Michael Caine excels as amoral cockney moralist lothario Alfie
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Cast: Michael Caine (Alfie), Shelley Winters (Ruby), Millicent Martin (Siddie), Julia Foster (Gilda), Jane Asher (Annie), Shirley Anne Field (Carla), Vivien Merchant (Lily), Eleanor Bron (Doctor), Denholm Elliott (Abortionist), Alfie Bass (Harry), Murray Melvin (Nat)
Is there a more “swinging Sixties” film than Alfie – the story of a cockney wideboy interested only in “birds” and having a good time? On the surface it captures the attitude of the 1960s, with free love, thumbing your nose at authority, and having the sort of fun the wartime generation frowned on. But it’s a more interesting film than this, which criticises the emptiness of the 1960s by showing us Alfie’s selfishness and loneliness. Sure he has a good time now and again – but would anyone really want to live like this forever?
Alfie (Michael Caine) is a handsome chauffeur with a never-ending stream of affairs, commitment constantly avoided. The film follows these entanglements, starting with his needy girlfriend Gilda (Julia Foster), the mother of his child, whom he constantly cheats on. When Gilda finally leaves him – and Alfie loses touch with the son he has become fond of – a medical condition ends up with him in a convalescent home, where his affairs include the wife of a fellow patient, Lily (Vivien Merchant). Later relationships with a young hitchhiker (Jane Asher) and a rich American woman (Shelley Winters) similarly lead to disappointment.
The main thing that makes Alfie last (possibly the only thing) is Michael Caine’s sublime performance. Caine is on screen the whole time, and the film is spotted throughout with his casual direct-to-camera addresses. Caine’s charm and likeability work perfectly for this device, winning the audience over. But Caine never falls for Alfie – even if many audience members clearly did. Caine’s constantly demonstrates Alfie’s hypocrisy, shallowness, meanness and selfishness. Sure he recounts his actions with wit, but most of these actions are extremely shitty. But right from the start there is a charismatic, lothario swagger to him - and a cheeky charm - that makes you like him.
But his general shittiness is more obvious today than back in the 1960s. Then the amount of sex probably shocked viewers the most. Today it’s Alfie’s inability in to refer to women as anything but “it”, like some smooth Richard Keys. His attitude to women is appalling – he describes Jane Asher’s hitchhiker like some sort of floor-cleaning, bed-sharing car. Alfie avoids any sort of emotional connection at all with his conquests, and the film makes clear that this has left him empty and lonely, feelings he buries deep down.
In fact, the film is most telling at the moments when Alfie doesn’t turn to us with that confident grin and place a self-serving spin on what just happened. Seeing his son being warmly embraced by Gilda’s new husband (at the christening of their new child), Alfie can only skulk quietly at the back of the church – as scared to meet our eyes as he is those of this family he could have had. His love for his son is something Alfie refuses to accept himself – but his feelings are all too clear at his physical collapse on losing access to his child, and his later tear-stained reaction to Lily’s abortion.
Ah yes the abortion scene. Probably the highlight of the film – if only because its intense seriousness is so different from the rest of the film, and Alfie’s wheedling weakness and whiny self-justification become all the clearer. His complete lack of principle in sleeping with his only friend’s wife (“Well what harm can it do?”) of course results in her pregnancy. And Alfie is all at sea, firstly with Vivien Merchant’s expert portrayal of distress, pain, shame and guilt as Lily – and with Denholm Elliot’s perfect cameo of grimy, resentful disillusionment as a struck-off doctor turned back-street abortionist. Just to bang the nail on the head, Alfie leaves Lily alone after the operation (telling the audience that there’s nothing he can do anyway, right?). He may be horrified later at what he has done, and may feel moments of empathy – but has he really learned anything?
The film is full of these moments where we are invited to understand that Alfie is not leading a life for us to aspire to, but one we need to avoid. It’s left Alfie alone, miserable and abandoned. For all the jaunty 1960s vibe, and Alfie’s charming cheek, he’s not a happy man but a desperately shallow one. And he’s even got a shelf life for this way of life: “He’s younger than you are” one of his lovers tells him late in the film, as she leaves him. Because what has Alfie got in his life? When he runs through a checklist in the film’s closing monologue (“a bob or two, some decent clothes, a car. I’ve got my health back and I ain’t attached. But I ain’t got my peace of mind”) the emptiness of his life is all too clear.
Caine’s brilliance is to make this tragic, empty, selfish man seem attractive and exciting – while also never losing sight of what a complete shit he is. It’s a great performance and he dominates the entire film. He plugs perfectly into the hip, light touch that Lewis Gilbert directs the film with, and the entire film has a layer of cool on it that works rather well. What makes the film last today though is its shrewd analysis of the empty, soulless, coldness that underpins living your life like this – and how the sort of shallow, no consequences, no emotional investment bouncing around Alfie has just leaves you alone and growing old.
“What’s it all about?” You can argue the answers are buried in this film – but Alfie never spots them.