Alfie (1966): Michael Caine and the meaning of life

by Paul Batters

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‘I don’t know, it seems to me that 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?’ Alfie (Michael Caine) in Alfie

To declare that Michael Caine is a cinema icon is an understatement. For over six decades, he has graced our screens in a myriad of roles and has been unafraid to tackle characters that others would have not dared touch. And he has certainly not slowed down. Still seeking challenges and refusing to believe that age is a determinant for ambition, Michael Caine is very active and has stated that retirement is simply not an option.

It has been quite some years since Caine appeared in his breakout role in Alfie (1966) but it is easy to see why it made him a star. As the Cockney Lothario who charms his way through a bevy of women, Caine found himself a major star upon the film’s release. Caine himself stated that he never imagined Alfie would be anything other than a British film for British audiences that would do modest business. But this started to change during filming, with Caine pointing that despite initial doubts, mainly about himself, the feeling soon developed that ‘maybe we got something here’. For Caine, his realisation that they ‘might be on a winner’ was when he heard the laughter from those watching the rushes.

Quite a number of reviewers and critics have stated that Alfie is a timeless classic, and this reviewer certainly agrees. It is more than the story of a self-centred Cockney charmer who leads a hedonistic and selfish lifestyle. It is also more than a walk-through London in the Swinging Sixties. Alfie poses questions and challenges for audiences to ponder – today as much as it did in the 1960s.

Despite its’ reputation, Alfie is not a film which celebrates hedonism or sexual exploitation; nor does it set the main character up as a hero to be worshipped. On the surface, Alfie is a character who uses his charm, charisma and good looks to seduce women and use them in every way he can for his own pleasures. They cook his food, wash his clothes and of course provide him with plenty of sex. And certainly, there was something enticing about the character’s swinging lifestyle, humour and intriguing nature that made the film a hit. As biographer William Hall has noted, ‘Women adored the hooded gaze, the slightly mocking approach, the deadpan throwaway lines. Men in their turn had a sneaking admiration for the self-made cavalier, raunchy, honest to a fault with himself, unashamed of his own rough edges and totally his own master’.

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Yet despite this, Alfie’s character arc shows a man who does not have it all. A feminist critique could offer plenty in terms of the male gaze of back-slapping admiration of a man bedding many women, fitting the sexual fantasy of partners-a-plenty. But the film questions whether this is admirable. Indeed, Alfie is a condemnation of that very sentiment, with Michael Caine himself describing Alfie as a ‘no-good layabout’ and a despicable individual.

What makes Alfie work is its’ incredible authenticity, which gives the film its’ lasting strength. There’s no pretence to Alfie and the brutal honesty of the character removes any possibility of superficiality. This is achieved from the very opening scene of the film, when we are introduced to the main character by Alfie himself. Breaking the fourth wall, Alfie narrates in real time and tells his story as it happens, complete with his deepest insights, observations and philosophical interpretation. Alfie’s intimacy with the audience is a fundamental factor in the film’s magic – he speaks to us as individuals rather than a whole group or crowd. It’s highly personal, intensely intimate and thus honest (at least to a point). The audience becomes Alfie’s ‘confessor’ and at times it feels like we become his ‘best mate’. Yet Alfie could just as well be speaking to a mirror of himself, seeking to justify his thoughts, feelings and actions, and therefore bouncing his thoughts around to try and gain some perspective.

Alfie’s philosophy of life and his ideas on women become obvious immediately. The audience first discovers that Alfie is having an affair with a married woman named Siddie (Millicent Martin) whom he objectifies by calling her ‘it’, which is perhaps one of the most offensive aspects of his behaviour. Yet his objectification of women is also Alfie’s armour against intimacy and deeper emotion. After dropping Siddie off at a train station, he goes to see Gilda (Julia Foster) who is deeply in love with Alfie and very much in need of more than what he gives her. She pushes away a kind and gentle bus conductor named Humphrey (Graham Stark) who loves her as a result. Like all the other women he uses, Gilda is also objectified and treated miserably. But Alfie simply states that a woman can be quite happy ‘if she knows her place’.

Yet Alfie’s relationship with Gilda is about to change when he discovers that she is pregnant. It is an unwanted complication to his easy-going life, and he makes this clear as he gives the audience a run-down of the many women he is regularly seeing and having sex with whilst also seeing Gilda. He tries to break it off as well as convince Gilda to give the child away but to her credit she wants to keep the child. The eventual birth of a baby boy sees something happen in Alfie, which he admits has broken through his armour and will haunt him throughout the film. He becomes attached to the boy named Malcolm, even though he still objectifies Malcolm’s mother. Alfie explains that any ‘bird’ can be replaced but a child is special and individual. Yet he is not beyond disowning Malcolm as ‘my sister’s (child)’ when picking up a woman in the park.

