The mid sixties was a time of extreme change, the war in Viet Nam was ramping up, free love was beginning to hold, music was changing due to groups like the Beatles and London was the hub of the new ‘mod’ craze.
Set against this background is one of the most classic and enduring morality tales in cinema, Alfie.
Alfie (Michael Caine) is a taxi driver in London, not one of the upper class, he is considered one of he many cockneys, hailing from the working class of London’s east side.
Alfie is the definition of hedonist, he lives for the moment and the enjoyment of whatever woman happens to be at hand. He makes up for a lack of formal education with his wit and charm and since it appears to be working Alfie wants to just lie back and enjoy the ride.
Unfortunately, Alfie is approaching that point in life when the first visions of the future, of growing older encroach upon a young man’s mind. He begins to realize that like every ride at an amusement park, his ride through life must eventually end.
While the film ostensibly centers on the male lead the film has held together all these years due to the incredible well painted women in his life. For Alfie the female gender is there to please him in all their myriads of incarnations.
Siddie (Millicent Martin) provides no strings sex for Alfie usually anywhere handy such as a parked car. There is no emotional commitment existing here, just immediate gratification.
Gilda (Julia Foster), a mousey young woman with absolutely no self esteem. She thinks so little of herself that she patiently waits at home for Alfie, for any crumb of attention he might bestow upon her lackluster existence.
Lily (Vivien Merchant) is a depressed mother of five children and wife of one of Alfie’s friends who finds her affair with Alfie the only bright aspect to an otherwise stressed life.
Also in Alfie’s menu of women is Ruby (Shelley Winters) an older divorcee who actually tries to introduce Alfie to the concept of monogamy.
For all his protestations of loving women he is actually a misogynist. He has no real glimmer of caring about these women; he out right uses them for his own pleasure. Sure, he can convince himself that he cares for them but his actions speak very loudly, he feels that women exist for his sexual enjoyment.
Although many men would consider such a life exciting there is little shown in him that is worthy of admiration. His existence is ultimately bleak, devoid of the lasting joys that a real relationship and family can bring. He can’t admit that needing another person is not a sign of weakness that it is natural to depend on others and be honest enough that they can depend on you.
A promiscuous life style is ultimately no life at all. Alfie turns to immediate sexual pleasure instead of allowing emotions to play any part in his life.
Some younger members of the audience may wonder why a topic such as abortion was considered such a taboo as it is here. They are best to consider this film in the time period it is presented, almost a decade before Roe versus Wade.
While the time of this film is important to understanding it the fundamental issues at hand are timeless. People still use others for their own immediate needs without a thought to consequences or life further down the road.
A film such as this depends heavily on the performances and the quality here is something largely unseen in today’s films.
Michael Caine had been working for a decade before this film was released. Bookmarked by the Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, Caine appeared to be an over night sensation but in reality he had been honing his craft for years.
This gave Caine the maturity as an actor to successfully pull off such an unsympathetic character as Alfie. Only such a talent could make us want to see what this man was going through, especially since his tribulations are mostly self-inflicted. Caine provides one of the great performances here, a memorable moment in the history of film.
Julia Foster may have been small in frame but her large talent was truly showcased here. As Gilda she draws the audience into her life of loneliness and desperation.
Foster gives us a young woman that is unable to see anything worthwhile in her, a person with absolutely no positive self view.
Veteran actress Shelley Winters gives one of the best performances here. She is perfectly cast as the American who is realizing that life is passing her by. Divorced and on her own she is looking for a man that can provide a new future for her, one that can provide some modicum of stability to a life in flux. Her final scene with Caine is an emotional punch to the audience.
Director Lewis Gilbert has many movies to his name including two in the much-lauded James Bond franchise. With this film he manages to perfectly mix a basically grim story line with just they right touch of lighthearted mirth so as to keep the viewer riveted to the screen.
While the technique of breaking the forth wall, having the actor speak directly to the audience, is often used now, Gilbert was one of the first to employ this technique successfully.
By having him turn to the camera and speak to the audience we get more than understanding of his character, we see that he is lying to himself, trying almost desperately to justify his shallow actions.
It was also a stroke of genius for Gilbert to use the Burt Bacharach piece as the title song. The lyrics sum things up so well, "What’s it all about Alfie, is it just for the moment we live". It is very difficult to present such a bittersweet film without plunging into melodrama but Gilbert nails it.
This is a plain vanilla DVD presentation from Paramount.
The remixed Dolby 5.1 is typically well done but I would have enjoyed the original soundtrack offered as an option. The dialogue is usually clear although the cockney accents may throw some Americans in the audience.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is somewhat grainy but personally I found that to reinforce the overall mood of the film.
Paramount has also had the foresight to package this film with the 2004 remake, fantastic for those film buffs that will gather additional enjoyment in the comparison.
The film stands on its own and remains a pivotal film from the sixties, well worth owning.
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