“What’s it all about… Alfie.”
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Cast: Michael Caine, Shelley Winters, Millicent Martin
Synopsis: An unrepentant ladies’ man gradually begins to understand the consequences of his lifestyle.
Has there ever been, in the history of the movies, a more wretched ‘hero’ than Alfie? He moves through Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of Bill Naughton’s stage play with a laddish swagger, dispensing his half-baked philosophy and observations on life with a misplaced confidence that suggests a major calamity is sure to befall him before the film’s end. He’s a likeable rogue, though – at least, at first: a Jack-the-Lad type with an eye for the ‘birds.’ His conquests are numerous, and have just one thing in common: they’re blind – deliberate or otherwise – to his selfishness. Alfie doesn’t even think of women as human – usually referring to them as ‘it’ when talking to the camera. The only exception to this habit is Ruby (Shelley Winters – A Double Life, The Poseidon Adventure) who is nothing more than his female counterpart – a fellow empty soul whom he fails to recognise.
Alfie is one of those people who sees life as a test of one’s survival instincts – ‘you have to look out for number one’, he tells fellow patient Harry (Alfie Bass – The Lavender Hill Mob, I Was Monty’s Double) while recovering from a shadow on his lung, and shortly before sleeping with the other man’s wife. He also views the world a stage on which he is the leading man and everyone else is a bit part player consigned to the wings. His habit of taking the audience into his confidence might create a certain degree of intimacy between him and us, but it also reinforces his dismissal of those around him as insignificant pawns. It’s as if the world doesn’t exist beyond the confines of his vision, thus allowing him to treat other people appallingly without suffering the prick of a guilty conscience. But the world has a habit of biting back – at least, it does in the movies – and Alfie is forced to re-evaluate his life when Harry’s wife (Vivien Merchant – Frenzy) falls pregnant and needs an abortion.The general perception the public has of this movie is that of a chirpy comedy, in which good ol’ Michael Caine does a few ‘birds’ and has a laugh with the audience. But it is, in fact, a savage indictment of sexual liberation which is a comedy only in the darkest of senses. And the tone grows ever darker as the film goes on, with Alfie’s early carefree banter exposed as the moronic slavering of a well-dressed ape during the harrowing scene in which he’s unexpectedly faced with the consequences of his lifestyle in the kitchen of his flat. Earlier, he looked at the camera as he began his seduction of Alfie’s wife, and asked, ‘What harm can it do?’ without really understanding the question. That’s troubling enough, but even worse is that, when finally confronted with the pathetic, ugly answer to his question, his devastation is so short-lived. In the final scene, after all he’s been through, after all that he should have learned, he’s trying to get the married woman we first met him with into the back seat of his car.
Although he’d already starred in a couple of movies, Michael Caine cemented his future as a screen superstar in Alfie. It seems incredible today that his performance earned him no awards. Also standing out in a short, but important, scene is Denholm Elliott as the abortionist Alfie calls upon in his moment of need. Alfie might seem dated today, but it’s no less of a powerful – or tragic – story than it was back in the mid-1960s, when so much of the population seemed to have been caught out by the burgeoning sexual revolution.
(Reviewed 13th September 2015)