Michael Caine celebrates his 85th birthday today having appeared in more than 120 theatrical features; his latest, the absurdist comedy Dear Dictator, in which he plays the title role of a deposed, fugitive Communist despot who seeks sanctuary with a feisty American teen he’s corresponded with and who admires his ruthless style, opens in theaters Friday, to be followed next weekend by his vocal turn in the animated Sherlock Gnomes. The two-time Oscar® winner (for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and The Cider House Rules (1999)) and additional four-time nominee (for Alfie (1966), Sleuth (1972), Educating Rita (1983) and The Quiet American (2002)) is reliably a standout in many of his projects; that’s the case with two Caine-raisers, a mercilessly brutal World War II action yarn and a goofball turn-of-the-century caper comedy, that currently populate the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray roster.
Play Dirty (1969), a British production that got short shrift from audiences and critics when first released but looms large as a gritty, antiwar touchstone nearly a half-century later, finds Caine the marquee star among the terrific ensemble (Nigel Davenport, Nigel Green, Harry Andrews, Daniel Pilon) of this harrowing tale of a suicide mission of criminal rogues behind enemy lines in desolate North Africa terrain. As a military engineer/gentleman officer conscripted to lead a band of disreputables in blowing up a vital Nazi fuel dump, he finds himself reluctantly adapting to the conscienceless kill-or-be-killed code of his compatriots, evolving from cool detachment to violence-scarred renegade. Caine found the production logistics bothersome and working with the veteran director Andre De Toth a challenge but later reconsidered the project as a valuable experience. “I would never appear in a war film that made any young man feel like going out to join the army. That was part of the reason I played in Play Dirty,” he told biographer Matthew Field. Despite the film’s relentless cynicism and downbeat finale, the movie’s legion of admirers concurs in this assessment: Mission accomplished. Of course, Caine remains one of show business’s most delightful raconteurs, and it is that raffish charm that fuels his suavely witty performance as master bank robber Adam Worth in director Mark Rydell’s carnival-like comedy Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976). James Caan and Elliott Gould valiantly try for a ramshackle Bing Crosby/Bob Hope vibe as bottom-tier vaudevillians who aspire to become upwardly mobile gentlemen thieves like admired ladies man Worth, who in Caine’s capably urbane hands becomes a sly tip of the top hat to Cary Grant in a kind of Mr. Lucky/To Catch a Thief mashup. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert considered Caine to be “a very engaging light comedian” and his work here “immensely likable and veddy, veddy proper, and the best thing in the movie.” Some of his best moments occur when he raffishly spars with Diane Keaton’s social-crusader newshound, whether describing during a canoe ride how one’s every pore tingles during an illegal break-in or later calmly concedes to being bested by purring “You’ve already won the war. Shall we discuss the terms of the treaty?” – leaving the film arm-in-arm. Caine’s 60+-year body of work is loaded with these and countless gemstones in movies both outstanding and ordinary, and it’s fitting and slyly subversive that the badass soldier and attractive roué found in the TT discs of Play Dirty and Harry and Walter Go to New York shares a common bond with a nutty new movie like Dear Dictator. We should all likewise thrive, Caine-style, at age 85.