In the Sixties, the gritty realism of the Harry Palmer films reinvented the spying game for the big screen. Created by novelist Len Deighton and played by Michael Caine, Palmer was hailed as the thinking man’s James Bond: “He even did his own shopping in the supermarket,” recalls the actor four decades on. “And Bond was so obvious. He couldn’t possibly have been a spy, he drew so much attention to himself.”
Those Palmer films – The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain – chimed perfectly with pervading anxieties about the Cold War, then at its chilliest. But Palmer’s undercover skills didn’t convince everyone.
“A friend of mine,” says Caine, “met [former Russian President] Putin, who used to be head of the KGB, and he said, 'Tell Mr Caine we used to watch all his movies and laugh because he was such a clever spy. We were never that clever.’”
Now, at the age of 78, Caine is reinventing the movie spy once more – on four wheels. He is the voice of Finn McMissile, a suave, sophisticated British intelligence agent in the sequel to Cars, Pixar’s animated hit of 2006.
John Lasseter, co-founder of the studio and the director of both films, insists that Cars 2 is a true spy movie, not a parody; and Caine is clearly thrilled by the opportunity to engage once again with the world of espionage. “It’s very cool playing a pale blue 1966 Aston Martin. And what an incredible name – it makes me sound dangerous.”
Set against the backdrop of a series of Grand Prix-style events in Japan, Italy and Britain, Cars 2 sees the return of race ace Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his rust-bucket buddy Mater (US comedian Larry the Cable Guy). As McMissile and his sexy, tech-savvy side-kick Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) attempt to thwart an underworld plan to sabotage the races, they mistake Mater for an American secret agent. Thus the dopey tow-truck is drawn into a perilous vortex of international intrigue.
Alongside Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise, in which Caine plays Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (the next instalment, The Dark Knight Rises, is currently in production), Cars 2 is destined to be one of the biggest films of his career. It hit number one on the weekend of its release in the US, and, in its first two weeks, it has raked in an estimated $270 million worldwide at the box office, even though it has yet to reach many countries, including the UK.
Certainly, the film is going to widen Caine’s fan base. After so many adults-only films, he says, “it’s great for my grandchildren. Now finally they can see [what I do], and it means that, when I’m collecting them from school, I’ll be recognised at last!”
What’s more, it’s already being predicted that a talking car based on his Finn McMissile character – uttering lines such as, “This is top secret” and “We’re being followed” – will be the must-have toy this Christmas.
Coming to animated movies so late in his career (he was also in Gnomeo and Juliet earlier this year) has proved a revelation, and Caine marvels at Pixar’s approach to storytelling. “You sit there in absolute amazement,” he says. “It’s a child’s film if you’re a child, and a grown-up’s film if you’re a grown up. How do they do that?”
He describes Lasseter as one of the best filmmakers he has ever worked with (“He’s such an enthusiast”), although he does not share the director’s life-long passion for cars. “Am I a car aficionado? No: for me, cars have always been just for transport. I didn’t even know anyone who had a car until I was 14 or 15.”
After his career took off with Zulu (1964), followed swiftly by such milestones as Alfie, The Italian Job and Get Carter, he decided to buy his first car – a Rolls Royce. Not that he got behind the wheel himself: “I couldn’t drive, and I found that the insurance premium would have been twice what I’d have to pay a chauffeur.”
However, when he moved to Hollywood (“where you have to drive”), he decided he’d finally take lessons. They didn’t go well, but his movie-star status proved an advantage when it came to the test – the examiner took one look at Caine and told him: “You’re really going to have to be rubbish not to pass.” He got his licence.
The climactic scenes in Cars 2 feature a Grand Prix-style race through the streets of London, and among the story’s many new characters are car versions of “Prince Wheeliam” and the Queen.
Lasseter says the car version of the Queen (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) is “somewhere between a Bentley and a Rolls Royce. We looked at the history [of the royal family], and saw that they drove both.” Her crown is a modified and bejewelled version of a Land Rover luggage rack.
It’s perhaps the most, well, imaginative big-screen portrayal of Her Majesty yet. What does Caine – who was knighted 11 years ago – think the real Queen would make of it?
“I think she’d react very well,” he says loyally. “She’s good fun. I sat next to her at a dinner once, and she suddenly turned to me and said, 'Do you know any jokes?’ And I said, 'Yes, but not many I could tell you, Your Majesty.’ I said, 'You tell me one while I think of one to tell you.’ I can’t remember the joke she told me, but it was very funny. The Queen has an incredible sense of humour, a tremendous sense of fun.”