Am currently enjoying Michael Caine’s autobiography, What’s it all About? This has inspired me to catch up with some of his back catalogue. Alfie, along with The Ipcress File released shortly before, was part of the one-two punch that made Caine a star. He’d already been in the hugely successful, Zulu in which he played an officer (i.e. posh) but in these two films he was given an opportunity to deliver lines in his own accent, especially so in Alfie, thus cementing both his reputation and his screen persona.
Alfie is a funny old film. (That’s funny peculiar.) I had expected it to be dated but not anticipated it being so inherently nasty. The character of Alfie is not just a womaniser he’s a real scumbag. We follow him jollying around
from woman to woman, taking some diabolical liberties like, for example, sleeping with an ill friend’s wife. No sooner are said women in bed with him than they are often down on their hands and knees scrubbing his floors or making his tea. Not only that, he breezily insults them, often referring to the females in question as “it”. The insults are directed at them and to the audience. I suspected the device of talking directly to camera, breaking the all-important fourth wall might be a bit naff and theatrical, but it’s not. It works fantastically, lending humour, drama and pathos to all the necessary parts. London
It takes an American, in the shape of brassy Shelley Winters, to put Alfie in his place. (This clearly didn’t harm the film’s wild success in the
.) Her killer brush-off redeems the film entirely and Alfie doesn’t get away with it all completely. There’s a very unpleasant scene with a creepy Denholm Elliott playing an illegal abortionist, and he loses his son to a kinder soul, happy to raise him with one of the women that he used and cast away. These are just some of the events that prompt him to reflect, “what’s it all about it?” (Cue the music…) US
The film is directed by Lewis Gilbert, who went on to direct two of my favourite Bonds: You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. The film shows he’s very capable of producing world class entertainment. It is rich in colour and texture and doesn’t, as is often the case with British cinema, look like TV. Caine lights up the screen and makes a deeply unpleasant character not exactly sympathetic but very watchable. Joining the barbecue of stardom at a not-exactly-young 33 years, he relishes the role with a cocksure swagger, as if he knows he has most certainly arrived.