Published on July 23rd, 2016 | by Clint Davis
Summary: A daring movie that walks a fine line between black comedy and weighty drama. It's thrilling to watch a young Michael Caine at work. 'Alfie' is somehow still edgy 50 years later.
PG | 113 min.
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay: Bill Naughton
Starring: Michael Caine, Shelley Winters, Julia Foster
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
What’s it all about?
That’s the final question posed by Alfie to the film’s audience as he speaks directly to camera. Played by a cocksure, 33-year-old Michael Caine, Alfie Elkins breaks the fourth wall often during the course of 1966’s Alfie.
For the film’s first 90 minutes, we get the sense that Alfie does this because he loves to hear himself speak, thinking of himself as a prophet who extolls endless wisdom on how to fully embrace bachelorhood in the swinging ’60s. But for the film’s final 20 minutes, Alfie does this because he realizes he may not actually have any answers and is instead imploring a mute audience to enlighten him.
By the end of this story, we see a confident young man reduced to an unsure young-ish man grasping at existential straws.
Alfie is the ultimate womanizer. He prides himself on staying aloof, disconnected and free. He’s got the accent and libido of Austin Powers, the philosophy of Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham and the predatory instincts of Bill Cosby.
… it’s that last one that makes Alfie a somewhat difficult movie to watch through the lens of a viewer in 2016. This character so blatantly objectifies the women all around him that it becomes impossible to side with him. But to be fair, Alfie isn’t just anti-women; he alienates and betrays nearly every person he meets, regardless of gender.
And while this picture doesn’t endorse the behavior of its title character, Caine is so unfettered and cool in his performance that it’s hard to not want to emulate him a little bit.
This was a star-making role for Caine, who was nominated for his first Oscar because of it and would subsequently star in a line of signature roles that included The Italian Job, Get Carter and Sleuth. Audiences knew he could play it cool but it was that latter film that firmly proved Caine’s acting prowess, as he went toe-to-toe with Laurence Olivier in a two-man movie. Caine has since won two Oscars, been nominated a total of six times and become relevant to a new generation thanks to his memorable turn as Alfred in The Dark Knight trilogy.
But after a 60-year career that has included more than 150 movie and TV roles, Caine’s performance as Alfie Elkins will probably go down as his signature role.
So what is Alfie all about?
It’s a character study that plays like a cautionary tale. Aside from one ludicrous bar-fight sequence that is totally played for laughs, there isn’t any action and visually it’s pretty drab thanks to Alfie’s dreary one-room apartment being the story’s most oft-used setting. But what Alfie completely lacks in visual flare, it makes up with style, memorable characters and solid acting across the board.
Alfie works a couple part-time jobs, sometimes acts as a grifter and floats from one romantic rendezvous to the next, speaking directly to the audience at nearly every moment of downtime. To hear him tell it, he’s a calculated man who just wants to have his fun, show some women a good time and not hurt anybody. But a careful viewer quickly learns to separate Alfie’s rhetoric from his actions, which tend to be quite hurtful in practice.
During the film, we see Alfie sleep with two married women — including one whose husband would be considered a friend by any well-adjusted person — actions which he presents to the viewer as favors to the women in question. He also gets two women pregnant, resulting in one child who becomes his bastard son and one illegal abortion carried out in his dank apartment on a stormy night during the movie’s emotional climax.
Another one of his conquests is essentially taken prisoner by Alfie after she has the bad luck to catch his eye while hitchhiking to London. This young woman, played by the beautiful Jane Asher, is transformed from a bright-eyed city dreamer to a timid housemaid stuck on her hands and knees scrubbing Alfie’s floor while he steps out to enjoy the day. Her story is an important turning point in the plot of Alfie because it’s when the audience first views the character as an oppressive predator, rather than a carefree bachelor.
This is a man who thinks of women only as objects — he typically refers to them as “it,” rather than “her” — and makes no apologies for it.
But Alfie doesn’t prove to be at the top of the food chain. Two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters shows up as a well-off, middle-aged huntress who can trap prey just as well as anyone. Alfie hit theaters a full year before The Graduate, so with all due respect to Mrs. Robinson, Winters’ character Ruby might be the original celluloid cougar.
It’s interesting today to watch a cautionary tale about no-strings sex that doesn’t have an STD subplot hanging over the action. Obviously this was released well before the AIDS epidemic, making Alfie’s stable of lovers feel less ominous from a health standpoint than it would be if the film were made 20 years later. Alfie was remade in 2004 with Jude Law in the lead role and the threat of AIDS was added to the updated version.
As the film went on, I just kept wanting to know what made Alfie the man we meet in 1966. What fractured relationship with his mother must have planted the seeds of misogyny we see sprouting without a second thought? I think a gaze into Alfie’s adolescence would have gone a long way in helping me to understand the character, but perhaps it’s explored in screenwriter Bill Naughton’s novel.
The book and this film were both based on Naughton’s 1963 play called Alfie. On stage, the title role was played by Shakespearean actor John Neville. The film was directed by the British director Lewis Gilbert in the second half of his prolific career. After Alfie, Gilbert was handed the keys to the James Bond franchise, directing three Bond films from 1967 to 1979 (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker).
So if Alfie is a movie that’s primarily concerned with the sexual habits of an insatiable young man, how is it only rated PG? The actual sex acts in the film are handled in the same cheeky way they were done in the Sean Connery Bond pictures. For instance: We see Alfie kissing a woman, he pauses to say something witty to camera, he resumes kissing her and the camera pans up to the sky, leaving the audience to imagine everything.
There’s no nudity and actually very little skin in the picture. In fact, the most flesh the audience sees comes when Caine takes his shirt off while being examined by a doctor. The language used is also far from graphic. When describing the body of Winters’ character, Alfie tells the viewer, “She’s in beautiful condition.” There’s nothing in Alfie that will make an audience blush today but it is remarkable how much sex is crammed into what ultimately feels like a classy picture.
Alfie is a unique, well-made and edgy picture that still holds up 50 years later. Its got laughs, real emotion and some valid points to make about the connections we can either make or ignore in life. But the most fascinating thing about watching this film today isn’t its fourth wall-breaking style or its candid views on sex. It’s seeing a movie legend come into his own before our eyes. With his performance in Alfie, Caine proved he was a true original — and that the English accent wasn’t just for Shakespearean ponces.