*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 24 – Alfie


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.

Film 2020: The Stone Tape

For a second time I’m turning to the BBC to prolong this Sunday morning series, but whereas Penda’s Fen was a Play for Today shot entirely on film that had the look of a film, Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, commissioned and shot for broadcast on Xmas Day 1972 as the forerunner of the Corporation’s popular A Ghost Story for Christmas series, is shot entirely on videotape. Between the look of the thing and several other elements of the story, this one is incontrovertibly a play rather than a film.

As I said, it was originally broadcast on Xmas Day, 1972 and, despite the acclaim it received, was repeated only once, the following year. I suspect I saw only the repeat, but I was massively impressed with it, as was my mate Alan. A few years ago, I found the DVD in Vinyl Exchange in Manchester, and seized it gleefully.

The Stone Tape is a ghost story, but at the same time it presents a scientific approach to ghost-hunting that successfully balances the opposing demands of the two forms. Writer Nigel Kneale, as you shouldn’t need reminding was the creator of the tremendously successful Quatermass serials and films in the Fifties, not to metion the BBC’s ground-breaking adaptation of 1984. The cobination of horror and modern science was a running theme in Kneale’s work and his story proved to be not only successful but highly influential, leanding its name to a theory as to the nature of ghosts and other supernatural manifestations that’s grown in strength since.

The play stars Michael Bryant as Peter Brock and Jane Asher as Jill Greeley, with Iaian Cuthbertson as Collinson and Michael Bates (in the same year he had played Cyril Blamire in the Comedy Playhouse pilot that became Last of the Summer Wine) as Eddie Moore. Peter is a dynamic head of a research division of Ryan Electrics, charged with and eager to beat the Japanese by discovering a new recording medium. His team has just moved into Taskerlands, an old, deserted, decaying house but for an inexplicable reason, the computer storage room is empty and hasn’t even been started upon. This is because it is haunted.

The ghost is that of a nineteenth century underhousemaid, Louisa, who fell to her death from a short flight of stairs, since concealed by now-rotted panelling. Jill, the chief computer programmer, and a woman with some psychic sensitivity, sees the ghost climb the stairs and fall to her death,screaming, but others on site, including the hard-headed estate manager, Colly, have heard her steps and scream multiple times.

Peter is fascinated by this. At first, it’s the effects on his plans, which are all that matters, but his interest intensifies when, in the course of folding his entire team around the problem of recording, scanning, interpreting and defining what this ‘ghost’ is, he becomes convinced that the girl is a recording, and the room a natural recording medium, the breakthrough they’re looking for.

Peter’s intensity drives everyone exhaustingly but none of their tests and measures record anything. Jill’s concerns over what they are doing grow: she is the only one in the project with the empathy to regard Louisa as a person, a 19 year old girl of whom all that remains is the moment of her greatest terror.

The effort fails. Worse still, it erases Louisa. Embittered at his failure, Peter wants it shut down completely, silenced, erased like Louisa. Jill however has developed her theory further, that the room is a recording but that Louisa was onlyy the most recent, the sharpest and clearest, covering deeper and more terrifying incidents. The angry, self-centred Peter, tells her she’s cracking up, sends her away on two months leave. But Jill stays at her post.

Her discoveries through computer analysis send her back to the room one last time. Trying to leave, she is assailed by deeper memories, lights, shapes, colours, swooping around her, forcing her back. To try to escape them, she climbs the stairs, higher than they physically exist, until she falls to her death, calling for Peter. He and Colly find her.

Everything has crumbled around Peter’s ears. He slanders Jill to the inquest, claiming she was mentally ill, destroys her research unread, provoking Colly to smash him in the throat. His in-company rival is taking over Taskerlands. Peter visits the room again. It has had preservation orders slapped on it, he is being summonsed for concealing it. But he hears footsteps and screams again, only this time they are Jill, crying to him for help. She is the new recording…

There are lots of things about The Stone Tape that have not weathered the years well. I’m not talking about the special effects, which are kept to a minimum and executed efficiently. And as its intensity increases, the film becomes genuinely creepy, its air of impending disaster palpable but not ladled on crudely. In 1973 I was shuddering at the end and in 2020 it’s still disturbing.

Where the film is flawed is very much in its writing. There’s an unpleasant undertone of racism that’s far more noticeable now: the early stages are full of protestations about being there to beat the Nips, boot the Japs, complete with the off background ‘ah-so’, whilst the absent heard of Ryan Electrics, Patrick Ryan, who’s built his business up from nothing to an American headquarters, is referred to as ‘the auld man’ in cod-Irish accents. It’s a reflection of the times and it strikes such a wrong note now, as unnecessary shittiness about foreigners: I mean, we all know the Oirish are thick Micks, eh?

I was also struck by the team in general. Kneale was inspired to make them nice guys, and boyish, after seeing a BBC recording team in similarly old surroundings, but they came over to me as not boyish but juvenile, full of japes and forced jollity, as if serious was contagious. Everybody shouted when they didn’t need to, which emphasised the theatricality of things rather than the filmic aspect.

All of this served to emphasise the separateness of Jill. Jill was the only female role of substance in the film and it showed. Jane Asher was still very much a beautiful woman, and the script makes it clear that she’s Peter’s mistress (he’s married with two children he loves dearly), but hers is not a role in which sex is more than implied. Instead, Jill’s contrasting femininity is of the weak and feble woman kind: she’s psychic, intuitive, fluttery, the most unscientific about their scientific project.

Jill’s role as the woman is established up front in an awkward sequence. People are arriving at Taskerlands. She parks her car but finds herself caught between two bloody massive removal trucks, each backing up past each her with Jill’s car as the meat in the sandwich. Her frantic horn-blowing makes no impression on eaither and she has to hastily back out herself, into a pile of sand, that then becomes a shake-her-up accident about which she’s mystifyingly vague and semi-hysterical.

Yes, the hysterical woman, who can’t take the stress unlike all the shouty men. It doesn’t helpthat as written, and convincingly played by Michael Bryant, Peter Brock islittle more that a self-centred, dictatorial twat. Peter’s always right. He knows everything. He knows what Jill thinks and what she’s doing. She’s out to destroy him because he won’t leave his wife and children for her. Peter is summed up during the intense session trying to detect the ghost when, in frustration, he screams at her to “Come when I tell you!”

Failure doesn’t exist in Peter’s world, not to him. It’s somebody else and we don’t talk about it, it never happened, and we’ll slander the memory of the woman he was sleeping with by claiming she was mentally ill, it was all her fault.

All of this got under my skin, in a way that wasn’t possible in 1973, when I was 17 and a naive 17 at that. You couldn’t write the story like that now, and rightly so.

But these aspects make The Stone Tape a mixed bag, a curate’s egg. They are peripherals, however intrusive, and the bones of the story are strong and solid. The idea that ghosts are memories trapped in stone has become a considered theory in the past half-century, and it’s known as the Stone Tape Effect, which says more for the story than casual racism and sexism.