Thursday, June 23, 2016

Caine Watch: Alfie (1966)

I'm currently listening to a Michael Caine autobiography, The Elephant to Hollywood, narrated by Michael Caine.  I don't want to tell you people how to live your lives, but I highly recommend spending your commute each day with Michael Caine.

The thing about Michael Caine is that he's made approximately one movie per week for the past 50 years, so no human in recorded history has seen every Michael Caine movie, especially Michael Caine.

But the book did get me interested in several Michael Caine movies I had not yet seen.  And I figured I should probably start with Alfie (1966), one of the movies that broke Caine as a name talent (I'll be tracking down Zulu next).

In the book, Caine mentions that his former drinking partner, Terence Stamp, had originated the role on the London stage and did not want to movie role after trying to bring the show to the U.S. where it was badly received.  And, yeah, I can see Broadway audiences finding the character and play a bit...  confusing?  Baffling?  Not all that intriguing?

I don't ever like to bag on a movie that's fifty years old for being outdated, because I suspect that in some ways, Alfie opened a lot of doors about what could and couldn't be in a movie and to a bit more honesty on screen.  The film is about our titular, fourth-wall breaking character who is a bit of a cad and lives his life entirely to be a ladies man.  He goes from woman to woman, having a few regulars, picking up a few along the way, married or not, never looking for commitment, just a good time.  And while Alfie is a charming character, he's got his own code for looking out only for himself, something he feels works very well, indeed.

As early as the first act, life catches up with Alfie and he gets a girl pregnant and even participates in the child's life (the movie takes place over several years), seemingly taking delight in being a half-assed dad.  But when she needs more, Alfie finds that impossible and is replaced.  Other women come and go.  A drifter who needs something stable.  An older woman with whom sex is a bit of rigorous work.  And many others.  Life lessons are had.

But, while the audience goes from seeing Alfie has a fun, chipper guy on the move to a somewhat sad figure, Alfie is unable to produce the self-reflection necessary to see that maybe his ways are hurting him, except when they aren't.  And that's the point.  But it hardly feels a revelation.

Just looking at that tag line "Is every man an Alfie?  Ask any girl!" - it feels like this poster arrived from some alien civilization rather than 5 decades ago.

I dunno.  In the wake of the late 60's free love movement, 70's me-generation and sexual liberation - not to mention women's lib, the 1980's and 1990's AIDS epidemics, the curve of greater gender equality and new roles in society, and the opening up of culture in so many ways, it's not that Alfie doesn't seem like someone out of time, but that audiences would find this particularly amusing or the film almost quaint now seems certain.

Caine is great, and you can see how he was considered to be Alfie in the wake of the film's release.  He's a fun character who keeps you with a character whom, these days, I think we'd just consider to be an irresponsible asshole.   And I'm not sure that Alfie, in the mid-1960's coming to American theater, wouldn't have been seen more or less exactly this way.  Whatever rakish charm he's supposed to have, he's still kind of an asshat, and the overall lesson we're supposed to get ("thinking only of yourself leaves you lonely") isn't exactly a ground breaking concept.  We've all known an Alfie or two, and most of us just shrug and can't quite figure out why women put up with him, but I assume this film might be some fantasy destroying stuff for somebody then and now.

At its core, the film is, maybe, the most misogynistic movie I've ever seen, even as it tries to point out the error of Alfie's ways and make sympathetic characters of the women in the movie.  It's not all that surprising this was the same era of England that spawned James Bond, I suppose.  Aside from the mature, American Shelley Winters, the women all lack any sense of self in ways that hardly reflect actual people.

I suspect that this movie was in the right place at the right time, if you peg it to the supposed frivolity of the Mad Men era or Kennedy and his wacky ways.  But I think it takes a bit more now to surprise us.  I'm almost curious to see the Jude Law starring remake to see what they did with this movie within the last 15 years or so.

Anyway, I'm probably wrong on all this as Alfie is a beloved movie with, like, 100% on RT.  This is the sort of thing that I do associate with "grown-up entertainment" and the sort of stuff I've always been a bit perplexed lots of people like seeing in movies, but the appeal of which has always eluded me (note my disinterest in the work of Woody Allen), so there you have it.

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