Alfie (UK 1966)

Michael Caine with Jane Asher

Michael Caine with Jane Asher

Alfie was the first of three Bill Naughton stories to reach cinema screens between 1966 and 1969 and it proved the most commercially successful – partly because of its popularity in North America. William Naughton (1910-1992) was born in Ireland but moved as a young child to Bolton and it is his Bolton experiences that inform the other two 1960s films, The Family Way (1966) and Spring and Port Wine (1969). I’ve watched these two films recently and I thought it might be useful to consider the three films together. The following notes on Alfie were first started several years ago for A Level Film Studies work on 60s British Cinema and I’ve updated them considerably for this posting.

American investment in British cinema

The Hollywood studios were active in the UK in the 1960s, partly as a result of industrial inertia which meant that they still had studio facilities and investments in UK film companies (e.g. MGM and Warner Bros.). But other Hollywood players were also attracted by the prospect of finding new talents and exploiting the growing reputation of London as the new capital of international pop culture – the so-called ‘Swinging’ London’ portrayed on the cover of Time Magazine in April 1966. Time was a little late with its cover and Hollywood interest in London had already been piqued by Dick Lester’s success with A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 and again with The Knack in 1965. These two films continued a successful run for United Artists in the UK, following Tom Jones (1963).

Alfie was financed by Paramount and like Tom Jones it was made in colour. Michael Caine was the ‘break-out’ star of 1964-5 in Zulu (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965) and the production was built around him. The cast included seven female roles (as Alfie’s ‘conquests’), all played by women who were well-known to British audiences of the time, and was filled out by a number of other familiar actors in supporting roles. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, a solid industry professional with a string of mainstream hits during the 1950s and early 1960s, and photographed by the veteran Otto Heller with a similarly impressive CV, the film also included a score by American jazzman Sonny Rollins. As a younger jazz musician (35 when the film was released), Rollins gave the film a bit more of a modern feel – which it definitely needed.

Naughton’s story

Naughton’s original play Alfie Elkins and His Little Life was first broadcast in January 1962 on what was then the Third Programme on BBC Radio and then appeared as a stage production in 1964. But the story events went back much further to the 1940s and 1950s. Alfie (played by Bill Owen) is a working-class lothario working his way through a stream of relationships with willing women. As Bob Murphy points out in Sixties British Cinema (BFI 1992), Alfie is less the new man of the 1960s – freed from class restrictions by the success of pop groups and working-class celebrities such as David Bailey and Terence Stamp – and more the spiv character from the 1940s surviving intact in the ‘new London’. Caine himself (in his early 30s ) is arguably too old, the actor having had his first youthful fling as a National Service conscript in Germany and Korea in 1952-4. Caine was three years older than Albert Finney who was already past the ‘youthful rebellion’ stage. This is compounded by Alfie’s dress sense – a military blazer was not exactly cool in 1966. The fact that Caine/Alfie is old enough to have experienced National Service marks him out from the younger men who would have been too young to have been conscripted (i.e. born after 1939). The history of National Service (1945-63), which took two years out of a young man’s life, is too often ignored in discussing British films of the 1960s. It helped to create three distinct generations of men with the National Service conscripts seeing the world differently than either the war-time soldiers or the post-war teenagers who followed them in the late 1950s.

The plot sees Alfie work his way through two young working-class women (Julia Foster and Jane Asher) three women closer to his own age (Millicent Martin, Eleanor Bron plus the beautiful Shirley-Ann Field from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) and two older women (Vivien Merchant and Shelley Winters). If you haven’t seen the film I won’t spoil who it is who brings Alfie’s game to an end.

Style and genre

Alfie is a comedy or more correctly a comedy-drama. While some of his conquests are equally ‘up for a good time’, in at least three cases the social reality of Alfie’s world intrudes, including in the infamous ‘back street abortion’ scene which deposits a foetus on his kitchen table. Did this make it into the American release? (Abortion was not legally available in the UK until David Steel’s Private Member’s Bill on Abortion Law Reform was passed in 1967, coming into effect in 1968.) Alfie is shot on location around London with both the typical tourist spots and areas of social housing featured. The main device to underpin Alfie’s chirpy demeanour is his straight to camera delivery of asides about each ‘bird’ he has bedded and whether ‘it’ is happy or not with her lot. This technique is borrowed from Albert Finney in Tom Jones (1963), but perhaps now makes the film feel old-fashioned rather than ‘modern’.

Reading the film

But if Alfie does not fit the description of ‘Swinging London’ films, does this mean it cannot ‘represent’ London? Far from it – ‘Swinging London’ was itself a construction by journalists to represent what was only a tiny group of successful people in the new world of the media and the either beautiful or rich followers that they attracted. There are around twenty films that might be described in this way. Alfie is arguably more representative of working-class and lower middle-class London in the 1960s than the other ‘Swinging London’ titles.

