Directed by: Lewis Gilbert (Shirley Valentine)
Starring: Michael Caine, Shelley Winters, Millicent Martin, Julia Foster, Jane Asher
Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965) made Michael Caine a star, but Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) made sure he stayed one. The character of Alfie — a cheerful Cockney ladies’ man with no very clear aim in life beyond fairly indiscriminate seduction — was made for Caine’s talent, while the winning way he would pause to directly address the viewer made him feel like a charmingly disreputable friend. Structured as a comedy that works its way around to more serious matters, the film allows the viewer to get cozy with Caine and then slowly realize, “Hey, he can act, too.” The film is actually an odd affair — one that almost feels like it was just starting to understand that London had become “Swinging London,” and what was pop and hip had little to do with the film’s “kitchen sink” roots and Sonny Rollins’ jazz soundtrack. (The fact that Bill Naughton’s play was from 1963 probably has something to do with the way it adapts onscreen.) In its own way, this probably works in the movie’s favor — adding resonance when the one woman Alfie began to take seriously starts seeing someone with long hair and an electric guitar. It’s not just that the competitor is younger. It’s that he’s part of the new era, leaving Alfie an anachronism. Cinematically, the film’s not all that interesting. It’s only real flourish being the business of Caine talking to the audience. Mostly, this is nuts-and-bolts filmmaking, but it’s well-done. It’s also a virtual “Who’s Who” of Brit actors of the era in relatively minor roles — Jane Asher (then most famous as Paul McCartney’s girlfriend), Alfie Bass, Eleanor Bron, Murray Melvin, Denholm Elliott, Graham Stark — making it a kind of time capsule.
In Brief: It mightn’t seem as striking as it did in 1966, but Alfie is the film that cemented Michael Caine as a bonafide movie star. The story, of an unregenerate Cockney lothario who starts to see the emptiness of his life, fit Caine perfectly — allowing his easy charm to segue almost effortlessly into something deeper.