“Just listen to it. It was dead glum when I met it tonight” Alfie tells us.
“I listened to all its problems, then I got it laughing.” The “it” in question is in fact a woman that our title character has just had it away with. Sure she’s a person and not an object, but Alfie reassures us that she’s as fulfilled from the experience as he is.
“It’ll go home happy.”
Michael Caine plays Alfie, in the same named film, a young and handsome chauffeur who spouts his personal philosophy on how to get the most out of a woman physically and domestically. Caine earned himself the first of 6 career Oscar nominations in Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of Bill Naughton’s book/play in a role where he doesn’t just break the fourth wall, but rather he takes a sledge hammer and a few hundred sticks of dynamite to it, educating us along the way of the inner workings of the female mind and more importantly, how to ensure that those pesky romantic feelings never get in the way of sex.
Alfie crafts his own custom made nihilism as he narrates us through his story, a series of sexual encounters with too readily seduced women. There’s the married Siddie who turns to Alife as a means of reprieve from her mundane marriage, the completely without self respect Gilda who pleas for Alfie to love her as she does him, and the hitchhiker Annie who Alfie all too easily wrangles from the acquaintance who initially picked her up, just to name a few. The cockney chauffeur wears his misogynistic void of respect on his sleeve, and to little consequence, as he reduces the women who brush by the outer bubble of his life to paraphernalia, referring to them rarely by name, but instead as “bird”, “girl” or of course “it”, dismissing them before so much as the breath of attachment can even be sensed.
With its use of a heavily promiscuous central character and its delving into the mentality of swinging 60’s London, the film draws striking affinities to the previous year’s Darling, particularly through Naughton, who adapts his own screenplay, and his use of dramatic irony. Where Darling had Julie Christie’s narration consist of sound bites from an interview, Alfie cuts out the middle man and goes straight to the viewer, through which the lunacy of his behavioural justifications becomes apparent. What delineates this film from its 1965 counterpart however is its use of dramatic irony and character transparency not as a means of indictment, but as a means of exploration. Alfie would have us believe he has it all under control, and as far he’s concerned he does, but how rewarding can a life deliberately void of true relationships possibly be? Gilbert aims to find out, and with the outrageous self assuredness of the protagonist the film not only gets to the heart of its subject, but it also gets its foot in the comedic door, allowing it to find a pitch perfect tone.
Michael Caine brings all the possible charisma and squeezes every conceivable ounce of charm out of his character, a character that has no business being anything other than insufferable, but it must be said that by the time the films moral compass rears its head, and it rears its head beautifully with all the grim, melancholic drama befitting of such a desolate lifestyle, the exploits of Alfie begin to flirt with the tedious. There is a wash, rinse, repeat quality to the characters escapades as the film nears its final act, but that’s not to say the emotional rewards aren’t there in the end, with Gilbert and Naughton making a perfect dramatic transition.
Caine doesn’t just carry the film on his shoulders, he presses it high above his head and powers through the story and combining this with the films fantastic jazzy score which floats from forlorn to fiery and original song which perfectly signposts the film’s final thoughts, it’s not hard to see why Alfie has endured in British cinema. When the film eventually does find its emotional stride it does so to great effect, and while it may test your patience, it is true when they say patience is a virtue.