Man in the Mirror, part 3

These were proto-Thatcherite Mods with class - the barrow-boy yuppies of Swinging London who had a sheen of glamour and brushed with royalty. Drinking at the Pickwick Club, Desmond Cavanagh's glitterati hot-spot in Great Newport Street, or going out with a succession of models, the traditionalist habits of Caine and his peers - as apparent in Alfie (1966) - would seem reactionary and suspect to their psychedelic successors towards the end of the same decade.

This, in fact, would be the conflict in attitudes fought out by James Fox, the upwardly-mobile gangster Chas, and Mick Jagger, the decadent rock star Turner, in Nicholas Roeg's psychodrama Performance (1970). It was all a long way from the kitchen-sink, class-war ethos of the British Free Cinema movement of 1956.

'Well, I do think that there was an assumption on the part of the kitchen-sink writers that the working classes existed only in the north, and that the south is all full of gentry and sophisticated bourgeoisie out in Surrey. The cockney was sort of dismissed as a comic character; but I do think that I was a part of the kitchen-sink thing, in some ways. I just came out of the blue on an individual course, not really knowing what was going to happen. I mean, nobody was aware of the Sixties as a specific mood, or what have you, until 1968, when we read about it in Time magazine! There's this idea that we all sat down on New Year's Eve 1959 and said, 'Right, this is the Sixties!' - but we weren't really aware of it..'

The Sixties made Caine, and Caine defined the Sixties as an embodiment of the class-blurring, but ultimately class-conscious, zeitgeist. Having signed an exclusive seven-year contract with the agent Denis Salinger in 1964 for the then phenomenal sum of pounds 350,000, Caine began work on the starring role of Harry Palmer in Sidney J Furie's The Ipcress File. Palmer, secret agent, was the antithesis of James Bond - more of a minor civil servant, plodding through the bureaucracy of espionage at the beck and call of duplicitous upper-class pay-masters, than a glamorous jet-setting spy.

As such, Caine's success as Harry Palmer echoed the success of his working-class 'ordinary' glamour within Sixties London. His cockney lilt and thinly-veiled contempt for institutional sophistication made Caine's Harry Palmer a new breed of working-class hero - 'holding up a mirror' to contemporary audiences.

This knack of creating characters who described their times was reinforced with Alfie . Based on the novel by Bill Naughton, Alfie offered Caine the chance to convey the charmless philosophising of a West-End Lothario. The film was blunt in its sexism - acceptable at a time when 'sex comedies', such as Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, were in vogue. But, as is often forgotten, it was hard-hitting, too, in its handling of the consequences of that sexism, with a graphic sequence featuring Denholm Elliot as a drunken abortionist. The film brought Caine an Oscar nomination in 1967 (Paul Scofield won, for A Man For All Seasons), but more important, he had created his identity as a movie star on an international scale - by playing the ordinary bloke.

'When I did Alfie, even though it was a success in England, I felt sure that it would never be a success in America, because of my accent and everything. Then one day they told me to go over to Twickenham studios to do 125 voice-loops of dialogue the Americans couldn't understand. So I did it, and then the film was a huge hit in the States. But that's because every guy in America thought he could pull all the girls and screw everything in sight if he was like Alfie. And it happened the world over. So there's an example of an indigenous British film that was a big hit the world over because it's got a universal theme.'

By the time he had his first real taste of international celebrity, Caine had moved on from sharing flats at exclusive addresses with Terence Stamp. He had bought his first Rolls-Royce (having, in a further act of class war, given two fingers to the first showroom manager who had refused to believe he could afford it), a small house near Marble Arch, and banked his first million.

The Sixties had made Caine a globe-trotting, millionaire movie star, culminating in his starring roles in the two biggest films of 1969, The Italian Job and The Battle Of Britain, the cast-lists of which read like a Who's Who of international cinema. And, it could be argued, the comedy of The Italian Job and the historical drama of The Battle Of Britain represented a last flowering of the exuberance and confidence that had typified Britain in the Sixties. After that, Riviera fantasies and blockbuster heritage began to seem irrelevant to modern taste. Broken lifts, bad drugs and brutalism had become more central to the English condition.

British cinema in the Seventies offered James Fox in Performance, Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, and Caine in Get Carter: a triptych of films which, each in different ways, presented the legacy of the Sixties as psychopathic revenge tragedies. Get Carter: (1971), written and directed by Mike Hodges, took the metropolitan gangster - the Sixties folk hero, played by Caine - back to the re-invented northern landscape of the kitchen-sink films of the Fifties.

As if by way of acknowledgement, there was even a cameo role for the playwright John Osborne, playing a lazily sadistic local villain. Get Carter: can be seen as one of the first truly modern films about Britain, displacing not only the cliches of British social realism but also the cliches of gangland film-noir. Soaked in matter-of-fact malevolence and the new brutality of such Seventies TV dramas as The Sweeney, Get Carter:presented realistic violent crime in the cold light of day, in banal, recognisable settings. For Caine, as an actor determined to reflect every nuance of ordinariness, the role of Carter was perfect. Indeed, there has seldom been a more menacing performance.

'There was an extraordinary morality in Get Carter:, inasmuch as one of the reasons that Carter is prepared to kill everyone is that someone's put a person with his surname into a pornographic film. And that's an incredible moral judgment! But those guys, you see, within all that working-class gangster system, right through the Mafia, will follow the principle of protecting your turf and protecting your own. A gangster, more often than not, is a policeman who's taken the law into his own hands, protecting his family and providing them with a criminal livelihood. We got an awful lot of stick for the portrayal of violence in Get Carter: But it was violent only in so far as I wanted to get across the point that if you whack a bloke eight or ten times in the face, he isn't going to get up, shake himself down and come back at you. Just one proper hit in the face and he's going to be across the room. And you never see that in a lot of films.

'What you get these days, to a great extent, is a pornography of violence which is much more dangerous than a pornography of sex. I'd rather see people screwing each other than killing one another. In Get Carter:, we were criticised because we showed the reality of violence. But just one stab in the stomach - that's all it takes. I've been a soldier, I know about the trauma of violence.

'I always remember when I did Dressed To Kill (1980), and this guy was having a go at me in an interview, saying the violence in the film was sickening. So I asked him how many people actually died in the film, and he said, 'My God, it must be dozens!' And I said, 'One. It's the way Brian de Palma did it that makes it seem more violent.' They showed Dressed To Kill in Leeds or Bradford during the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, and a group of ladies who were rightly up in arms about all this, threw a bucket of ox blood over the screen. And then, when Sutcliffe was caught, they asked him whether he'd seen Dressed To Kill and he said no. So you see, it's difficult. Jack The Ripper never saw a violent movie. He never saw anything. He just went out and did it.

This article by Michael Bracewell appeared in The Guardian Online on 8 February 1997, and, as such, is © copyright Michael Bracewell/Guardian Media Group. Coming Soon! Coming Soon!

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