by David Cornelius
Without Michael Caine, I doubt if Lewis Gilbert’s “Alfie” would work at all. The film’s success is tied to the character, and the character’s success is tied to the performance, and all three rely on a youthful bravado, an unchecked sexual swagger that winks and grins at us even as it’s breaking our hearts. This is what Caine brings to the character and to the movie, and the result is a film that knocks us out.It was Caine’s first screen performance, and what a way to introduce yourself to the world. Here’s a chap who can get away with (almost) anything, no matter how devilish his intentions, how selfish his deeds. We’re captivated by his charms despite ourselves. Caine does such a flawless job in the role that he alone makes the film.
"What's it all about?"
Adapted from the play by Bill Naughton (who also wrote the screenplay), “Alfie” is the deceptively simple tale of a swinging Londoner who can’t get enough of those beautiful birds. It’s an episodic venture through the many romances of a swindling womanizer happily stuck in the middle of the sexual revolution. Alfie comes across like a nice bloke, until we start to pay more attention to his monologues. That’s when we realize that he is selfishness personified. He’s a man too detached from reality, too caught up in his own world of sexual amusement that he forcefully cuts himself off from the feelings of others.
Consider the early scenes, concerning Gilda (Julia Foster), Alfie’s “on the side” girlfriend. Gilda, according to Alfie, is nothing but a second-tier gal, a fallback for times when no other dates are eligible. He claims she knows this fact and is content with it; the first may be true, the second clearly is not. And yet this lie is how he manages his emotions, keeps himself from feeling rotten for all the rotten things he does.
Alfie’s imposed distance seeps into his dialogue: a teary Gilda asks, “Alfie, do you love me?” To which Alfie replies, quite callously, “If it’s all the same, I like you very much.”
Or, noticing a circled date on a calendar, he and Glenda begin a light talk about the missed arrival of “our special friend.” This is not a euphemism for the censors’ sake (especially considering what language is soon to follow), but for the characters’. Mere sex pals, they’re not comfortable enough with each other on a more emotional level to be more honest in their language, and so they skirt reality through playful language - if we don’t say what it is, it might not actually be true.
Ah, but it is, and surprisingly, Alfie finds himself quite comfortable in the role of father. But is he comfortable in the role of husband? No, that would mean facing reality, and so, when Gilda mentions a marriage proposal from a rival suitor, Alfie uses it as a chance to put the blame on her, walking out forever.
This alone would be enough for most movies, but not here, which merely uses this situation to set up Alfie’s lifestyle. Love ’em, leave ’em, don’t look back. He even takes to calling his girlfriends “it” in his monologues, as if dehumanizing them will make his runaway attitude acceptable to us.
And yet, despite all this, even after he’s slept with a friend’s wife, even after he’s stolen another’s girl only to dump her later, we still can’t resist Alfie’s charms. Between the crackling dialogue and Caine’s electric performance, this is a character that seduces us as effortlessly as he seduces the ladies. And that’s how the film manages to break our hearts later on; had we not cared for Alfie, had we been put off by his wicked ways, had we dismissed him as just some jerk not worth watching, we’d see the nasty events of the final act as “well, good, he got what was coming to him.”
He does get what’s coming to him, that’s for sure, but we cry along with him anyway. Here’s a guy who’s learning his lesson one bird too late. When everything crashes around him, we’re not happy to see just desserts delivered. We’re instead happy to see this young man finally begin to grow, to understand the world and his place in it. When Alfie laments that he “ain’t got peace of mind,” we smile through our tears, hoping that maybe, just maybe, he’s on his way to finding some.Alfie’s final question was made famous by the hit song, penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung in the film by Cher, that plays over the movie’s closing credits. And while Sonny Rollins’ marvelous jazzy score underlines the film, Bacharach and David’s song puts a punctuation mark on it, asking us, “What’s it all about?” That’s the question we all ask, but for Alfie, he’s asking it a little bit more. “Alfie” is considered quintessential Brit-mod cinema, a prime product of its era, but it is more that that. It’s the tragedy of a man, one that’s just as timely, as moving, as profound decades after the sexual revolution as it was during it.
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originally posted: 03/12/05 18:17:19