What Alfie does offer is a fascinating amalgam of the new ‘anti-hero’ of the post-Suez generation (i.e. post-1956), working-class but upwardly mobile, with a more traditional ‘cockney jack-the-lad’. Alfie sits incongruously next to Darling’s young middle-class woman on the make (Julie Christie in 1965) and Smashing Time’s young working-class girls taking on London (Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave in 1967) – though in 1966 it sat slightly more easily alongside Georgy Girl, based on a slightly older novel by Margaret Forster. Five or six years later, when the Women’s Movement began to influence social interaction beyond a few university campuses, Alfie already seemed an unlikely character for a feature film (unless as a satire). But in 1966 the character’s charm deflected much of the possible criticism. This is what some of the critics said at the time:

‘ . . . talking about Alfie . . . Caine himself (said) . . . I want people to feel violently after they walk out of this film. Not just say, ‘Yes, a pleasant little laugh but why the abortion in the middle? . . . I wouldn’t have accepted the script if I hadn’t seen a real theme saying something in it.’

Jane Gaskell, Daily Sketch, 23 March 1966

‘When you see seven women in one film putting up the performances of their young or middle-aged careers, it is unusual enough to rouse a cheer. The fact that it happens in a British film deserves two cheers.’ [Shelley Winters was the oldest at 44 – hardly ‘middle-aged’ by modern standards.]

Alexander Walker, Evening Standard, 24 March 1966

‘At the end of it all, when his heart is heavy, and his soul as dark as the night which steals over the river, Alfie stands alone on the desolate Embankment. The wide-boy, the Cockney Casanova, the callous breaker of women’s hearts is finally face to face with ultimate sadness. Superlatively directed by Lewis Gilbert, this is a field study of sensual modern man and jungle morals, as played with a fleshy insidious charm by Michael Caine.’

Felix Barber, Evening News, 24 March 1966

‘From underneath a mop of tousled blond curls, a languorous, lazy-lidded pair of eyes look the girls coolly up and down. They belong to the latest and most outrageous of all our modern screen anti-heroes . . . who is he? He’s ALFIE.’

Michael Thornton, Sunday Express, 27 March 1966

‘Miss Merchant draws a beautiful portrait of reluctance and shame, all low voice, low temperature, low tones.’

Dilys Powell, Sunday Times, 27 March 1966

‘ . . . the women . . . are superbly played: by Vivien Merchant as the respectable wife he takes as casually as a cigarette, by Julia Foster as the scrubbed, adoring doormat, by ———- as the only one voracious enough to match and at least reject him, by Eleanor Bron as the woman doctor startled into an amused, reluctant response.’

Isabel Quigly, The Spectator, 1 April 1966

(all quotes originally from a BFI web page that has since moved)

Naughton as author

The intriguing question is to ask what Alfie has in common with the other two films from Naughton plays, both set in Bolton and one of which, The Family Way, came out only a few months later. Naughton was in his 50s in the mid 1960s and he’d had a wide range of ‘real jobs’, mostly in the North of England – his London experience had been in the 1940s during the war. His male characters are often strong and self-opinionated but there are always roles for women and in the other two films there are potential conflicts between working-class fathers and their grown-up children. There are also strong communities in Bolton and everybody has ‘proper jobs’. Alfie seems defined by his seeming rootlessness and his ‘jobs’ include chauffering and being a street photographer. However, what can’t be denied is that all three plays/films have strong narratives, well-drawn characters and roots in social reality of some kind – perhaps less so in the case of Alfie, but still there.

International success

Amazingly, Alfie won the Jury Prize at Cannes, where it was in competition for the Palme d’Or, and it was nominated for five Oscars – including one for Best Song, written by Bacharach and David and sung by Cher in the US and Cilla Black in the UK. IMDB suggests that the film grossed over $18 million on its US release, which for a film with a production budget of less than $1 million was certainly an indicator of success.

I can only imagine that in North America Alfie was taken as an emblematic story of Swinging London. 1965-6 were key years on the front-line of popular cultural change in the UK – though ‘underneath’ the headline stories, change was much slower. Michael Caine moved into different kinds of roles very quickly after Alfie, though aspects of his working-class lad from Rotherhithe/Elephant and Castle battling with casting as a more neutral ‘British’ character can be distinguished in films such as the Second World War ‘action’ films Play Dirty (1969) and Too Late the Hero (1970), both imbued with a ‘post 1960s cynicism’.

The success of Alfie led to further versions. Naughton wrote a follow-up in the form of a novel, Alfie Darling (1970), that was made into a film in 1975 with Alan Price in the lead and Joan Collins and other well-known names among the female cast members. I haven’t seen this Ken Hughes film which came out at the end of the British film industry’s last studio era. Hughes was a mainstream writer and director of the 1960s with major credits such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

Naughton’s original screenplay for Alfie was dusted off and updated/revised for a US/UK remake in 2004, starring Jude Law. Written by Elaine Pope and Charles Shyer and directed by Shyer this was marketed more as a ‘romantic comedy’. Budgeted at around $60 million, I’m assuming that this project lost Paramount a considerable sum. I haven’t seen the film but it was generally panned. Presumably the new version was meant to be ironic? That’s a dangerous game that was avoided in the original.

Here’s the original US trailer for Alfie:

(See Nick’s post on The Pleasure Girls (UK 1965) for a different take on sexual mores in London at this time.)

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