"Alfie," I says to myself, "she’s as human as you are."
At over 50 years old now, Lewis Gilbert's movie of the play Alfie, feels like an artifact from another dimension. Just predating the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, Bill Naughton's screenplay, adapted from his 1963 play, depicts a world with sexual politics that are both seismically different and yet somehow exactly the same as they are now. Taken on its own terms, Alfie is profoundly forward-thinking, culturally, and not dissimilar to how Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game presented a powerfully exacting portrait of the moral frivolity that would soon morph into Vichy France. However, with interactions between men and women — especially in film and the film industry — under greater scrutiny now than perhaps they've ever been, it's nearly impossible to consider Alfie without acknowledging its place within a broader social landscape.
Michael Caine stars in the title role of Alfie as a serial womanizer who chattily shares his callous sociological observations and self-serving philosophies in-between, and sometimes in the midst of, his dalliances with a variety of women. While some of Alfie's partners welcome his predatory indifference as an escape from their less exciting husbands, some suffer his detached affections, vainly hoping that they will at some point become sincere; if not, his fleeting comforts might at least distract from the lingering pain of failed relationships past, which no doubt involved a careless man not very different than Alfie himself.
Lewis Gilbert is not a particularly notable director — his success with Alfie was his springboard to helming three James Bond movies — but his pairing of a strong and insightful script with the rising star of Michael Caine is a potent combination, and the supporting performances from a stellar selection of actresses give Alfie the emotional framework that it needs to make its boorish anti-hero tolerable. A couple of times Gilbert gets a bit too explicit in expressing his disdain for Alfie, including a bookending device that likens humans to dogs and an absurd bar fight that can only be explained as an exasperated sigh of "Men!" For the most part, however, Alfie is a provocative study of a man who, while not quite a sociopath, is a practiced compartmentalizer of inconvenient feelings — it's during his few attempts to appear considerate that Alfie is at his ignorant worst — and a class of women who so lack agency that they seem to be wholly unprepared for the impending chaos of a sexual revolution that will further empower the Alfies of the world in the name of their liberation.
There are some interesting facets to Alfie that are so out of the ordinary in the context of current movies that they stick out rather refreshingly: first, Alfie (and, it must be noted, the casting director) does not seem to discriminate with regard to age or body type; Alfie is an equal opportunity philanderer who expresses condescending praise for "plain" women and happily takes both young single women and older matrons to bed; even though his preferred terms for a woman are "bird" and "it," he's progressively even-handed with his disregard. Second, the surprising emotional climax of Alfie suggests contemplation of abortion from an angle that would be considered heretical if it were to appear in a mainstream movie today. However, in some ways Alfie is still quite relevant with regard to current discussions of self-control, personal responsibility, and the mutual complicity of dysfunctional sexual relationships. There are no easy answers to these issues — as the 50 years of "progress" since Alfie suggest — and, also refreshingly, Gilbert and Naughton don't seem interested in proposing any. Alfie is unreformable, too fortified in his narcissism to take any but the most fleeting and superficial pleasure from attachment, and too satisfied with his gift of rationalisation to allow pangs of conscience to plant any seeds. Even when Alfie experiences an epiphany, it's all about himself, and how he was on the correct course all along.
Alfie was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Ryan Hope. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #180/3019 (94%), where it's his 2nd favorite movie out of the six he's seen that have been awarded the Cannes Jury Prize. It ranked on my Flickchart at #1501 (62%), making it #15 out of the 19 Cannes Jury Prize-winners on my Flickchart.
This month's movies can also be found on this Letterboxd list, here: