Lewis Gilbert directs Michael Caine, Shelley Winters and Jane Asher in this British classic where a ‘Jack the lad’ begins to consider the emotional and existential destruction his treatment of many women leaves in his playboy wake.
“Are you all settled in? Right, then we can begin. My name is…”
“My understanding of women goes only so far as the pleasures.”
“But I ain’t got me peace of mind – and if you ain’t got that, you ain’t got nothing. I dunno.”
“Everyone’s entitled to secret thoughts!”
Alfie kind of became a kitsch item in spite of itself. I came to it, and loved it instantly, at the height of Britpop. It clearly influenced the looks and styles of artier pop outfits of my era like Blur, The Divine Comedy and Menswear and was a laddish nostalgic touchstone for that decade’s men’s magazines and programming presented by Chris Evans. The jazzy Sonny Rollins score that paces about like a stray dog sniffing around the posh hounds, the unreconstructed confidence, the slightly unrefined celebration of the finer things and the “cheeky” sexism seemed so vibrant at the time. It felt like 1966 and 1996 shared a nexus point in time and the fashions and attitudes seemed conjoined in a way that meant the three decades inbetween never happened. Chiming with marketing events like Cool Britannia and teeing up the slight more cartoonish rougher male attitudes of Zoo, Loaded, Nuts etcetera. There was something classier and more thought through about Alfie’s mode of gender stereotyping than just boys will boys, suits and shooters, and check out this airbrushed cleavage.
I understand why feminists hate the film, the language, the misogyny, not all of it casual or self aware. But I do feel the movie gets an overly bad rep. For we are seeing Alfie through the eyes and sometimes contradictory direct to camera monologues of a working class boy done good. He treats women as disposable and is only really interested in one thing – representing all us men whether we use tailored three pieces, flash cars, wit, kindness or virtue signalling as our way to entice the fairer sex. The original release was marketed with this tag line “Is every man an Alfie? Ask any girl!” Most of us grow out of this, evolve, but to say the attitude towards women Alfie represents has disappeared or is some musty museum piece will be laughable to most women.
There’s a transgressive quaintness about his sexism – birds, it, mumsy – but these words are chosen not just for their shock humour… he treats women like objects and at the start, can only understand them as such. The gradual change that happens over two hours is the point. As Gilbert and Caine and author Bill Naughton have conjured a caricature of male desire that slowly has his worldview questioned, torn apart, challenged. While Alfie is telling us straight to camera about his angle and armour, we witness his behaviour, reactions and shabby loneliness and they begin to tell a different story. He’s still as happy go lucky by the end, great company for the gang, but you can tell that bluster and treating of women like inferior objects has been punched out of him by close of play. Punched out of him by sharing or experiencing their sadness, pain and rejection but without having developed the emotional tools to deal with these heartbreaks.
Viewers who aren’t paying full attention, those who just see the misogynist seduce and mistreat a series of dolls, what they don’t notice is the extra layer of satire happening by stealth. For just as Alfie never considers the internal life and thoughts of those he takes advantage of, I’m guessing the middle classes who lapped this film up don’t see they are experiencing the views and opinions and feelings of a person they would just dismiss as a soulless oik on the street or down the pub. They only really like their lackeys to have a voice if it is servile, ingratiating or has ambitions to join them on their terms. The Angry Young Man cycle was just finished by ‘66 but it only celebrated over educated working class men who wanted a life less ordinary, a literary ideal of being a superior prole. Alfie stick two fingers up at that – he want the riches’ pleasures and luxuries and freedoms but he doesn’t want to write a book or fuck a French girl to achieve them. He understands how rigged the game is and fiddles it accordingly.
That kind of voice hadn’t been heard before on the big screen, and as Caine speaks it to us, in a truly fantastic performance, you can tell he relishes pulling back the curtain and showing the pretentious types that Alfie’s attitude towards women ain’t quite so different to the poshos attitude to the workers. If you read those quotes from the script I started off with they prove the nub of Alfie’s message. There’s a dozen more little lines and allusions to the importance of being self aware and processing your own ideas. We all have internal lives, secret thoughts, lies we tell ourselves, moods… it was a rarity for cinema to consider these things from the working classes were worth listening to or even existed. And Alfie unloads two hours worth of that private monologue directly at anyone who cares to listen.
Alfie is all a lot more humorous and sexy and entertaining than I’ve just made out. You can still just watch the classic as a cheeky lark. The first hour anyway. London has rarely looked better, stunning location work. I love it.
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We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/