I went to see this when I was around 15 years old, attracted by the cast, and the reputation of director, Lewis Gilbert. I had never seen the play, nor read the book, so had little idea what to expect. It is often described as a ‘romantic comedy’, but it is far from that, in my opinion. The lighter moments conceal a dark core, with an insight into the ‘Swinging Sixties’ in London, and the treatment of women by some men at the time.
Michael Caine’s career was taking off. After ‘Zulu’, and ‘The Ipcress File’, it seemed he could do no wrong, and he was undoubtedly the perfect choice for the manipulative Londoner Alfie, a man with no conscience. He commands the film in every way, and we feel for him whilst despising his callous actions and selfishness. It was very unusual at the time for the lead character to address the audience so frequently, breaking what is known as ‘The Fourth Wall’. I found that incredibly interesting, and Caine’s natural ease with the process left the audience feeling that he was just chatting to each of us individually.
The story concerns a chauffeur, Alfie, and his various female conquests. This man has no ‘type’ as such, and as long as he can get his way with a woman, he seems not to care too much about her age, appearance, or background. The co-stars who feature as his objects of desire are a mixed bag indeed. Singer and comedian Millicent Martin plays a married woman he abandons, and Julia Foster is ideal as Gilda, the submissive younger girl who adores him, and lets him treat her with no respect. She even bears him a son, though Alfie initially shows little interest in the boy. Vivien Merchant is superb as Lily, an older dowdy woman who falls for his charms, and American audiences are well served by the inclusion of the lively Shelly Winters as Ruby, the only woman who sees through his shallow character, and gets the better of him. Signature sixties girl Jane Asher appears too, as a hitchiker who accepts a lift from Alfie, and becomes his live-in lover.
The tale is not without moral repercussions though, and Alfie’s easy life begins to disintegrate. A chest X-ray reveals a shadow on his lung, and he is forced to take stock. Ruby abandons him for a younger lover, and although he has now become fond of his son, Gilda decides to marry a local bus conductor, who treats her with affection and respect. He discovers Lily is pregnant by him, and afraid to tell her unwell husband. So Alfie arranges an abortion for her, then finds he is badly affected by the outcome, after the event.
This is an excellent film, and a real insight into the 1960s, and the way life was becoming free of so many social restrictions. It crams so much into the 112 minutes, the viewer’s attention never flags. Caine holds everything together perfectly, going from careless cad to selfish worrier with ease. Great location filming in the London of the 1960s is a real treat, and everyone involved hits the mark, in just the right fashion.
(It was remade in 2004, starring Jude Law. Best avoided.)