WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT… ALFIE.
Some people ask themselves the Question when they’re teenagers. Others take a lot longer before it finally happens. It is the most important question of our lives and finding the answer is quite the challenge. What’s it all about? This film, which was controversial already as a play because of the abortion theme, is about one thirtysomething man’s journey before he is finally mature enough to ask the Question.
The most fondly remembered film of director Lewis Gilbert’s career begins with two stray dogs hooking up. They lead us to a parked car where our protagonist, Alfie Elkins (Michael Caine), has just had sex with one of his many flings. When Alfie gets out of the car he turns to us, the audience, and lets us in on his thoughts. He’s decided not to see her again because she’s starting to think of the two of them as some kind of couple even though she’s married. Alfie frequently refers to his women as birds, not just as an expression, but as actual animals one can have fun with for a while and then leave. Alfie wouldn’t dream of settling down with a woman – his life is too good for that, after all. Then one of his birds gets pregnant and Alfie makes her understand that he won’t be there for her as a father. She decides to have the kid anyway and Alfie sticks around long enough to be a weekend dad. He’s genuinely surprised to learn that the boy’s mother needs someone who loves her and is prepeared to be a full-time dad. Alfie decides to move on. Plenty of fish in the sea, you know? He starts dating other women, including an American, Ruby (Shelley Winters), who likes to have fun Alfie-style. However, a basically destructive cycle can’t go on forever…
Grows darker as it goes along
In the beginning it is very difficult to feel any sympathy toward Alfie. He’s a sexist bastard of the worst kind who can’t even think of women as fellow human beings. Watching this film in 2008 makes his behavior even more intolerant than in 1966 because of the progress we’ve made so far in terms of equality. But Alfie’s behavior was not acceptable in the ’60s either and the story grows darker as it goes along, testing the character by introducing him to parenthood, the consequences of an abortion and finally the humiliation of Ruby’s treatment. Caine got his respectable breakthrough with this film (even though he’d made The Ipcress File in 1965) and is excellent as the carefree womanizer. He’s surrounded by actresses who play a wide variety of women, including Winters as basically a female Alfie; even when the birds are played as rather daft they are still more reasonable and adult than the main character who remains stubborn in his ways even when confronted with people who’ve learned their lessons long ago. Adding to the style of the film is the Bacharach/David title song, beautifully performed by Cher over the closing credits that show black-and-white pictures of the cast and crew.
At the end of the film, Alfie finally asks himself the Question but has no answer. As he walks away, accompanied by a stray dog, we know that he has to find out for himself. God knows that I, at the age of 32, remain unsure about the answer.
Alfie 1966-Britain. 114 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Lewis Gilbert. Screenplay, Play: Bill Naughton. Song: “Alfie” (Burt Bacharach, Hal David). Cast: Michael Caine (Alfie Elkins), Shelley Winters (Ruby), Millicent Martin (Siddie), Julia Foster, Jane Asher, Shirley Anne Field… Denholm Elliott.
Trivia: Terence Stamp played Alfie on stage, but wouldn’t do it on film. Remade in the U.S. as Alfie (2004); followed by Alfie Darling (1975).
Golden Globe: Best English-Language Foreign Film.
Last word: “To be a movie star, you have to carry a movie. And to carry a movie where you play the title role is the supreme example. The third thing, for a British actor, is to do it in America. The fourth is to get nominated for an award. That picture did all four things for me.” (Caine, The Guardian)