A portrait of a sexual adventurer and unrepentant hedonist, Alfie (1966) arrived at a time when "Swinging London" was portrayed by the media as the mecca of British cinema. Certainly 1966 was a banner year for England's movie industry with such distinctive films as Blow-Up, Morgan!, Georgy Girl and Alfie arriving on American shores. But the latter film is significant for not only challenging the Production Code on censorship issues but exploring sexuality in a frank and adult manner rarely seen in Hollywood films. It also made Michael Caine an international star and confirmed the acting talent he displayed in his previous film, The Ipcress File (1965).
Alfie, based on the stage play by Bill Naughton, is episodic in nature and follows the exploits of a Cockney Don Juan who supports himself with odd jobs - a part-time photographer, a chauffeur for hire - while trying to bed any woman he fancies, whether she's married or not. With little regard for anything but his own pursuit of pleasure, Alfie seduces and discards a number of willing women before he gets a wake-up call about his own mortality - a mild case of tuberculosis sends him into a sanitorium. It is there that he meets Lily (Vivien Merchant), the wife of a fellow patient. Their affair ends in an abortion clinic (a sequence that aroused considerable controversy at the time). Yet, despite all this, Alfie continues his amorous pursuits, meeting his match in an older woman (Shelley Winters) who ends up dumping him for a younger man. It all comes full circle in the end with Alfie returning to a former girlfriend who has lost all interest in him.
While it's hard to imagine Alfie without Michael Caine in the lead, he wasn't the first choice for the role. Instead, it was Terence Stamp, who was Caine's friend and roommate at the time. "...During the time he was staying with me at Albion Close," Caine recalled in his biography, What's It All About? (a line taken from the theme song for Alfie), "he got a call from Lewis Gilbert, the director, offering him the part of Alfie...To my astonishment, Terry turned it down, and I actually spent three whole hours trying to talk him into accepting it. I still wake up screaming in the middle of the night as Terry takes my advice and accepts the role. The reason he didn't want to do it was because when Terry had taken the play to Broadway, it had flopped, and he now wanted nothing more to do with it. I never considered trying for the film role myself because I had been unable to get the part on stage. The film, as I later learned, was turned down by many British actors because it contained an abortion scene, and stars in those days did not want to be associated with anything of that kind, in case it ruined their image."
The abortion scene, indeed, became a flashpoint for the film when it was screened on the Paramount lot for Jack Valenti, the President of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Production Code staffers. After the screening Valenti asked for feedback and was surprised to hear everyone voicing their approval of the film on moral grounds. "I'm not asking about morality," he said. "I don't think any man has the right to pass judgment on the rightness or wrongness of another man's actions. What a person does in his private life is his own business. What I'm talking about is taste. What about that abortion scene?" (from See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor by Jack Vizzard).
The simple fact was that the depiction of an abortion (even though it happens off camera) in a movie was a clear violation of the Code despite the film's sensitive treatment of it. Valenti had no choice but to appeal the film and ask for an exception which it was granted. Rated "Suggested for Mature Audiences," Alfie appeased the then still powerful religious groups that closely monitored Hollywood movies; The Christian Century, a Protestant publication, deemed the film "highly moral" and The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (formerly known as the Legion of Decency) gave it an "A-IV" rating, adding "in spite of the light treatment of immoral situations, the film develops the theme that an individual must accept responsibility of his actions."
Paramount had to make some other concessions to the censors as well. According to Jack Vizzard in See No Evil, "it agreed to remove the hint of the dogs in the act of sex and left only a preliminary shot of them sniffing intimately at each other. It agreed to take out the shot of Alfie throwing the woman's panties at her, as being too specific. Thirdly, there was a line tossed by Alfie at Shelley Winters, while he is setting her up for a candid camera shot. Seemingly referring to the camera, but actually being on the make for her, he says, "Well, I've got two positions [for taking pictures] - straight up or sideways, depending on your nationality." This line, however, remains in the final cut, but is tossed off so casually by Caine that you could easily miss it.
Much less problematic was the actual filming of Alfie. Gilbert shot much of the film on location in London and opened it up from the stage play in clever ways. Caine recalled in his biography, "Lewis decided to bring the camera in very close and have me speak not to an audience, but to one close confidant. The intimacy of this worked so well with those who watched the rushes, that we decided to keep it this way. It allowed me to speak to the audience, even though I was on the screen with another actor..." Lewis had such confidence in Caine that he even accepted a casting suggestion he made - Vivien Merchant (the wife of playwright Harold Pinter at the time) for the part of Lily. Merchant, an acclaimed stage actress, had never made a movie before and refused to do a screen test but Gilbert decided to give her the role on Caine's recommendation (the actor had acted with her on stage in the play, The Room).
Alfie proved to be a great learning experience for Caine in many ways and one lesson learned the hard way was "never smoke during a lengthy dialogue scene." In What's It All About?, Caine wrote "There I was having done a long shot of a scene smoking a cigarette all the way through, and everything was fine until Lewis said, "Okay, we are coming for the close up." I still hadn't spotted the difficulty until shooting was underway, when the continuity girl called for the shot to be cut because my hand movements with the cigarette did not match those in the long - which of course was absolutely essential if the editor was going to be able to cut between the two shots. We did the shot over and over as I took a puff on the wrong line and then blew the smoke out on another wrong line. It became a nightmare and eventually took fifteen takes to get the shot - a rarity on Alfie, where the majority of the shots in the film were take one, not because we were particularly brilliant but because we had very little money and thus very little time."
Besides Caine, the cast of Alfie featured some of the most renowned and talented actors in Britain at that time, all of whom got to shine in highly individualized roles - Millicent Martin as Siddie, Julia Foster as Gilda, Jane Asher (musician Paul McCartney's girlfriend at the time) as Annie, Shirley Anne Field as the nurse Carla, Denholm Elliott as the abortionist (Caine later stated that he felt intimidated by the actor's scene-stealing expertise) and of course, the aforementioned Vivien Merchant in the film's most vivid sequence. The only non-Brit in the cast was Shelley Winters; she was Caine's first acting experience with a major Hollywood star.
In one of the more amusing recollections of Alfie in his biography, Caine recalls meeting Winters for the first time as he was preparing to go into makeup for a scene. "I decided to introduce myself there and then, which I did and she said, "Let's do it before we go into makeup, otherwise we will have to get made-up again." "Do what?" I asked innocently. "Screw," she replied to my amazement. "I always like to screw the leading man on the first day and get it out of the way because it can interfere with the performance sometimes." I stood there for a moment with my mouth agape, trying to reply but for once speechless and then I fled, her laughter echoing down the corridor behind me. She was not serious, of course. I think she was just playing the old pro trick of wrong-footing the other actor if you don't feel too confident yourself, which of course one never does on the first day."
Michael Caine really didn't need to worry about his performance. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar® for Alfie and in all, the film scored a total of five nominations including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Vivien Merchant), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bill Naughton) and Best Song (by Burt Bacharach and Hal David). Unfortunately, it didn't win in any category - A Man for All Seasons and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? took most of the major awards - but most critics loved it. Richard Schickel wrote, "You may hate yourself for it in the morning, but I think you are going to enjoy Alfie very much. It is an exuberant movie on a savage subject - the contemporary antihero, a coward, ne'er-do-well, and mighty fornicator..." Stephen Farber in Film Quarterly stated that "Alfie reminds us of the importance good writing can have in films, at a time when everyone is insisting on purely visual matters...This is no easy morality play in which a bad man suffers for his sins. Alfie, in a very real sense, suffers for his virtues, and he doesn't seem to know it. The film is, of course, highly moral in the way in which it builds sympathy for Alfie around this inconsistency - that is, around the generosity that he wants to suppress. Although Naughton is too shrewd an observer to pretend that this generosity is ever pure, ever free of Alfie's small, craven vanities, he does implicitly condemn sensual pleasure completely unrestrained by compassion." Even the usually conservative Bosley Crowther of The New York Times remarked "The whole thing is played expertly by everyone in the large cast, and a lively jazz score [by Sonny Rollins] and bright color make it seem much more casual than it is."
Despite the "recommended for mature audiences" rating, moviegoers flocked to the film, especially women who were curious about the new British matinee idol who was quickly developing a reputation as a ladies' man, both on-screen and off; one Hollywood executive remarked, "Alfie makes Warren Beatty look like a novice." Ironically, Caine soon found himself cast opposite Warren Beatty's sister, Shirley MacLaine, in his next film, a caper comedy called Gambit (1966); it was just the beginning of an unending stream of major roles for Caine that continues to this day. Alfie, however, will always remain one of the actor's finest achievements and one that will be remembered long after the 2004 remake with Jude Law has faded from memory.
Producer: John Gilbert, Lewis Gilbert
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay: Bill Naughton
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Film Editing: Thelma Connell
Art Direction: Peter Mullins
Music: Sonny Rollins
Cast: Michael Caine (Alfie Elkins), Shelley Winters (Ruby), Millicent Martin (Siddie), Julia Foster (Gilda), Jane Asher (Annie), Shirley Anne Field (Carla).
by Jeff Stafford