I grew up in the 80s and 90s, when Michael Caine was to be found in movies like Jaws: The Revenge and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He was a recognisable move star, but I could never figure out why. When I see his well regarded movies from that time, like Hannah and Her Sisters, I still found his movie stardom and growing iconic status kind of inexplicable. Then, a few months ago I saw The Italian Job, and it all started making sense. It turns out, to understand Michael Caine, you need to watch 60s Michael Caine. 60s Michael Caine in movies like Alfie.
Opening on a cold looking night in a depressing looking industrial street, we hear Alfie (Caine) romancing some bird in the tight confines of the front seat of his car. When she leaves, Alfie breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience to let us know he’s a bit of a player, specialising in romancing married women. He likes them married, because it means they’re generally happy with the physical.
On the rare occasion when they do show any signs of adding an emotional layer, he unceremoniously ends things. But there’s one single woman in his life (Julie Foster as Gilda), who Alfie makes the mistake of knocking up. When the child is born, he shows a surprising amount of affection for the child and may even be on the way to settling down. But when Gilda decides to marry someone a little more stable and forbids Alfie from seeing their son, he returns to his womanizing ways with a vengeance.
Discovering a hereditary health condition, Alfie ends up in hospital for a spell where he meets fellow patient, the terminally ill Harry (Alfie Bass). More importantly, he meets Harry’s wife, Lily (Vivien Merhcant). Once out of hospital, he continues to visit Harry, while also ‘meeting’ with Lily on the side. There’s also American money bags Ruby (Shelley Winters), who gives him a little taste of his own philandering medicine. All of this leads to Alfie learning a few important lessons about love, responsibility and being a man. But they all come at a pretty horrendous cost.
The story and watchability of Alfie lives and dies by whoever plays its titular lead. Alfie is a terrible, emotionally bankrupt prick for the majority of this movie. But he’s also in every single scene, often talking directly to us, the audience. So you need someone with a certain charisma who can do these horrible things, but still have enough of a cheeky wink to make us almost look past them. Michael Caine does such an amazing job with that duality of the character, that I hated him from the opening minutes, yet somehow still wanted him to win in the end.
If the movies made at the time are anything to go by and reflect real life in the slightest, England sure was a dressing place to live in the 60s. Everyone lived in terrible, tiny flats, everyone went from one crap job to the next, if they were lucky enough to have a job at all. And everyone was out to scam the system and whoever else might cross their path, just to get that little bit extra. There might only be one character in Alfie who comes off as being a good person, and that is the tread upon doormat who ends up raising Alfie’s kid. So even then, I didn’t really like him, I just felt sorry for him.
This is a story about a bad person, living in a depressing world where there are no real happy endings. But I’ll be buggered if I didn’t spend long stretches of Alfie with a smile on my face. This is the Michael Caine that has made him an icon half a century later.