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Never Too Much Caine

June 22, 1986|SHEILA BENSON

Neil Jordan's "Mona Lisa" has any number of fascinations to it; a major one is the comforting presence of Michael Caine in a nasty and pivotal role. How Caine manages his work schedule is a nice question: In this year alone he can be found in "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Water," "Sweet Liberty," "Mona Lisa," "Half-Moon Street" and a British film yet to open here, "The Whistle Blower."

Even granted that they weren't all shot at the same time or even, possibly, in the same year, that's still movie making the old-fashioned way, on a two-reeler time-table. What's extraordinary about all this is not Caine's prolific output--by now we should be used to that. He's made 53 films in the 22 years since his performance as the ramrod stiff, upper-class Victorian officer in "Zulu" marked him as a comer. What takes your breath away when you begin to think about it is Caine's stainless-steel quality: With few exceptions, he has been able to walk away from even the rankest of films with his reputation intact, while the flak destroys everything around him.

It's hardly because Caine has chosen his properties wisely or well. At times he's gone through films the way sharks go through the water, because they must always be in motion or die. For a while he had a run of forgettable movies, or ones remembered for all the wrong reasons: "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure," "California Suite" (Maggie Smith's Academy Award notwithstanding), "The Swarm," "Ashanti," "The Island," "Deathtrap" and "The Hand" were part of what occupied him between 1977 and 1981, for example.

He once gave an explanation for some of his choices of roles. (It may have been faintly tongue in cheek, but to anyone in the same predicament, it has the ring of gospel truth.) His daughter by his first marriage was, at a tender age, a horsewoman. A horse is not her father's favorite animal. "Next time you see a horse," Caine told an interviewer, "look at him. He's eating. When my daughter was growing up, one picture in four was made by me just to feed her horse."

Yet there are moments from even some of the real navel-lint movies that can be remembered with affection, at least at our house. In "The Hand" he played a cartoonist unwise enough to rest his hand on his car window, where a passing truck severed it in a trice. (It came creeping back on little Carlo Rambaldi feet for the rest of the movie, too.) Caine's handling of that whopper made it poignant, personal, absolutely unforgettable --a psychic as well as a physical loss. It was interesting to read a quote that since the film, he's never put his hand out the window of his car. Since that film, who could?

Caine is also rare among English actors in that, since his teens and 20s, he has been completely the product of motion pictures. Not for him the regeneration of a run in the West End; instead, there is always another film.

You begin to think he's done his best (and most unseen) work in dreadful movies, like his sodden, cuckolded, heart-rending British diplomat in "Beyond the Limit," which is what they did to Graham Greene's "The Honorary Consul." (You'll find Bob Hoskins in that one too, as a Latin American policeman.) Or his contented, pot-smoking British diplomat in "Water," a waterlogged recent comedy. This was a man who must keep a wary eye on his Latin wife, a very eccentric dancer indeed, with an overripe Chiquita Banana accent. The lines were as far from Noel Coward as you can get and still share the English language, but Caine delivered them with the dazzling precision and bite you would lavish on true Coward.

But the Caine roster is hardly all dogs. There is "Alfie," "The Ipcress File," "The Man Who Would Be King," "The Wrong Box," "Dressed to Kill," "Get Carter," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Mona Lisa." ("Sleuth"? Have you seen "Sleuth" lately? It was fashionable at the time to compliment Caine by saying that he matched Olivier all the way. Look at it now, in the light of what we have seen from Caine since, and see if he didn't edge out the master by a nose--or by the length of a clown's shoe.)

The real constant among the good, the bad and the unforgettable movies is Caine's implacable professionalism. He has simply never given less than his best, with a variety that he is rarely given enough credit for. He has also never, never worn out his welcome.

It was nice that Woody Allen could see him as a besotted husband, wildly in love with his loving wife's equally loving sister, since it gave Caine a chance at light comedy, and at guilt, which he does well. (He's usually perceived as too cool for guilt.) What he needs now is someone who sees the comic side, too. (You might not show them "Blame It on Rio," although Caine was, as ever, impeccable.)

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