Sunday, May 31, 2009

ALFIE (Paramount 1966) Paramount Home Video

Based on Bill Naughton’s titillating play, director Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) is the somewhat angst driven and woeful jaunt of a disreputable scamp through his carefree, sex-charged swinging scene in London. The film stars Michael Caine as Alfie Elkins, a working class bloke who rather heartlessly runs amuck of the many ‘birds’ (women) in his life, manipulating their emotions as he regards them simply as his mindless playthings.

The film is really a series of vignettes exploring Alfie’s promiscuity rather than one cohesive narrative. We first meet Alfie in the shadowy backseat of a Rolls Royce with Siddie (Millicent Martin) – one of his many, otherwise attached women of leisure. Exiting the steamy automobile, Alfie sees a mongrel curiously looking up at him. He turns to the camera and addresses the audience directly; a narrative device that often contrasts or entirely contradicts the action taking place within the actual scene.

From here, the narrative jumps ahead to Alfie’s first remotely serious sexual entanglement; this one with a bird called Gilda (Julie Foster). Naïve and desperately in love with Alfie, she quickly becomes pregnant with his baby. The birth of the child – Malcolm - temporarily gives Alfie a new perspective on women and fatherhood. Although Alfie does little to curtail his extracurricular activities with other ‘birds’, he truly revels in being a father. That is, until Gilda reveals to him that bus conductor, Humphrey (Graham Stark) has proposed marriage to her instead.

Alfie embarks upon a sexual binge in anger that eventually leads him to suffer a minor breakdown. Relegated to a convalescence home, he meets Harry Clamacraft (Alfie Bass); whose wife Lily (Vivien Merchant) he will later seduce and also get pregnant. For the time being however, and in hospital, Harry confronts Alfie on the fact that not only is he doing harm to himself through his wild living, but he is also ruining the lives of the many women he mistreats along the way. To no avail, Alfie continues his wanton ways.

Leaving the hospital, Alfie next takes a job as a chauffeur, meeting homeless girl, Annie (Jane Asher) at a rest stop along the highway to London. Knowing that she has been picked up by a truck driver, Frank (Sydney Tafler), Alfie plots to trick Annie into coming with him instead by spreading the lie that Frank is into kink and sharing girls that he casually picks up along the road. Believing what she hears, Annie flees with Alfie to London where he quickly puts her to work scrubbing the floors of his cold water flat, mending his clothes and cooking his meals – all the while employing the same causal contempt he has afforded the rest of his women.

Eventually, Frank confronts Alfie at a local pub about Annie’s mistreatment. A knock down, drag out brawl ensues and Alfie reveals what a coward he really is. Lily turns up on Alfie’s doorstep with the news that she is pregnant and Alfie rather coldheartedly arranges for her to have an abortion. However, the sight of the unborn fetus transforms Alfie’s character. He resolves to ‘go straight’ and propose marriage to Ruby (Shelly Winters); a middle age wealthy widow whom he has been casually seeing for some time.

Unhappy chance for Alfie that the one woman he has finally decided on for his own has absolutely no intensions of settling down with any man including him. Arriving at Ruby’s apartment unannounced, Alfie discovers that she is entertaining a young guitarist in her boudoir. “What’s he got that I ain’t got?” a steamed Alfie demands to know, “I just don’t get it!” “He’s younger,” Ruby coolly admits, “Get it?” The player has been played.

The story has come full circle. Alfie finds himself near the Thames reassessing the entirety of his escapades; suggesting that without peace of mind there can be no lasting happiness in any life – least of all his. Alone and seemingly without companionship, Alfie suddenly realizes that the waterfront mongrel who originally spotted him with Siddie in the backseat of the Rolls at the start of the film is now curiously eyeing him once again. They’re two of a kind - two mutts – who can regard each other in mutual understanding as they stroll off together.

At the time of Alfie’s theatrical release, the film and Michael Caine’s performance were almost universally hailed as milestones by the critics; Caine’s frank, glib and hauntingly shallow take on human sexuality pretty much in tune with that laissez faire attitude of a generation weaned on Woodstock and free love. Yet, in retrospect neither the film nor Caine’s performance have aged well. Instead, they are a capsule from another time so far removed from our current generation that any direct appreciation of either is entirely hampered by the fact that none of the film’s timely topical discussion seems relevant anymore.

In an age of far too prevalent and occasionally lethal STDs, Alfie’s overt promiscuity is foolhardy at best and obtusely naïve at worst. His lack of respect for women in general does not bode well with the currency of politically correct feminism and, in fact, seems more garishly misogynistic than it actually is; certainly more so than it probably was perceived to be at the time of the film’s general release.

The U.K. release of Alfie sports a complete score by noted jazz great, Sonny Rollins. In America, composer Burt Bacharach was inspired by the film to write the hit song ‘Alfie’; a chart topping single for Cilla Black. When the film was eventually released in America, Bacharach’s song, with a cover by Cher, was heard over the end titles. Ultimately, Dion Warwick’s cover became the most popular rendition in America with Bacharach and collaborator Hal David receiving an Oscar nomination.

Paramount Home Video’s DVD is a bare bones offering. The film is presented in its original Techniscope (2:35:1) aspect ratio. Color fidelity is badly dated. Flesh tones are a pasty, soft orangey yellow. At times, close ups of Michael Caine look almost waxen. Overall, the image is smooth and relatively sharp, though there are several occasions where grain and age related artifacts intrude. On the whole the image is passable, but one wishes for more consistent color fidelity and attention paid to fine details. The audio has been remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1. The original mono mix – restored – is also included. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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