Our look back at the 1970s films of Michael Caine continues with Silver Bears, a crime comedy he starred in with Cybill Shepherd.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for Silver Bears lay ahead…
Directed by: Ivan Passer (Born To Win, Cutter’s Way, Stalin)
Tagline: They were after silver and they struck gold.
Other Featured Geezers: Louis Jourdan as Prince di Siracusa, Cybill Shepherd as Debbie Luckman, David Warner as Agha Firdausi, Stpéhane Audran as Shireen Firdausi, Tom Smothers as Donald Luckman, Martin Balsam as Joe Fiore, Jay Leno as Albert Fiore, Charles Gray as Sir Charles Cook, Joss Ackland as Henry Foreman, Jeremy Clyde as Nick Topping.
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Romantic Englishwoman
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Peeper
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Harry And Walter Go To New York
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Eagle Has Landed
What’s it all about, Alfie?: In this twisty crime comedy Caine plays “financial wizard” Doc Fletcher, a doctor of money (which he stresses is definitely a real thing), who works diligently for American mob boss Joe Fiore (Martin Balsam) fulfilling all his money laundering needs.
Doc, facing middle age, fancies a new challenge and so, with money loaned from Joe, he heads to Switzerland, “all banks and chocolates,” accompanied by Joe’s wayward son Albert (Jay Leno, yes that Jay Leno), to set up a bank alongside a very dodgy, yet very charming, impoverished Italian Prince (Louis Jourdan) who hooks Doc up with a lucrative investment in a silver mine recently discovered by his distant cousins.
However, everything is not quite as it seems, and there is soon fraud galore from all sides. And, if I’m quite honest, I often wasn’t entirely sure what was going on with the various financial plot machinations… but everyone seemed to be having a nice time and so, ultimately, so did I!
Caine-ness: Caine appears about five minutes into the film to outline his banking aspirations to Martin Balsam, who is in the middle of a massage. It’s not a flattering entrance for poor Caine though as he is unfortunately upstaged in his very first scene by Balsam’s hairy nipples – which the cinematographer chooses to prominently frame in the bottom of the extended take where Caine is looking down at his boss, with the burly masseuse’s hand coming in and out of shot to give Balsam’s chest a good old vigorous rub throughout (which somewhat distracts from Caine’s glamourous leading man medium close up).
Otherwise though, Caine is on his usual good form in an amusing yet unchallenging role. The Caine that we get in Silver Bears is the affable and mostly unflappable (apart from the signature Caine pointy shouty scene) wheeler dealer type, similar to The Italian Job’s Charlie Croker or a less libidinous Alfie.
He has some good line deliveries such as “Ciao, my arse!” and gets to do a bit of light physical comedy when he accidentally flips his breakfast plate and ends up with a fried egg on his knee. It’s certainly not one of Caine’s most memorable turns but he’s not phoning it in either.
He’s got great chemistry with all of his co-stars (especially Louis Jourdan, which I’ll get to) apart from perhaps the donkey he has to ride. Neither seems particularly happy with this undignified arrangement, understandably, and it’s perhaps the least cool Caine has ever looked on-screen (the donkey comes out of it looking slightly better).
Caine-nections*: There’s a brief scene in which Cybill Shepherd shows off her ping pong serve to Caine’s character. Ping pong was memorably played by Caine and Elizabeth Taylor in the opening of Zee And Co (1972) (memorably for me at least, I’m probably one of the ten people who’ve actually seen it).
The director, Ivan Passer, directed a TV version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped in 1995 starring Armand Assante in the role that Caine played in the 1971 film adaptation, Alan Breck. Assante was actually a late replacement for Christopher Reeve, who was forced to drop out after his tragic accident that resulted in a spinal cord injury.
Reeve also starred alongside Caine in 1982’s Death Trap (more on that if I ever get around to Caine’s 80s films). No offence, but Assante is a step down from both Reeve and Caine – but Brian Blessed is in this 1995 version, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
Passer also directed a 1992 TV movie starring Caine’s former Eagle Has Landed co-star Robert Duvall as Stalin, a role (very unexpectedly) Caine would play himself in When Lions Roared (1994).
Joss Ackland was also in The Black Windmill (1974) alongside Caine and Nigel Patrick (who was uncredited for his final role in Silver Bears as “Financial Mediator”, and according to IMDb Trivia this was the only film of the actor’s later years where he doesn’t wear a hairpiece) was also in Battle Of Britain (1969).
*I’m only counting from Caine’s first starring role in Zulu onwards.
Best Subliminal Marketing for Bern
Best Non-Caine Actor: What an eclectic assortment of co-stars, and all of them putting in likeable and memorable turns as various oddballs and eccentrics. As the opening credits role on, the names get more and more unexpected to the point that it seems that the film is surely just pulling our leg; Cybill Shepherd, Joss Ackland, David Warner and… Jay Leno?!?!
My favourite performance of the bunch is Louis Jourdan, the French actor who had an extensive and celebrated career in everything from Hitchcock films (The Paradine Case) to a BBC television adaptation of Dracula, but was best known to me as the villain Kamal Khan in Octopussy and a murderous foodie in an episode of Columbo.
Jourdan appears to have made a career playing different nationalities to his own (to varying degrees of it being problematic, ahem, Octopussy) with pre-21st century casting directors likely going on the assumption “well he is foreign, and it’s all the same basically innit?’”
