Thursday, January 19, 2012

Short Take: Alfie

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alfie’s title character, a swaggering Cockney ladies’ man, may be Michael Caine’s greatest role. Caine makes Alfie both charming and repellent. He plays this cynical womanizer with bravado, and he’s nothing less than riveting. His skill is considerable. Like Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, the character addresses the audience with asides throughout the action of the scenes, and Caine paces the shifts so deftly that one watches him all but in awe. His performing charisma is imperative, as the film would be oppressive otherwise. Bill Naughton’s script, based on his play, is not the least bit interested in entertaining the audience with Alfie’s rakish behavior; the purpose is to indict him for it. The audience’s nose is rubbed in the character’s misogyny from the outset. He takes pride in casting women aside when they become inconvenient, and his relationships with his kept “birds”--the ones he shacks up with--seem based entirely on breaking down the women’s self-esteem. The scenes with the live-in girlfriends (Julia Foster and Jane Asher) don’t have a moment of levity in them. The greatest pathos is reserved for Vivien Merchant’s character, a lonely housewife whose dalliance with Alfie results in an unwanted pregnancy. After Caine, the liveliest performer is Shelley Winters. Her scenes are the only ones shaped for ribald laughs, and she plays them with zest. (She’d have been a great Wife of Bath.) The director, Lewis Gilbert, seems to think more in theater terms than cinematic ones. He doesn’t make the extensive London location shooting feel integral, and his staging of a barroom fight is hopeless. But his handling of the actors in the dialogue scenes is largely impeccable. He deserves a great deal of credit for making Caine’s triumph possible. The fine jazz score was written and performed by Sonny Rollins. Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote the mediocre title song, performed by Cher, with Sonny Bono producing. A remake of the film starring Jude Law was released in 2004.

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