“I think if you were to spend all your time with birds, you’d begin to feel you’re going a bit doolally. It’s my opinion there isn’t one in a thousand right in the head, but I must admit I love ’em. I mean, they give a bloke so much pleasure in his little life.”
The story of a cockney Don Juan who finally finds out the truth that to make birds and brass (especially birds) the primary object in your life brings disillusionment with the passing years.
East End wide boy Alfie Elkins (Michael Caine) is not really a bad person. It’s just that he has an overwhelming desire for the opposite sex. In fact, he finds “birds” irresistible.
Alfie plays merry hell with the women in his life – mournful Lily (Vivien Merchant), rich and buxom Ruby (Shelley Winters), artless and naive Gilda (Julia Foster), and Siddie (Millicent Martin), a married woman who carries on a torrid affair with Alfie behind her husband’s back – but he’s beginning to find the competition catching up with him.
Alfie’s snappy flannels and bogus regimental blazers mark him as an old-fashioned sexual predator, but he is losing ground to the dandified young bucks who prowl Swinging London.
Burning the candle at both ends takes its inevitable toll, and Alfie finds himself at the local chest clinic, although sure enough, it’s an attractive woman doctor (Eleanor Bron) who carries out the examination. But doctor or not, she is just another bird as far as Alfie is concerned, and he reacts accordingly . . .
And so it is the TB sanitarium for Alfie, but that doesn’t stop his amorous excursions. A nurse called Carla (Shirley Anne Field) helps him out.
Not above poaching another man’s preserves, Alfie more or less steals a girl from a long-distance lorry driver. She is Annie from Lancashire (Jane Asher), who he installs in his flat, and she soon has the place spick and span as a palace. Home-cooked steak and kidney pudding, Lancashire hotpot, baked custards and clean surroundings show Alfie a side of home life which he has never seen before and he finds it attractive.
But he sees danger signals when his mates begin ribbing him about his new-found domesticity and is soon back on the bird-chasing treadmill.
Before he became associated with restaurants, Michael Caine was absolutely excellent as the foul-mouthed anti-hero. The part of Alfie was like a second skin, and it was a screen persona so effective that he used it for the next 20 years.
You may not like Alfie or how he constantly confides in you from the screen, but you will find him interesting.
His combination of emotional detachment and male chauvinism could easily stick in the throat, but that persuasive Caine charm, directed as much to the audience (through asides direct to camera) as his female targets, is shot through with vulnerability.
Paramount made the movie on a shoestring budget expecting little from it, and ended up with a potential Oscar-winner. The movie received a nomination for Best Picture, and Caine was nominated for Best Actor.
Also nominated were actress Vivien Merchant and Bill Naughton, who wrote both the screenplay and the original stage play. Even the title song (composed by Burt Bacharach and sung by Cilla Black) won a nomination.
Downbeat ending aside, this frank (for its time) movie was a smash at the box office, won critical acclaim and became a lasting tribute to sixties London vibrancy.
A vastly inferior 2004 remake starred Jude Law in the title role.
Shirley Anne Field