One night, in the UK, in 1965…
In a London flat, a phone rings. Up-and-coming actor Terrence Stamp answers. On the other end, the producers of an up-coming film called Alfie ask Stamp if he would be interested in playing the lead role. In many ways, Stamp seems like the obvious choice. After all, he already starred in the stage version of Alfie. He knows the character and everyone knows that he’s going to be a big star…
And that’s why Stamp turns down the role. The character of Alfie is an irresponsible and self-centered womanizer who, over the course of the play, has numerous affairs, arranges for one illegal abortion, treats almost everyone terribly, and, at the end of the movie, ends up alone. Not only will the film’s risqué subject matter provide a challenge, even if it is being made in “swinging London,” but Alfie just isn’t a heroic figure. He has some good lines. He makes a few good jokes and, after arranging an abortion for one of his girlfriends, he realizes just how empty his life really is. But, as written, Alfie is hardly sympathetic.
Stamp says he’s not interested in playing Alfie on screen and then he hangs up.
Two minutes later, the phone rings again. Stamp answers. It’s the producers of Alfie. They ask to speak to his roommate, a cockney actor who was born Maurice Micklewhite but who, at the start of his acting career, changed his name to Michael Caine.
And that’s how Michael Caine came to star in the 1966 film, Alfie.
Alfie not only made Michael Caine a star, it also landed him his first Oscar nomination. It was especially a popular film in the States, where it tapped into a youth culture that was obsessed with all things British and a desire, on the part of many filmgoers, to see films that deal with “adult” topics that American films, at that time, wouldn’t dare touch. Though Alfie may seem rather tame by today’s standards (for a film about a man obsessed with sex, there’s actually not much of it to be found in Alfie), one can still see why it would have taken American audiences by surprise in 1966. At a time when American films still starred Doris Day and Bob Hope, here was a British film about a working class cockney who screws almost every woman he meets, both figuratively and literally.
And really, it’s fortunate that Michael Caine accepted that role. Along with Stamp, Alfie‘s producers also tried to interest Richard Harris and Laurence Harvey in the role. All three of them would have brought a harder edge to the character. However, Michael Caine has just enough charm to make Alfie likable, even when his actions are not. Since a good deal of the film is made up of Alfie breaking the fourth wall and talking straight to the audience (and, often times, not exactly saying that most charitable of words), that charm is essential to the film’s success. Michael Caine’s Alfie is self-centered but, at the same time, you never doubt that there’s a better man lurking underneath the surface. You forgive Alfie a lot because, thanks to Caine’s performance, you can see the man that he’s capable of being.
Alfie is pretty much Michael Caine’s show but he’s ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially Jane Asher as a poignantly insecure hitchhiker and Shelley Winters as a cheerfully promiscous American. And then there’s Denholm Elliott, who plays an abortionist with a seedy intensity that catch you off-guard and drives home the dark reality lurking underneath Alfie‘s charm.
For a film that is often described as being very much a product of its time, Alfie holds up surprisingly well. It was nominated for best picture but it lost to something far more sedate, A Man For All Seasons.