Alfie (1966)

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenwriter: Bill Naughton
Adapted from: Alfie by Bill Naughton
Cast: Michael Caine, Julia Foster, Vivien Merchant, Shelley Winters, Jane Asher, Millicent Martin, Graham Stark, Alfie Bass
Nominations: Picture, Actor – Michael Caine, Supporting Actress – Vivien Merchant, Adapted Screenplay, Song – “Alfie”

One of the neatest things about watching contemporary films made in the past is how they capture the zeitgeist and can teleport you to their time.  Many of us never lived in 1960s London, but Alfie pulls us into the era so well that we can almost feel what it may have been like to be there at the time—especially as a sex-driven, womanizing narcissist.  Alfie’s flaws aside, it’s wonderful how much of its time this film is, from the cool and casual jazz score to the sleek elegance of mod fashion, Alfie is a snapshot, a time capsule, of London (and much of Western culture) transitioning from post-World War II traditions to a more relaxed and morally/sexually ambiguous framework.

Then again, the greatest irony in Alfie is how despite progressive, morally nomadic, and cynical Alfie is, he ultimately yearns for the stability that is offered by a nuclear family and traditional societal gender roles.  It’s obvious he cares for his son, Malcolm, with Gilda even though that kind of responsibility cramps his style; he appreciates, so to speak, having a partner to cook and clean, but a true commitment would go against his misanthropic viewpoint.  Yeah, he’s short and curt with both Gilda and Annie, but it would be naïve to think that attitude is anything more than a put-on to protect himself from making emotional attachments.  There’s no insight into Alfie’s childhood, yet it doesn’t take an expert to deduce out that Alfie has gone through some kind of relational distress before we meet him—my guesses are either a high school girlfriend or, going further back, an absent father and/or an indifferent mother.  (Alfie’s desire to settle down with Ruby, the older woman, leads me to strongly favor the latter.)

Granted, that’s reading into motivations that are completely hypothetical, but we can see the results of those possible motivations in Alfie’s actions.  Again, it’s more than apparent how much he cares for his son.  He tells him bedtime stories, plays with him, enjoys that the child calls out for him.  Alfie may not be the best or ideal father, but he’s a father who wants to be there for his son.  There are arguments for the contrary that might be supported by more explicit evidence in the film; however, we have to remember that the main reason Alfie “abandons” Malcolm is not because he doesn’t want to be a father—it’s because he does not want to have a wife and Gilda wants someone she can rely upon and knows will be there for her and her child.  If Alfie didn’t care about Malcolm, why else would he lurk at the church when Gilda and Humphrey are having their own child christened?  When it comes down to it, Alfie letting Humphrey raise Malcolm as his own son is an incredibly selfless act on Alfie’s part as much as it is on Humphrey’s.  Alfie knew he couldn’t be the father Malcolm needed and that Humphrey would have no qualms about filling that role.  This circles back to the proposed relationship issue Alfie may have experienced: it’s better to have a someone as a father than no one at all.

The same motivation also appears to push him to decide to settle down and commit to Ruby.  Now, Alfie is a charming (when necessary), smooth-talking ladies’ man who could literally be with any woman he wanted to be with.  Why would he go for an older, twice-widowed American woman?

There are a few takeaways from Ruby’s few scenes that support an Oedipal aspect to Alfie’s infatuation with her.  Alfie comments that Ruby’s “in lovely/beautiful condition” and how you can feel a mature woman’s experience when she touches you.  The context, of course, is the sexuality Ruby exudes—which Shelley Winters has in spades, and hearts, diamonds, and clubs as well—but the subtext has a deeper connection to the comforting touch of a mother.  Also, Ruby has a matronly appearance when we first meet her at Tower Bridge; her repartee with Alfie, on the other hand, is anything but matronly, so what we and Alfie are presented with is a motherly type who is openly inviting intimacy with a younger man.  This tempts Alfie not only physically but emotionally as well, because Ruby is a woman who understands men and knows how to treat/take care of them in many ways.  Alfie’s problem hasn’t necessarily been an avoidance of committing to a woman; rather, it’s been an avoidance to committing to the wrong woman.  One final bit of evidence for this perspective of Alfie: when he’s talking about Gilda being pregnant, he remarks, “she came over quite beautified for a while, particularly during the early months.  And I told her: I said, “Blimey, girl, you ain’t as ugly as I thought.”

None of this, mind you, excuses any of Alfie’s behavior throughout the film.  At the very least, it sheds a new bit of light on why he is the way he is.  Like him, we’re have to consider our actions in life and what does or doesn’t happen to us, and sometimes we have to ask, “What’s it all about?”