Here he’s ostensibly Italian but, my accent radar not being the strongest, I’m pretty sure he might have still just been French. However, I’ll let him off because he’s such a charmer and steals the film with his suave, yet still a little slimy and smarmy, presence.
Jourdan is Prince di Siracusa, who admits “I am not a highness, merely an excellence.” He’s determined to continue living the good life, despite being in dire financial straits. He may live in a mansion but he must burn his collection of antique chairs for warmth. Yet he puts his breeding to good use by teaching Doc and his motley crew how to mix amongst the upper crust (including the proper way to eat spaghetti).
Unconnected in any way to Silver Bears, but something I feel compelled to point out anyway, Jourdan is a dead ringer for Cliff Richard in this movie and would have been spot-on casting for him in a biopic (if, admittedly, their ages were reversed). When Doc walks in on the Prince unawares whilst he’s ecstatically miming along, eyes closed, to opera music he’s at peak Sir Cliff.
Looking at the screenshot above, it’s easy to imagine him just about to passionately express how much he likes various sized speakers. But sadly, Jourdan is no longer with us and so he’ll never get to play the part that would have won him the Oscar.
Interestingly, the most palpable chemistry in the film is not between Caine and his de facto love interest, Cybill Shepherd, but between Doc and the Prince. There’s some sexual tension, which I think surely must have been intentional, in the scene where the Prince teaches Doc the correct technique for greeting posh women by kissing their hand and, with their light bickering, cute umbrella sharing walks in the rain and undeniable fondness for each other, they’re like a sweet old married couple.
This is especially the case when we see the picture of domestic bliss – which is them in their dressing gowns eating breakfast with young Jay Leno, who could be their adopted son (I would definitely watch the film that the below screenshot promises, an endearing drama about two supportive, put upon Dads helping their troublesome son become a John Travolta impersonator).
Even though she was heavily featured in the marketing, including the poster, Cybill Shepherd doesn’t show up until nearly an hour into the movie and is only a small role. She plays the ditzy wife of Donald Luckman, the banking associate sent out to buy Doc’s bank, whom Doc seduces for information. Shepherd brings a lot of energy and sparkle to her small amount of screentime, but she’s not the co-lead that the marketing promises. Her and Doc’s dalliance is only a minor subplot and not at the centre of the storyline.
The always reliable Martin Balsam is great fun, but it appears that the filmmakers happened to just catch him on a spa retreat and decided to film him there (as half of his scenes are him either in a jacuzzi or getting a massage). You see a lot of Balsam in this, not in terms of screentime but in terms of his body. I don’t think his nipples have been so prominently featured cinematically before (whether that’s a good thing or not is I imagine a matter of personal taste).
It’s quite odd seeing Jay Leno in this, he looks like he’s someone wearing a cheap Jay Leno Halloween costume, in one of the handful of acting roles he took on before he found his chat show hosting calling. He’s not awful but he does give my least favourite performance of the film as he’s a tad annoying, but to be fair, his character is meant to be.
Jourdan isn’t the film’s only Bond villain as Charles Gray (Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever) pops up for a small, but very entertaining, supporting role as Sir Charles Cook, one of the richest men in the world, who “walks a mile after every meal, keeps the juices flowing” which we see him do as the camera, and the other characters, follow him.
Then rounding out the cast is a flamboyantly dressed David Warner as the mine-owning cousin and Joss Ackland as the no-nonsense president of the First National Bank of California (who makes dramatic points meetings by slamming his fist on a tomato).
Best Supporting Facial Hair:
My Bleedin’ Thoughts: Silver Bears has an odd cast, and an even odder story and tone, but somehow it managed to be engaging and charming throughout. The plot gets a bit confusing at times but I think I mostly understood what happened by the end and I was never so lost that I couldn’t enjoy it.
Initially I was worried what the film would turn out to be, as the old-style animated opening titles gave me Harry And Walter Go To New York flashbacks (so far, my least favourite of Caine’s 1970s movies and another one of his obscure comedies). Things didn’t improve when one of the first scenes involves an in-your-face display of pasty aging buttocks as Balsam’s geriatric business associates strip off to join him in his jacuzzi (again though, this is a matter of personal taste, and for some viewers this might have been when they were all in on the film).
The film soon won me over though and stands out in Caine’s filmography as a slight yet genuinely idiosyncratic and likeable little curiosity.
Trivia: This was based on a novel by Paul Erdman who, like Donald Luckman at the end of the movie, started his writing career in prison after being arrested for fraud and mismanagement. He wrote a series of successful fiction and non-fiction novels based around international finance and he is credited with the invention of the “financial thriller” genre (a genre I wasn’t even aware existed until just now).
And my favourite piece from IMDb; “Charles Gray portrayed a character, Charles Cook, who had the same first name as his own.”
Overall Thoughts: This is a true oddity, and it doesn’t quite succeed as a wholly satisfying movie, but it’s still lots of fun and I had a good time watching it. It’s not going to blow you away, but it’s well worth checking out if you’re curious as it has an unusual cast and a solid central performance from Caine.
Rating: 3/5 Topless Martin Balsams
Where You Can Watch This: This was on BritBox not long ago but has since been removed (perhaps because of the gratuitous old men nudity frightening those just looking for old eps of Poirot), however it is still available to rent or purchase digitally but appears to be out of print on physical media in the UK.
Up Next: It’s Richard Attenborough’s all-star war epic, A Bridge Too Far, but with its three-hour runtime will it be a film too long?
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.