[box cover]


Here, of course, is the film that hammered home Michael Caine's standing as an actor who — after some recognition in successes such as Zulu ('64) and The Ipcress File ('65) — just might go somewhere in this crazy business. This 1966 British character study is sold as a comedy, a term given a broad brush in this cynical, poignant, and melancholy story. Caine plays Alfie Elkins — selfish rogue, Cockney cad, amoral rake, manipulative womanizer, self-justifying player to whom bedding and mistreating women is as second nature as breathing. He goes through "birds" the way the rest of us consume fast food. While he needs their affection and attention, he treats each woman as a disposable commodity. Any problems that arise along the way just aren't his fault. By referring to a lover as "it" rather than "she," he remains willfully detached from adult emotional intimacy and the responsibility that requires. Therefore he's also an isolated working-class bloke stuck in that lost-soul stage between arrested adolescence and responsible, self-aware adulthood.

What makes it work is charismatic Caine (now Sir Michael) and the witty, intelligent script. Both work together to keep this remorseless bastard who uses and hurts women from being completely unlikable or unsympathetic. Granted, the writer and director stack the deck with some scenes that deliberately play up Alfie's hidden "sensitive" side — his affection for his out-of-wedlock son, for instance, or his attention to a fellow patient in a sanitorium. Still, Alfie reminds us what a potent yet understated actor Caine was and (now and then) still is, a fact sometimes washed out by his appearances in films that don't allow him to work up enough of his talent. Watching him here, though, you really get a feel for the strength of those actors of Britain's "angry young men" generation who rose to stardom in the kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s.

Among the women we see come and go, standouts include Julia Foster as Alfie's simple "standby," Gilda; Shelley Winters as the older woman who turns the tables; and Jane Asher (Paul McCartney's steady at the time) as a doormat who loves Alfie but not to the point of sacrificing herself to his insensitive loutishness. The most laudable, though, is Vivien Merchant as the plain housewife Lily, who has the most to lose (and does) from her involvement with his callow gamesmanship. It's from their devastating scene near the end that both characters are forced to grow up whether or not they want to or are ready for it. Confronted with the awareness of his own aging and emptiness, Alfie begins to question famously, "What's it all about?" No sequel came after to tell us how Alfie answers the question, and that's one of several things to like about what we have here.

Alfie was based on a stage play by Bill Naughton, who also wrote the screenplay. (Caine had auditioned for and lost the stage version.) That theatrical heredity shows through in our detached yet close-in view into Alfie's life, and in how he breaks the "fourth wall" and speaks to us, his audience/confessors/pals, eye to eye. It's a conceit later employed by Woody Allen and others. Alfie was directed by Lewis Gilbert (Educating Rita, assorted Bond films) with carefully aloof intimacy. Also noteworthy are the fine jazz score by Sonny Rollins and the famous title song performed by Cher at the end. Alfie was nominated for several Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Caine), Best Supporting Actress (Merchant), and Best (Adapted) Screenplay. It won the Golden Globe for Best English-Language Foreign Film, and the Special Jury Award at Cannes.

*          *          *

Paramount's simply basic DVD offers a clean, vivid image (2.35:1, anamorphic) with audio options of Dolby Digital 5.1 or the original mono (DD 2.0). Keep-case.
—Mark Bourne

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