Harry Palmer Files – 006 – The David Bailey Michael Caine portrait

Every Sunday, we’ll be looking at the Harry Palmer series of novels (in which the character doesn’t actually have a name), their author — Len Deighton, the films based on them, the star of those films — Michael Caine, and the television movies that followed, and giving my thoughts on all I encounter. I’ll inevitably be drawing heavily on the collection of Kees Stam, author of The Harry Palmer Movie Site, and Rob Mallows, creator of the Deighton Dossier, and other odds and ends that I’ve turned up over the years.

In the banner above…you know, the one that’s been on top of every HPF post so far…you may have noticed what is perhaps the coolest photograph ever taken. It’s a portrait of Caine taken by photographer David Bailey (inspiration for a movie that’s the epitome of 60s cool, Blow Up), in 1965, during the promotional period for The IPCRESS File. It’s one of my favorite portraits ever taken, and for the reasons that Salon journalist Charles Taylor elaborates upon in a 2000 profile of Caine:

The iconic image of Michael Caine is probably best summed up by a 1965 David Bailey photograph recently reprinted in his book “Birth of the Cool.” In it, Caine wears the black horn-rimmed glasses he donned to play secret agent Harry Palmer in three films that began with “The IPCRESS File.” An unlit Gauloise dangles from his mouth, and his black suit, tie and white button-down shirt are slim and immaculate. But there’s something unstable about the photograph, an unnerving aliveness that, 35 years later, still makes its meaning impossible to pin down, cut loose from its era as much as Bailey’s chic portraits of other icons of ’60s Brit cool — Jean Shrimpton, Mick Jagger, even the Kray Brothers — are contained by their times. The portrait is bordered by the edges of the black frame, but Caine’s eyes make you feel as if you’re the one who has been nailed to the wall. Steady, cool to the point of frigidity, they look as if they’re glowing from within their partially shadowed sockets; the long eyelashes that frame them might be tiny laser beams. Caine’s impassive expression and ray-gun orbs don’t offer the certainty of either kindness or cruelty but something far more unsettling: the sensation of being coolly appraised, of having each action or utterance totted up and held to your credit or debit.

From London’s National Portrait Gallery, here’s the original:

Michael Caine by David Bailey

A photograph that evokes that much cool is practically begging for homages. And there are plenty around:

And here are some artistic interpretations:

In November of 2004, to coincide with the release of the remake of Alfie, Arena Magazine commissioned Bailey to recreate his earlier Caine photo with actor Jude Law for the cover. The cover subsequently won a best cover of the year award from Campaign.

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website, August 2nd, 2009.

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