24: ALFIE: 1966. Director: Lewis Gilbert. UK. Romantic comedy drama. Michael Caine. Millicent Martin. Julie Foster. Jane Asher. Shirley-Anne Field. Vivien Merchant. Eleanor Bron. Shelley Winters. Alfie Bass.
Adapted by Irish-born Bill Naughton (1910-1992) from his 1963 play (itself originally a BBC Third Programme radio play). There was also a 1966 novel, which was slightly different from the movie – the character Frank, for instance. Budget was $800,000. Box office was $18.87million. Made at Twickenham Studios, St. Margarets, West London. Music by Sonny Rollins (jazz saxophonist); title song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David – sung by Millicent Martin (UK distribution), and Cher (US). It was a major UK pop song hit for Cilla Black. Initially a number of actors were considered for the role of Alfie – Richard Harris (1930-2002); Laurence Harvey (1928-1973); James Booth (1927-2005), and Anthony Newley (1931-1999). Eventually Terence Stamp (born 1938), who was playing the role on Broadway, recommended his friend Michael Caine. As well as both being fellow Cockneys, the two had acted together and became good friends in Willis Hall’s play The Long and the Short and the Tall. Although I always first associated Caine with Alfie, he had, by then, already appeared in Zulu (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965) – in fact Alfie was his sixth film. Michael Caine was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite in 1933, at Rotherhithe, so technically not an East End Cockney, as this is South-East London, across the Thames, in the Borough of Southwark. His father was Anglo-Irish, by profession a fish porter (I’m assuming at Billingsgate Market), his mother a cook and charwoman. Young Maurice served in the army (National Service, 1952-54) and saw action in Korea – an experience which coloured his subsequent politics, British nationalism against communism, mostly Tory supporter. He initially took on the stage name of, first Michael White, then Michael Scott, in about 1953, but changed it to Michael Caine in 1954, apparently taking the surname from the Humphrey Bogart movie The Caine Mutiny. However, bizarrely, he didn’t officially change his name – on his passport, for instance – until 2016, over 60 years later, then because of getting stopped at airport security with his ‘Micklewhite’ name. Although married only twice – to actress Patricia Haines (1932-1977) from 1955 to 1962, and Skakira Baksh from 1973 – in between he had a number of high-profile girlfriends, from Edino Rong (1961-64), Natalie Wood (1965-66). Bianca Jagger (1968-70), and Jill St John (1971). As an actor, I’ve enjoyed quite a few of his films over the years, and several, as well as Alfie, number amongst my favourite. He was knighted in 2000, at a time when knighthoods were being given out like confetti. I disagree with them on principle. Actors get other rewards.
The cast were: Michael Caine as Alfie Elkins; Shelley Winters (American actress, 1920-2006) as Ruby; Millicent Martin (actress/singer born 1934) as Siddie; Vivian Merchant (1929-1982, married to Harold Pinter from 1956 to 1980) as Lily Clamacroft; Alfie Bass (1916-1987) as Lily’s husband Harry; Jane Asher (born 1946, girlfriend to Paul McCartney 1963-71, later married cartoonist Gerald Scarfe) as Annie; Julia Foster (born 1943) as Gilda; Shirley Anne Field (born 1936) as Carla; Eleanor Bron (actress and author, born 1938) as the Doctor; Graham Stark (1922-2013) as Humphrey; Murrey Melvin (born 1932) as Nat; and Sydney Tafler (1916-1979) as Frank. Shirley Bassey was uncredited as a bodybuilder’s student girlfriend.
The film follows the adventures of the title character, a young, womanising, Cockney Casanova, working in London as a chauffeur; totally self-centred, enjoying sexual favours with married and single women, young or old, but often treating them with disrespect, referring to them as ‘it’. He is a anti-hero, everyman, immoral, roguish, a working-class jack-the-lad-type, pilfering petrol and money from his employer, encouraging his girlfriends to do the same. He is not always intentionally malicious or cruel, just lacking in any empathy, but at the same time Naughton the writer, and Caine the actor, manage to make the character sympathetic, showing his inner vulnerability, denied being able to see his son, using sex as a substitute for meaning or purpose to life, eventually finding pain and loneliness, especially after the abortion sequence with married Lily, when he comes face to face with the consequences of his casual carnal actions. So, this is no fun and frolics sex romp, or juvenile fantasy, but an emotional rollercoaster, made more personal in that Alfie breaks the fourth wall, talking to us, the audience, attempting to justify his actions. In the end, with himself being dumped by the girlfriends he had grown fond off, he can only turn to us, and ask “What’s it all about?”
The idea of breaking the fourth wall would later be used by another likeable rogue, antique dealer Lovejoy (the wonderful Ian McShane) in the 1986-94 UK television series of the same name.
Geoff Andrew, writing a later critique for the Time Out Film Guide, is a little sniffy: “Given the full swinging London mod movie treatment of the day, Bill Naughton’s funny and rather moving play emerges as a terribly dated (and one might add terribly misogynistic) account of a Cockney lecher’s selfish seduction and abuse of a series of compliant females. Of course he gets his comeuppance, in the ending that has all the moral weight and sincerity of a DeMille sex ’n’ sawdust spectacular.”
To say the movie is “terribly dated” seemed rather a silly criticism – it was made in 1966. Of course it is dated. Michael Keaton’s version of Batman would be ‘dated’ compared to the mindless, CGI adaptions since, but does that make them better? I think not. All movies are ‘dated’ eventually, in that they reflect the time and place of their making. While ‘lecher’ is a bit strong – it rather implies some old pervert chasing schoolgirls, not an oversexed young man working his way through his address-book of ladies – so I would equally question ‘misogynistic’. The dictionary definition is the hatred of women. Alfie is egocentric and rather selfish, and he might lack respect or much feeling, but he doesn’t actually hate women – quite the opposite, he wants to sleep with them, and he just can’t stay faithful to anyone for long. In that he reflects the typical alpha-male of that time – or since!
There was a UK-made sequel, in 1975, entitled Alfie Darling, with singer/musician Alan Price (he of O Lucky Man!) in the Alfie role. It did at least make a profit – budget at £500,000, box office receipts coming it at £2.5million. On the other hand, who remembers it today? Time Out Film Review concluded “the film look[ed] increasingly like a advert with no product to sell.” Not seen it – don’t want to see it!
Yet again – as with Psycho or Breathless – the original Alfie suffered the indignity of a totally needless remake in 2004, with Jude Law, who was seemingly going through a phase of Michael Caine worship – a few years later, in 2007, he starred in a remake of Sleuth, him playing Michael Caine’s original 1972 role, and Caine playing the Lawrence Olivier role. Alfie was now in Manhattan – ugh! – although some filming was also done in Liverpool, Manchester and Tilbury standing in for New York. It bombed, and perhaps deservedly so – costing $60million, with a box office return of just $36.2million. Lesson learned? Apparently not. Hollywood remain obsessed by sequels and remakes.