Alfie (1966): Biting Comedy Starring Oscar-Nominated Michael Caine

Bill Naughton’s “Story of a Cockney Don Juan” has had many incarnations. The text began as a radio play, then made into a stage play, and finally published as a novel. ¬†At its center was a new type of character, Alfie, a swaggering cockney Don Juan who doesn’t know his limitations but is seriously and totally committed to making the most of his own life.

In 1966, scenes of life in swinging London were exciting to observe, but now seem dated, as the rest of the film. The failure of the 2004 remake, starring Jude Law, proves that point. (See review).

After leaving the hospital, due to a mild case of tuberculosis, Alfie (Michael Caine) takes up with Lily (Vivien Merchant), the middle-aged wife of a fellow patient from the hospital. When Lily becomes pregnant, Alfie calls an abortionist so that her husband will never learn of their affair. The off screen operation shakes his morals, however. Alfie’s unexpectedly sensitive reaction when he sees the still- born fetus on the table is the most moving scene in the picture.

The elaborate and broadened screen version necessitates some loss of the play’s implicated pathos, but overall, it’s still effective as an exercise in dramatic irony. Alfie addresses the viewers, narrating the story of his amorous adventures as a weak, endearing, despicable, and amusing man. The sexual encounters are meant to illustrate his character as a cold-hearted sexual hot shot. Alfie uses women shamelessly, but without malice. When they demand commitment or emotional engagement from him, he’s honestly perplexed.

The title character is a charming if mediocre man who fancies himself as a lady-killer. Michael Caine gives a bravura performance as a Cockney sexual predator whose life is finally set in order when he has to deal with a personal crisis. Caine brings out the guts and energy in the dialogue. He makes us feel occasional sympathy for Alfie, when suddenly and belatedly he begins to wonder whether his life as a womanizer was really worthwhile after all.

Among the series of lovers, the most shabbily treated are Gilda (Julie Foster), his pregnant common-law wife, and Lily, a married woman who looks for passion but finds pregnancy and abortion.

Alfie’s extended asides work well on screen due to the combination of Caine’s disarming charm and calculated naivet. Caine delivers a running commentary on his tawdry sexual conquests and petty criminal ambitions. He’s cheerfully oblivious to an audience that knows more about him than he will ever know himself.

The film contains several weak scenes, prominent among which are the gratuitous cinematic bar room brawl, the clumsy witnessing of the christening, and the symbolism of the dog.

“Alfie,” like Mike Nichols’s screen version of Edward Albee’s “Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf” made in the same year, signaled the demise of the old Production Code, Hollywoods standard for self-censorship after three decades of tyranny.

In its time, the film was praised for its sexual frankness and persuasive rendering of Swinging London. However, as noted, both elements seem mild by contemporary standards.

“Alfie” provided a star-making role for Caine, who is excellent as the Cockney Don Juan. In addition to Caine and Merchant, there are half a dozen excellent actresses: Ruby, played by Shelley Winters; Siddie, by Millicent Martin; Annie by Jane Asher; Carla by Shirley Ann Field. Also in the cast are the doctor (Eleanor Bron), the abortionist (Denholm Elliott), and Harry (Alfie Bass).

Oscar nominations: 5

Picture, Lewis Gilbert producer Actor: Michael Caine Supporting Actress: Vivien Merchant Screenplay, based on material from another medium: Bill Naughton Song: “Alfie,” by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David

The Best Picture went to “Man for All Seasons,” which swept the Oscars. Michael Caine lost to that films Paul Scofield and Naughton was beaten by Robert Bolt, who adapted the winning screenplay from his play. The winner of the Oscar Song was John Barry and Don Blacks title tune for “Born Free.”

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