their entire filmography. Alfie, Gambit, The Italian Job, Get Carter, and Sleuth are just a small handful of his most memorable movies, and not coincidentally, they've all been remade in the decades since their original release. Of course, Caine is famously an actor who pretty much never says no to an offer, meaning he's also made more than a few outright stinkers. Between those two extremes sit a ton of films that range from mediocre to magnificent, but for whatever reason they've avoided the reputation as being among his best (Without a Clue) or worst (On Deadly Ground). They're unappreciated, and it's time to change that.

Keep reading for a look at some of the best Michael Caine movies you probably haven't seen.

Play Dirty (1969)

A special forces unit active in North Africa during World War II is tasked with a difficult mission. The objective is tough enough, but the bigger challenge comes with the pairing of a unit mostly comprised of war criminals with a no-nonsense commander. It's a bumpy combination, and it's about to get a hell of a lot worse.

North Africa is an underused landscape for WWII films, and while this particular one was filmed in Spain, the end result is the same in that the geography is appealing in its variety. Director Andre De Toth (House of Wax) sets some fantastic action set-pieces against it all as our "dirty dozen" find themselves involved in gun battles and other explosive antics. The story gives them a very specific final mission – destroying an enemy fuel depot – and the plan falls apart in fun and exciting fashion.

Without spoiling anything, one of the film's major charms is its strong handle on tone. It's a serious film in its content as bodies drop at a regular rate, but between the action and arguing there's also a steady sense of black comedy. They're typically small beats or dialogue exchanges, but it's most evident in the film's ending which is absolutely fantastic in its shock and awe.

Buy Play Dirty on DVD from Amazon.

the romantic englishman

The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

A bored housewife leaves her novelist husband behind for a trip to Germany and finds a distraction in a handsome stranger. When she returns home, it's to a newly suspicious husband, and his concerns only grow when the mysterious man arrives in England. Intrigue and romance blossom as the truth about the man and everyone's relationship comes to light.

Caine plays the husband living in fear of cuckold status, and we see his imagined fears come to life as he writes them all into his next novel. His wife is brought to glorious life by Glenda Jackson as a woman tired of feeling contained by her situation, and while Caine is great – and this is obviously a list about his films – she's the film's real star. It's a performance that leaves her exposed in every way imaginable, but she retains a firm grip on the character throughout.

Director Joseph Losey spent much of the 50s as a victim of the blacklist, but that didn't stop him from making several films during the decade. He's best known for a diverse variety of films including Modesty Blaise, The Go-Between, and The Boy With Green Hair.

Buy The Romantic Englishwoman on Blu-ray from Amazon or watch via Amazon Prime.

the wilby conspiracy

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

A visiting Englishman finds himself in trouble when his girlfriend brings her work home with her. She's a barrister in South Africa at the height of Apartheid, and mere minutes after getting her black client released, the three have a run-in with police that leaves them on the run and in pursuit of the truth behind a deadly conspiracy.

There's a grand tradition of movies featuring mismatched pairs running from varied threats, and while this is less comedic than most of its well-known cousins, it deserves a wider audience all the same. It's a terrific tale of racist authority in control but on the way out, and the politics of it are woven well into the unwinding narrative. The black/white commentary is ever present but unobtrusive when it comes to the film's entertainment value as a chase thriller.

Caine and Sidney Poitier are a fantastic pair, bouncing between banter and bonding on their cross country journey that brings them through cities, villages, and beautiful open landscapes. Both men play characters forced by circumstance into their present situation, and both succeed in making them compelling and convincing. And not for nothing, but Rutger Hauer pops up too, which not only is never a bad thing and also provides the opportunity for a fist fight between him and Poitier. Hauer and Poitier! Who knew that was something that had been captured on film?

Buy The Wilby Conspiracy on Blu-ray from Amazon or rent via Amazon Video.

the island

The Island (1980)

A writer heads to Florida with his teenage son for a working vacation where he hopes to investigate a series of disappearances of recreational craft, and unfortunately he succeeds. The pair discover modern-day pirates roaming the ocean and murdering with impunity, and their fun in the sun comes to an abrupt end when they're taken prisoner by the seafaring killers.

Michael Bay's equally under-loved film of the same name would come out a quarter of a century later, but Michael Ritchie's is where it's at for pirate slaughter, creepy subcultures, and the very angry Caine you see pictured above. The film takes some deliciously dark turns as children are used as bait, his son is wooed towards the life of a pirate, and he himself is tasked into a slave-like existence servicing the widow of an attacker he killed. It's dark stuff at times, but happily it's kept classy through the presence of the always worthwhile David Warner as the head pirate.

The film is based on Peter Benchley's novel, and while it's no Jaws, at least it's also no Creature, amirite? I kid, but the important takeaway here is that story's actually closer to another of his adaptations, The Deep, in that the threat is due more to people than to the dangers of the sea. I'm not sure that makes it any more believable, but it's a grim and grimy good time all the same.

Buy The Island on Blu-ray from Amazon or rent via Amazon Video.

curtain call

Curtain Call (1998)

A successful young man buys a house with the wavering intention of sharing it with his girlfriend, but when his lack of commitment sends her packing, he finds someone else waiting for him. A pair of ghosts are already living there, and as he comes to grips with their presence he also learns about his past mistakes and future hopes.

James Spader plays the lead here, and he's a blast. He gets to show off his physical comedy skills, from clumsy accidents to exaggerated mannerisms. Spader's playing opposite Polly Walker, and each of them have a separate romantic foil who enters the picture too – played by Sam Shepard and Marcia Gay Harden. The supporting cast is rounded out by Frank Whaley, Frances Sternhagen, and Buck Henry. It's an odd mix, but it works.

The film's fine when focused on Spader's troubles, but it finds its life when Caine and Maggie Smith show up onscreen as the ghosts. They're a long-married couple, dead for a while, and their bickering and playfulness is great fun. It's sweet too as their romance is even more affecting then the more straightforward one with Spader and Walker as the pair reminisce about times past.

Buy Curtain Call on DVD from Amazon.

harry brown

Harry Brown (2009)

An ex-serviceman sees his retirement disrupted by the murder of his best friend, and he quickly decides to do something about it. Ignoring and forgetting it aren't options, and soon he's utilizing old tricks on new enemies.

Along with The Island above, this is probably the one from the list that some of you have seen, but it's worth inclusion to ensure the rest of you seek it out. Caine makes for an effective tough guy when he wants to, and this is one of those times. He's very convincing in his coldness, and it's in that zone where he dispatches his targets, but he also finds the empathy missing from too many similarly-plotted films both in the loss of his friend and the realization over his lot in life.

Caine has made plenty of action/thrillers over the years, but this one sees him veering into Charles Bronson territory, albeit with a slightly more restrained attitude. I say slightly because Caine's Brown isn't fooling around here. His pursuit of justice isn't shy about causing pain in his prey – it may even be the goal.

Buy Harry Brown on Blu-ray from Amazon or rent via Amazon Video.