His attachment to Malcolm will also not prevent him walking out on Gilda and his son, when the challenge to the status quo arises. Humphrey has been calling on Gilda and declares he loves both her and the boy. It becomes a line in the sand which Alfie refuses to cross and reveals Alfie’s despicable nature when he says to Gilda, ‘I don’t know what love is the way you birds go on about it’. Neither does he care about or want Gilda’s respect, to which Alfie declares ‘I don’t want no bird’s respect, I wouldn’t know what to do with it’. For Alfie a woman is present to serve his base needs and nothing else. It’s a terrible indictment of the emptiness and emotional void underneath Alfie’s charm and charisma. Alfie’s abandoning Gilda, however, will not ease his problems and his peace of mind will not be eased either.

A moment of vulnerability highlights the fragility of Alfie’s sense of self when he discovers he has tuberculosis and has a mental collapse. The scene in which he discovers he is sick is also underscored by his leaving Gilda and her refusal to take him back but more so by losing the relationship with his son, Malcolm. The lead-up to discovering he has ‘shadows on his lungs’ is brilliant and the interplay between the doctor (Eleanor Bron) and Alfie is an incredible and masterful display of dialogue from Caine. It is a combination of humour and tragedy in the best traditions of Greek drama and certainly highlights the absurd parallels of both running alongside each other.

While convalescing though, Alfie pulls himself back together and returns to form in his seducing of his nurse Carla (Shirley Anne Field) much to the horror of his fellow patient Harry (Alfie Bass) and his wife Lily (Vivien Merchant). Alfie tries to impart his cynical philosophy on Harry via a cruel hypothetical scenario of Harry dying and his wife and kids forgetting him. Naturally, Harry becomes deeply upset and his usual kind and humble demeanour breaks into a violent attack on Alfie, which is quickly subdued due to his illness. It is a poignant moment which highlights the damage that Alfie inflicts along the way:

Perhaps the most appalling act Alfie carries out is the seduction of Harry’s sheltered and loving wife, Lily. Taking advantage of her loneliness and vulnerability, Alfie exploits her and adds that ‘it will round off the tea nicely’. His unthinking cruelty is also revealed in his blunt assessment of Lily’s sexual experience (or lack thereof) after he seduces her. Lily woundedly replies that she has never been with anyone but Harry, her husband and the audience cannot help but feel dismal towards Alfie.

Alfie certainly is a predator, using his guile as well as his charm to entice women into his world. Whilst some of his partners are willing and seeking a good time, others are exploited in their vulnerability like Lily, as well as a young girl from up north named Annie (Jane Asher) whom he picks up at a truck stop. Assessing that she is running away from a failed relationship back home, Alfie uses his wiles to manipulate Annie and she ends up not only as a domestic servant but a sexual object for his satisfaction. Reading her diary and picking up her sadness from the songs she listens to, Alfie states that ‘it punishes itself’ by washing, cooking and cleaning’ (and giving her body for sex) which Alfie happily obliges to his advantage.

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But again, Alfie’s vulnerability will be tested when he also begins a relationship with an older American woman named Ruby (Shelley Winters) whom he seems to respect because ‘she knows what she wants and she’s gonna get it’. Despite claiming he could easily settle down with Ruby, he still objectifies her, repeating ‘she’s in beautiful condition’, as if she’s a car with a great chassis and a good motor running.

Yet the most controversial moment of the film (in the context of the 1960s) is the abortion scene where Lily comes to Alfie’s flat, pregnant and ready to meet a pre-arranged abortionist (Denholm Elliott). Even at this point, he accepts no responsibility and calls her a ‘fallen woman’ and that he is just ‘trying to help a friend’. Alfie makes the honest assessment, though deflecting it as being male, that like ‘all men’ he only wants the pleasure and no part of the pain. Yet when Alfie sees the aborted foetus, the mask drops and he breaks down in tears, fleeing his flat. Distraught, he realises the enormity of what has happened to the one friend that the audience sees he has, admitting his selfishness: “I was crying for my bleeding self”. Again, it’s hard evidence that Alfie damages those he is involved with.

