ALFIE, the praised and popular comedy drama from Swinging England in 1966, didn’t halt the pheromone march by the armies of promiscuity—anyone remember the 70s, 80s and 90s?—but its piercing jabs of cheek and conscience smacked esteem-bruising black eyes onto some of the smug scouts and skirmishers. Better, it locked in stardom for a charming South London lad named Maurice Micklewhite, better known as Sir Michael Caine.
“What’s it all about, Alfie? / Is it just for the moment we live?”
‘Alfie Elkins’ (Caine) is a cocksure cockney womanizer who juggles multiple “birds” in the hedonistic pursuit of his own selfish wants; misogynist needs that leave a trail of hurt in his wake. Written by Bill Naughton, who adapted his play, directed by Lewis Gilbert, the telling (all from a heel’s point of view) uses Alfie’s frank conceit by having Caine often break the 3rd wall and speak directly at us. It’s an exceptionally smart and confident performance, walking the finest of lines, since the character—deplorable as his viewpoints and actions are—must be affable and engaging enough for us to stomach him and to believe he’d be convincing to those he sleeptalks his way through like so much human Kleenex. *
Even with Caine’s skill, by the last quarter Alfie’s drumbeat of me-for-me philosophy chafes, and there is one definite misstep with a nonsensical pub brawl: more at home in a western, its slapstick handling briefly rips the sharp-edged social satire into crass farce.
Then the last act brings the serious stuff into painful play: Denholm Elliott’s unnerving turn as an abortionist; the misery suffered by his patient ‘Lily Clamacraft’ (Vivien Merchant), the most pitiable of Alfie’s conquests; Alfie’s final twinge of realization. Also working to effect is that the women (Alfie is so dissociated even refers to one of them as “It“) are not standard movie knockout types played by glamorous models, but instead more average, everyday people. This somehow makes their vulnerability and hurt more relatable (not, of course, that the very attractive can’t also be badly wounded). Merchant is particularly telling: others include Millicent Martin, Jane Asher and finally Shelley Winters, who turns the tables on Alfie with her own code of cold ethics.
Done for a relative pittance ($800,000), the exploration of libido as a weapon hit a nerve with the critics and public, who made it the 11th most popular picture of the year, grossing $21,200,000. Oscar nominations went up for Best Picture, Actor (Caine), Supporting Actress (Merchant), Screenplay and Song. Sung by Cher over the credits at the end, the bittersweet number from Burt Bacharach and Hal David became a chart hit.
114 minutes, with Alfie Bass, Graham Stark, Murray Melvin, Julia Foster, Shirley Anne Field, Eleanor Bron, Sydney Taffler. Shirley Bassey can be glimpsed briefly.
* Naughton’s play was first done on radio in 1962 as “Alfie Elkins and his Little Life”. Softened a bit and moved to the stage a year later as simply “Alfie” with John Neville (Terence Stamp then did a brief run in New York). As a movie, Alfie was remade in 2004, with Jude Law, the setting moved to Manhattan.
In faraway 1966, Our Lad Caine was also on screen in Gambit and Funeral in Berlin.