WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT... ALFIE
The swingin’ sixties… a time when free living and free loving were the marks of a new kind of society, and London was its capital. London became the epicentre of everything that was cool and hip and the place to go for the fashionably young and the youngly fashionable. As such, there were numerous films that would go on to celebrate and typify the decade in all its fun, easy-going decadence, like Morgan!, Georgy Girl, Modesty Blaise and Darling. Another one was the film that gave Michael Caine one of his most enduring screen characters, Alfie.
Alfie Elkins (Michael Caine) is confident, charming, utterly selfish and very successful with women. He’s a user of women, concerned only with his own pleasure and ready to leave at the first hint of emotional attachment. However, his callous ways start to show themselves as certain events make him rethink his lifestyle.
Alfie was first written by Bill Naughton as a stage play before it became a film. It ran for 21 weeks and originally starred Terence Stamp in the title role. Stamp declined to star in the film version, instead leaving the way open for his friend Michael Caine to step into the part. Whilst its theatrical roots are clear, it’s a superb script. A character study of very polarising individual. Alfie is a young guy with confidence, charm and an eye for the ladies. He’s also a self-centred narcissist and possessed of a moral flexibility that allows him to think that he’s doing the women he sees a favour by leaving them. Indeed, Naughton’s script is at times unsure as to what to make of him, hopping between contempt and a weird kind of admiration. He’s an attractive character with humour and candour, but he is so tough to like at times. He treats women as disposable, throwaway, something he can get a little use out of before discarding and moving on. His frequency of referring to women as “it” is appalling, more so for the casual nature of its use. So deep-rooted is his lack of concern for his female conquests that he tries to convince one of them to abort her pregnancy, not for himself, but for the sake of the child. The baby will just become attached to the mother, and she couldn’t possibly handle that, and the child would feel abandoned and lost. It’s through such conversations that Naughton gives us subtle glimpses into his life growing up, letting us know why he is the way he is. It’s never done as an excuse, just an explanation. As an example of someone utterly self-centred, Alfie Elkins is hard to beat. He may be simple in his desires, but he’s no less damaging.
Lewis Gilbert’s direction is very understated, and the times when Caine addresses the camera, and therefore us, echo both Alfie’s egotism and his attitude to women. Scenes don’t freeze when turns to us, but they don’t move forward without him either. He knows he’s the star and that everything stops until he’s ready to continue, everyone else just has to wait. That he effectively ignores the girl he’s with to talk to us about them underlines his callous lack of consideration for them. Gilbert’s restraint comes through most in dealing with the abortion scene as it has all the dramatic weight needed, but without being exploitative or manipulative. Also, it never really feels like it’s been a play that’s been filmed. It feels like a film. Recurring use of reflective surfaces suit the piece well, if perhaps being a tad thematically obvious. There are moments of rather clipped editing, where shots could have been served better by being just a second longer. There’s also a point in a bar fight where the same shot is used a couple of times. It’s meant to be a recurring joke (a huge guy repeatedly having a chair broken on his head without him noticing), but it’s too obviously the same shot, so it almost feels like a mistake. These minor points aside, it’s fine work, and the tonal shifts are handled very well. Moments of light and dark don’t crash into each other, but flow easily.
Michael Caine is superb as Alfie Elkins. There’s always been a lack of pretence to the characters that Caine plays, or rather a lack of judgement. Caine always accepted the good and bad aspects of whomever he played, and Alfie is no exception. He carries Alfie’s frank nature and rather blunt way of speaking without hint of holding back for the sake of vanity. When Jude Law played the role nearly 40 years later, he smothered him with cheeky charm, so you can’t ever hate him too much. Caine doesn’t care too much if you hate him, because Alfie doesn’t care too much if you hate him either. As far as he’s concerned, he isn’t really a bad guy, rather he just doesn’t care for complications. Caine also depicts the few fleeting moments where Alfie’s mask slips with a delicate subtlety. There’s the hint of a warm smile, or look of longing that passes across his face before being quickly caught and covered up again.
It would be easy to get lost behind Caine’s performance, being that it does dominate proceedings. However, there are some performances that are utterly heart-breaking. Julia Foster, Vivien Merchant and Jane Asher are the women that we see most of as, for lack of a better way of putting it, victims of Alfie’s vanity. Foster and Asher both find themselves taken in by Alfie’s charm, but try to find something beyond him. It’s Merchant that really works hard, though, since she is the one most devastated by his whims. One look at her and you just want to smack him in the mouth.
What lies at the heart of Alfie, both the character and the film, is the nature and direction of the permissiveness that was the calling card of London in the 1960s. To a degree, the film posits the idea that a man like Alfie could only exist in such a time and place. He’s a rather unsettling mirror to the times, which is why it’s drowned in such period detail. He’s a cautionary tale, a possible glimpse of things to come. He’s a creature driven by gratification and, with the rise of a new way of life in the 60s, he’s found his perfect hunting ground. Consider it this way: Alfie is diagnosed with a hereditary disease (one that he could pass on to his children), but one that can be cured by simply slowing down. Whilst resting in a convalescent home, he has a dream that he has been tainted by poison and can’t go near his son for fear of passing it on to him. For all of Alfie’s questions of why people aren’t more like him and “What’s it all about?” he’s given plenty of hints. This is part of the reason that the 2004 remake didn’t work. Aside from a pretty poor showing from Jude Law, it misses the point of the original. The original makes its case on a potential moral crisis, but the remake clearly didn’t get that lesson. 2004 Alfie is not quite the same kind of person, more of an arrogant prick than a callous bastard. When 2004 Alfie is diagnosed with a disease, it’s testicular cancer. This is all well and good for an ironic punishment, but it suggests that Alfie’s problem is that he just likes screwing around too much, ignoring the more deep-seated and disturbing aspects of the character’s original incarnation and the metaphorical implications for future generations therein.
Alfie is a damn fine film, though it’s not exactly the bawdy, wild sex comedy that some remember it being. It’s tragic more than comic, and can be very, very dark. As a character, Alfie is drawn very well, and Caine plays every facet wonderfully. The style may have aged somewhat, plot elements have become quite anachronistic and we may be more familiar now with the techniques on show, but it’s still got a great deal of power on show.