It was 50 years ago when audiences were first introduced to the charm and womanizing ways of the character Alfie on the big screen. Adapted from Bill Naughton’s original 1963 play and given a film reboot in the 2000s with Jude Law in the lead, it is Michael Caine’s incarnation in the swinging ’60s film version of Alfie that remains the most compelling and memorable.
Regarded as one of the greatest British films of all time and being the first film to attract a “suggested for mature audiences” classification in the US, which became the current-day PG rating, Alfie follows the colourful life and routine of Alfie Elkins as he chases women (whom he calls ‘birds’ or ‘it’) and juggles them as he deals with a bout of illness, job changes and even short-lived fatherhood. We witness not only his promiscuous habits (which include married and single women; young and old), but also his ungentlemanly behaviour towards them. For example, his fiery temper towards one of his submissive live-in girls, Annie (played by a young and wide-eyed Jane Asher), who washes his clothes, scrubs his floors and bakes him pies, is replete with words which would make today’s feminists’ blood boil.
It’s not only women who bear the brunt of his uncaring ways. An ill husband and hospital bed mate of Alfie unwittingly sends his wife into the lion’s den as he tells her to hitch a ride home with the cockney lothario one afternoon. As the reserved wife and Alfie enjoy a montage of date-like activities on the scenic drive back, the inevitable occurs. Does Alfie feel bad about it? Of course not. Instead, he turns to the camera, shrugs it off and muses that his friend can’t blame him for it.
Despite his callousness, misogyny and sexist ways, it’s difficult not to like Alfie. From the opening scene in which he directly faces the camera and talks to the audience, there is something about that boyish charm which is hard to resist. And the rarely used technique of breaking the fourth wall in film ““ which is used throughout Alfie – works particularly well because of Caine’s obvious appeal. Perhaps known by younger audiences as Alfred the butler in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy or as the “old guy” and usually significant supporting character in blockbusters such as Inception or Interstellar, Caine’s turn here as the young, handsome working class British lad is a treat to watch. By giving the audience an insight into Alfie’s thoughts and justifications – which are often humorous and contrasting with his actions – we do develop a bit of a soft spot for this charismatic yet boorish protagonist. The role, by the way, also garnered Caine his first Oscar nomination.
By the end of the film, after experiencing some jolts of awareness about actions and consequences, Alfie feels almost like a mate, one of those mates we sometimes chastise for their less-than-stellar behaviour. And in the final scene, as he walks along the Thames in 1960s London and questions the point of it all, we do as well ““ what’s it all about? Besides the strong acting in Alfie and the nostalgic appeal of the film, the storyline and themes of sex, love, morality and regret remain fresh, captivating, and thought provoking today ““ making it a film not to be missed.