Did anyone see The Trip? The pretty hilarious Winterbottom film where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do awesome Michael Caine impressions for a solid 10% of it? They have their cockney, cocky Caine, hard-boiled, revenge-driven Caine, and late-era, slow-talking Caine. Alfie, Lewis Gilbert’s (probably best known for directing a few Bond films), comedy/drama, features that cockney, cocky, deadpan, witty, charming Caine.
You might know the premise of Alfie – one of many films in the 1960s to have a theme song written for and named after the main character. Caine’s Alfie is a bachelor and a seducer of women. He’s got a “bird” here and a “bird” there. Along his swinging way he impregnates a lonely housewife (Siddie – Millicent Martin), spends some time in a convalescent home and then promptly impregnates his roommate’s wife, Lily (Vivien Merchant), and falls for a bawdy quadragenarian, Ruby (the inimitable Shelley Winters).
Coming off the successful heels of Tom Jones in 1963, Alfie employs less full-scale swinging London than its forerunner, and instead focuses on the back rooms, the bar fights, and the tenements. It’s a funny film at times, but there’s certainly tragedy in here. While far from a direct social commentary, it’s presentation of a lower class, an adrift people, and the loneliness of sex is notable.
The most obvious technique going on here is the direct-to-camera address. Alfie frequently looks the lens and us in the eye and makes an aside, or a prediction, or just chats. It pulls us into his world a bit, and allows us the pleasure of nearby voyeur. It’s vicarious sex in some ways, though the camera doesn’t really probe to any risque degree. But the direct-address isn’t only so we can get off on watching Alfie sleep with a lot of women. It’s not all wink-wink. Alfie has problems. He has health issues. He has children. And he’s lonely. The direct-address therefore, makes us more confidant than voyeur. Alfie needs someone to talk to, and since he can’t hold a stable relationship, his son is taken away from him, and he seems rather disinterested in good ol’ male friendship, we’re all he’s got. And whether we’re potentially willing (when he’s talking about the good times) or unwilling (the not so good times), we’re a captive audience.
There are a few other cool things in this film. For one, there’s a fast montage, made of largely of still images, as Alfie’s child grows up. It’s the only such sequence in the film and while it and a few subsequent scenes (and his narration) do show his sensitive, fatherly side, it’s glossed over in such an ellipsis less to progress the story, as to subtly show the obvious – Alfie’s getting older, which comes back to haunt him in his relationship with Ruby. It’s nicely done by Gilbert. When we watch in real time we think ‘fun montage of kid growing up,’ and when we look back at it we think, ‘man, Alfie aged quickly.’
There’s another such sequence later. Small SPOILER: Alfie and Siddie have an arrangement. They aren’t married but he sees his son. She’s clearly unhappy. Eventually the man who’s been pursuing her for some time – Harry Clamacraft (Alfie Bass, and a great cinematic surname) – asks her to marry him. She tells Alfie. And just like that we jump forward in time. Despite the montage and his proclaimed love for his son, it’s all gone in an instant. Alfie is without Siddie. She’s married. And he doesn’t see her again in the film until towards the end when he watches the baptism of her and Harry’s second child from a hidden distance. Another ellipsis. It serves the same purpose as the one I mentioned earlier, but also works to contradict Alfie’s narration. In his words he’s a dedicated father. But via the montage/ellipsis we see that he doesn’t put up much of an argument or effort to remain that way.
Towards the end of the film Alfie comes across a young hitchhiker at a diner. The fact that he steals her from another man leads to a tremendous bar fight scene later, but that’s besides this point. Alfie is living with her (Annie – played by Jane Asher) when they get in an argument and she abruptly up and leaves. In one of many gradual turning points he runs out after her only to see her get on a bus and leave. As with all of the female characters in this film, she’s only transient. But what’s important is that soon after Alfie goes to visit Ruby and is rejected. She’s with another man because he’s, as she tells him, getting old. In a span of 15 minutes of screen-time Alfie is rejected by both the youngest and the oldest woman he’s been with. He’s run the gamut. It’s because of this that we don’t fully believe him when he tells us, after all is said and done, that he’ll go back out and find himself another bird. The wink-wink dialogue at the end is sad and tired. The game is over.