Sunday 28 November 2010

From the archive: "Alfie"

In some ways, Alfie was a curious film to have emerged from 1960s London: a case study masquerading as a swinging caper, with a rich, deep core of human sadness and misery beneath its jazzy score. On the surface, it's a bedroom romp about a Cockney wideboy, not so far removed from the Confessions... films to come; but pull back the covers even just a little, and what we see is pure kitchen sink: an unsparing critique of masculinity at its most self-centred and macho, and a drama that can only wind up with a visit from the backstreet abortionist in a grotty room at the top. The nominal hero Alfie Elkins (Michael Caine) is a dead-eyed chauvinist in a rugby-club blazer and tie, schmoozing any woman he wants into bed with false promises, then using emotional manipulation to get out of any subsequent commitments.

Alfie opens the film enjoying a cushy little number with nice-but-dim Gilda (Julia Foster), who bears his child, but then spends the rest of the first half behaving horrendously towards her, and the second half stomping all over a series of other women's hopes and dreams like some priapic Godzilla. Lewis Gilbert, doing a fine job of opening out the original stage play, directs gentle rhythms and a London-in-summertime vibe into it, but as a film, it could hardly be any chillier or unpredictable, its very syntax used to recount lurid or cruel jokes: take the brutal cut from Alfie, in his chauffeur's get-up, telling hitchhiker Jane Asher "you'll have a great little life with me" to the shot of Asher on her knees, scrubbing the floor of her man's squalid bachelor pad.

Just as his flatmate Terence Stamp went off to work with Pasolini during this period, so too Caine was showing signs of wanting to challenge himself: those raised on the actor's sloppy 70s and 80s work may be surprised by just how good he is here as a control freak ("I always weight 12 stone six") with an infuriating habit of referring to the opposite sex as "it". This is a performance that has to mislead the audience, much as Alfie misleads his conquests: by keeping up a show of bravado, even as he's being poked and prodded by a lady doctor (a young Eleanor Bron) who diagnoses Alfie with clouds around his lungs (and not, surprisingly, his heart) we're led into believing this will be the usual tale of the invincible who realises he's mortal. Except that Alfie never learns a thing, which is why he ends up with only questions ("What's it all about?") back where he started, running with the dogs. Pro-choice and wise to the hypocrisies of philanderers, this may be the most feminist-seeming movie ever made by men: it didn't need remaking by Charles Shyer with Jude Law, because it had already been remade by Catherine Breillat with Rocco Siffredi.

(April 2008)

Alfie screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 1.40am.

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