Thursday, May 3, 2012

Alfie (1966) -- Gilbert Lewis

The life of a 1960's playboy in London is on full display in Alfie. Michael Caine is the title character who thinks he has a good thing going, stringing along several women at the same time, making sure to break it off at the first sign a girl is beginning to get serious. A devout hedonist, Alfie's cares are simple: have a good time and avoid responsibility. Were it not for Caine's terrific cajoling performance and his character's brilliant use of breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, we wouldn't like Alfie much. In fact, he's about as callous as it gets when it comes to the feelings of his companions, and rather despicable when you think about it. But somehow we can't quite hate the man. Despite his self-centered nature, we suspect that deep down there's some good that will eventually reveal itself. The film shows him take the first steps to self-awareness, though by the end we aren't really sure how far along that road he has come.  

Michael Caine as Alfie. "What's it all about?"

Director Gilbert Lewis wastes no time cuing us in on Alfie. The film opens with a shot of dogs prowling the night streets, a subtle commentary on Alfie's character. A terrific jazz score featuring tenor sax by Sonny Rollins connotes Alfie's devil-may-care attitude. The camera pans to a parked car. We hear a couple inside, obviously going at it. The tryst is interrupted and Alfie emerges. He spots the camera and begins to talk, making a joke. The well-designed sequence lets you know the story will be told from Alfie's perspective, and you are in on his take.

Women are merely objects. He calls them "birds," even using a dehumanizing "it," when referring to them. This first conquest is Siddie, a married woman who he soon drops because as he explains, she's getting too hot. He tells Siddie to treat her husband well; there's no reason to make anyone unhappy if you can avoid it.

Alfie's next stop is to see Gilda, who he tells us will never be a number 1. She's a sweet girl, but when he learns she's pregnant, he never thinks of marrying her. She gives birth, and perhaps a little surprisingly, Alfie doesn't abandoned the child but begins to display real affection for the first time. It's clear he likes being a dad--at least on the weekend. He walks the baby in the park, brings presents to comfort him when he cries, and later plays with him on the beach. If it could end with this, he'd be happy. However, it's not enough for Gilda. Desperate to give the child a proper, every-day father, she eventually turns to Humphrey, a boring bus conductor. Humphrey loves her and is willing to act serve as the child's father. They will eventually have their own baby, and in the most poignant moment of the film, Alfie watches its baptism in secret, wondering if that is the picture of true happiness. 

Throughout, the script is quite funny, especially for American viewers not used to Cockney slang. Of Gilda, Alfie says she's "lookin' mumsie."

A health scare sends Alfie for some rest at a sanitarium. But even here he can't change his behavior, connecting with a nurse while his roommate, another patient named Harry, and Harry's wife, Lily (Vivien Merchant), sit embarrassed in the next bed. Harry scolds him, "You beast." Later, Alfie shows how rotten he is by seducing Lily. Looking innocently at the camera he says, "Well, what harm can it do? Old Harry will never know. And even if he did, he shouldn't begrudge me - or her, come to that. And it'll round off the tea nicely."

Lily will become pregnant and Alfie pays for an illegal abortion. It's a life-altering event, though Alfie doesn't immediately realize it. In a harrowing sequence Merchant does a great job conveying the pain and humiliation of it all. Alfie justifies his actions: "My understanding of women only goes as far as the pleasure. When it comes to the pain I'm like any other bloke - I don't want to know." But he finally conveys some honest human emotion, crying when he sees the unborn foetus and later lamenting his part in it, confessing to a friend he committed murder.

Alfie in action at the sanitarium.
Chastened, Alfie goes to Ruby, another woman with whom he is carrying on. He tells us she "is in lovely condition." Played wonderfully by Shelley Winters, she knows how to play the game as well as her confident paramour. In the film's best scene, she gives Alfie a taste of his own medicine. Shocked to find another man in her bed, Alfie asks what the man has that he doesn't. "He's younger," she explains simply. A cold slap in the face.  

Caine and Winters.

The film ends where it began, at night along the river. Alfie runs into Siddie, whom he hasn't seen in ages. She rejects his advances, and he gives another soliloquy before walking off with the same dog that appeared at the beginning. Maybe he's learned something after all.

You know what? When I look back on my little life and the birds I've known, and think of all the things they've done for me and the little I've done for them, you'd think I've had the best of it along the line. But what have I got out of it? I've got a bob or two, some decent clothes, a car, I've got me health back and I ain't attached. But I ain't got me peace of mind - and if you ain't got that, you ain't got nothing. I dunno. It seems to me if they ain't got you one way they've got you another. So what's the answer? That's what I keep asking myself - what's it all about? Know what I mean? 

This is a unique film and Caine gives the best performance of his career, snagging an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. It's a shame, but his timing stunk. He had no chance given that year's competition, including Paul Scofield, who won for A Man for All Seasons, and Richard Burton for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Overall the film earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Merchant), Best Music, and Best Writing. Merchant's other memorable film role came in Hitchcock's Frenzy (1973), where she played a police detective's wife, dispensing unsolicited advice while serving godawful dinners.

The familiar title song is by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. In the American release Cher sang, and in the original English release, it was just instrumental. Dionne Warwick scored the big pop hit version. (In the inferior 2004 remake, Mick Jagger performs a terrific closing song, Old Habits Die Hard).

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