Sunday, February 22, 2015

What's It All About?

Film: Alfie
Format: Streaming video from Hoopla Digital on The Nook.

Michael Caine makes some bad choices with the movies he picks. How else do you explain his missing picking up his first Oscar because he was on the set of Jaws: The Revenge? It seems like there’s never been a script that Caine has turned down. Fortunately for his career and for those of us who watch films, Caine also makes a lot of really good choices. Alfie is one of his really good choices.

Alfie has a plot, but it is more a character study than anything else. Our time is spent with the eponymous Alfie Elkins (Caine), who is such a ladies man that James Bond takes lessons from him. As the film starts, Alfie has just finished having sex with a married woman in his car. He confides to the audience that he’s going to stop seeing this particular woman because she’s getting too dependent on him, predicting (rightly) that she’ll want him to meet her husband next. We’re then given a quick tour of all of Alfie’s current partners—neither the film nor Alfie himself would dare call them love interests.

One of these women is Gilda (Julia Foster), who is emotionally dependent on Alfie, who is really just using her for sex. Meanwhile, a bus conductor named Humphrey (Graham Stark) has been pining after Gilda for ages. Gilda finds herself pregnant and decides to go through with the pregnancy, initially with the plan of putting the child up for adoption. She doesn’t though, and Alfie starts spending weekends with Gilda and their child. Fast forward a couple of years and Gilda has decided she doesn’t like the arrangement and agrees to marry Humphrey, cutting Alfie out of the picture entirely.

This coincides with Alfie discovering that he is mildly tubercular, which sends him off to a hospital to convalesce. This scare, while initially causing a minor panic attack, doesn’t change Alfie in the slightest. In fact, shortly after his release, he seduces Lily Clamacraft (Vivien Merchant), the wife of his hospital roommate, and unknowingly gets her pregnant in the bargain. Around this same time, Alfie takes up with Annie (Jane Asher), a hitchhiker he picks up while on his way back to London.

And then, everything goes to hell pretty much at the same time. Lily, since the baby can only be Alfie’s and not her husband’s, has an abortion, something that affects Alfie far more than he would have believed. Feeling smothered by Annie, he kicks her out of his apartment and immediately regrets it, but that ship has sailed. He’d been carrying on with Ruby (Shelley Winters) an American ex-patriate who is openly sexual and who Alfie would like to settle down with eventually. But here, Alfie’s own modus operandi comes back to bite him.

So what’s the film about? Alfie more or less grows up and discovers that the world can’t always be him just using women. It’s possible that by the end he has learned something, or at least sobered up a little bit. It’s also possible that he’ll simply remain like he is, getting more and more confused with the world around him changing and him staying the same except for getting older. But the events of the third act shake him greatly, and it’s those events that are the core of what the film is really about. Alfie spends almost the entire film in a state of arrested development, and by the end, there’s the possibility that he’ll grow out of it.

When I say that Alfie uses women, I mean that in exactly the sense it implies. Throughout his speaking in the film he rarely (if ever) refers to women with a feminine pronoun, preferring to call them “it” instead of “her” or “she.” It’s difficult to determine exactly how we are supposed to take him as the audience. I think we’re supposed to like Alfie, and in some sense we do. He’s a rogue, but a lovable rogue and harmless except for when he’s really not. We can’t even think that he means well. But there’s a charm to him that’s impossible to deny.

The biggest conceit of Alfie is that Michael Caine spends a great deal of the film speaking directly to the audience. This happens not merely in passing or in voiceover, but throughout the film, including many scenes in which Alfie is interacting with others. No one notices when Alfie speaks to the camera—it’s handled almost as an internal monologue or as if Alfie were narrating something previously filmed. It sounds also like it wouldn’t work, but it does. Again, much of the reason it does work is because Caine pulls off the role so well.

But is it good? Actually, it really is. This is how to do a film with a lot of sex (or at least implied sex) and make it entertaining without it becoming cheap or sleazy. Oh, it’s plenty tawdry in places, but it’s never dirty. It’s also quite funny in spots, again, without being cheap.

Ultimately, Alfie works because it’s a smart film, well written and with solid performances, particularly from Caine. I can’t speak to the remake, but the original is worth your time.

Why to watch Alfie: This is how you make a classy sex comedy.
Why not to watch: If you hate fourth-wall breaks, you’ll quickly go insane.


  1. Replies
    1. I think it's impossible to make your living doing impressions in any way and not do Michael Caine saying, "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!"

  2. This movie started a life-time love affair with Michael Caine for better or for worse. One disappointment when I revisited it on DVD was that the version lacked the great theme song, I presume for rights reasons. Did yours have it?

    1. Sure did--over the closing credits.

      There are worse people you could have a love affair with than Michael Caine.

  3. Interesting. I found this one kind of boring. I agree Caine does a good job, but it was a story that I just had little interest in. I freely admit that the fact I had seen the Jude law remake less than a year before seeing this film probably lessened its appeal for me. For what it's worth, I wouldn't consider the remake worth watching, either.

    1. My impression of the remake is that it wasn't really worth much, so I was never really that interested in it. I do like Michael Caine, though, which gave me an additional reason to watch the original.