The trauma of the abortion, combined with Annie finally leaving him after he drives her away, finds Alfie driven to seeking deeper meaning in his life and he decides to ask Ruby to marry him. Yet for once, Alfie will be the one used and deeply wounded. The one woman Alfie claims to respect and love is also in bed with another man when he arrives to see her. Ruby tells Alfie that he’s too old – a cruel rejection which Alfie can do nothing about. It is the turning point of the film which leaves Alfie reaping what he has sown, in a twist of dramatic irony that is all too obvious to him as well as the audience.

The final scene sees him standing near when where the audience saw him at the start. Incidentally, he sees Siddie but she has no interest in him, seemingly after he has let her down. It is a strong revelation that change has occurred for all the characters and those that have crossed paths with Alfie end up the worse for it. Though scarred by him, they become emboldened to do something about their lives – while Alfie remains trapped in his limited world. Gilda discovers her self-respect and finds happiness with Humphrey. From her awful pain grows a demand for respect in their relationship and the realisation that she deserves more than what Alfie is offering. Annie eventually leaves with a quiet dignity well beyond her years. Harry is cuckolded and Lily forced to have an abortion. Even Siddie loses respect for him and decides to invest her time and emotions into her husband.

Indeed, there are many others that Alfie has let down and the audience witnesses their feelings towards him. The waitress at the truck stop seems to be pleased that he may get into trouble after she has also been stood up. The driver he steals Annie from eventually physically attacks Alfie. Gilda certainly loses respect for him and it is doubtful if Annie ever respected him at all. Two acquaintances are able to easily exploit his fragile ego, which do not suggest friendship of any sort. Even the crowd that cheer him at the truck stop, are cheering his sexual exploits but is this something that suggest an honourable man? Ultimately, Alfie is a man without honour, whose words and actions reflect a selfish, self-centred and irresponsible man without any concern for the impacts of his actions on others.

Worse still, Alfie is ultimately a lonely man trying to fill a void which has been consciously or inadvertently created by himself. He seems to have only one friend, who is also a Cockney con-artist. At the end of the film, the void is worse than ever and Alfie is left alone and despondent, a victim of his own personal philosophy on life. It is not a case of ‘karma’ finally getting him but that Alfie’s own choices have led him to this point. There is no fulfilment in his life and Alfie makes the point that one would think he’s had the best of it and come out in front because he has taken so much from others and given little or nothing in return. Yet, he does not have peace of mind. And his final question ‘what’s it all about?’, muttered by Alfie as he pets a lonely stray dog, may suggest that perhaps he has learned something and could transform himself, after all.

Alfie is a film which succeeds because it’s an incredibly well-crafted film and deceptively so. Director and producer Lewis Gilbert crafts a story where we alternate between liking a loveable rogue yet seeing a cad at the same time. The dialogue is tight and natural, driving the story along without pretension. The supporting cast is incredibly strong and even though the likes of Shelley Winters and Denholm Elliott play small roles, they are crucial ones and their impact is central to the story. Caine in his autobiography believes that Elliot acted him off the screen and gave high praise to the now deceased actor.

The outstanding score was provided by jazz legend Sonny Rollins and Caine would also state that he became a jazz fan as a result. Rollins’ depth and sensitivity underscores key moments in the film, which give the story a deeper impact. And of course, the title track written by Burt Bacharach, would be sung by Cilla Black to promote the film in England and by Cher for the U.S release. Personally, I am not a huge fan of Cher but she delivers a knock-out performance.

But ultimately, the film belongs to Michael Caine and his turn as Alfie is an incredible feat of acting. There is such impressive balance in his performance that the audience is torn between loving Alfie and wanting to knock his block off. The delivery of the dialogue is done with amazing precision, finesse and talent, and with such natural feeling. Caine has to work between the action on the screen and the personal asides to the camera, which he achieves with amazing fluidity, allowing the audience to slip in between effortlessly. It is an incredibly far more demanding role than what it may seem and Caine delivers such a natural performance that it is easy to forget this. As a result, it is the perfect evidence of a strong actor who can draw us into the journey.  Caine would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, which he would not win. Yet his turn as Alfie is an Oscar-winning performance and it should go down as ‘one that got away’.

Alfie is a far more layered film than it may initially appear, and whilst often humorous, it does challenge the nature of human selfishness and individual desire, hedonism and the concept of what happiness truly means. Ultimately, we are all challenged to contemplate our own roles in our personal relationships and life journey. Like Alfie, we find ourselves reflecting on our lives and asking ‘what it’s all about’?

 

This review of Alfie (1966) has been submitted to the The Second Marvellous Michael Caine Blogathon kindly hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews. Thank you so much for hosting and allowing me to be part of this great blogathon! Please click on the link to read the other great entries on the wonderful Michael Caine.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

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