Tuesday, May 06, 2008


As anyone who has read this blog for more than twelve seconds knows, I am the lifelong host of an ongoing Festival of Bad Cinema. It seems to be the position I was born to hold. Even when I set myself up to watch a classic of the cinematic arts, it often turns out that I’m actually Festivaling like there’s no tomorrow.

So it was on Saturday night, when my bad movie guru GC and I watched the original 1966 version of ‘Alfie’, and I found myself asking every ten minutes or so, “Why is this slow-moving, loveless ‘comedy’ so famous?”

‘Alfie’ is fondly remembered as an iconic wacky sex comedy of the Swinging Sixties, but I’ve seen iconic wacky sex comedies from the Swinging Sixties, and ‘Alfie’ isn’t one. It’s a dreary kitchen sink melodrama dressed up as wacky sex comedy, which is nowhere near as interesting.

Alfie, as played by Michael Caine, is a charming cad who spends his days, or more accurately his nights, boinking his way around Greater London. In his constant asides to the camera, he explains his philosophies of life and love, whether it be rationalizing his obnoxious treatment of his many codependent girlfriends, justifying his adultery or simply holding forth about responsibility and mortality. Over the course of the movie, however, his various chickens come home to roost (most notably when he sees the end result of an abortion he organized, and when one of his women turns the tables and treats him the same way he’s treated countless girls) and we see the first, slow signs that he’s beginning to understand the error of his ways.

I can imagine that it’s possible to tell this story in the form of a wacky sex comedy, but this movie doesn’t... I suspect because the makers didn’t have their heart in it. Alfie does not live in the England of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Mary Quant or groovy girls in plastic minidresses. He lives in an England carried over from the 50s; the England of rationing, Butlins holiday camps and twee, underpowered cars. There’s no swinging, just a layer of forced jollity over a grim, deprived existence. It’s 1966, and yet in London itself antibiotics aren’t available to ordinary citizens, and people still treat radios as a major purchase - this major international city has the standard of living of a hick town in rural Arkansas. Even their version of smart jazz is pathetic; a horrible, music hall tinged cacophony that Satan no doubt plays to Django Reinhart, Stan Getz and Sarah Vaughan down in Hell.

As a comedy, 'Alfie' owes more to the depressing Carry On movies than it does to sophisticated sex farces like 'What’s New Pussycat' or 'Boeing Boeing'. There seems to be something in the 20th century British character that doesn’t quite allow them to immerse themselves in the zaniness and ribaldry necessary for a good sex farce. It’s as if they don’t trust themselves. I’m reminded of something Bill Bryson once wrote about the British and their relationship with dessert: when they want a sweet treat, they look to scones and rock cakes, and if you took them over the Channel and offered them a genuine treat, like a chocolate éclair, they would freak out and retreat back to Putney.

Maybe I’m being unfair. There was definitely something different about the film, a certain freshness to its attitude which only becomes apparent when you watch other kitchen sink dramas of the era. But it’s not enough to explain its fame. The funny thing about 'Alfie' is that it’s very difficult to view it fairly: if you view it as a product of its era then it says more about the wretchedness of general British life in the 50s and 60s than it does about its hero or sexual politics. If you try and view it outside its era, however, it simply becomes a slow-moving, unevenly-wrought melodrama wearing an unconvincing comedy hat.

Maybe it just needed some Ursula Andress. But then of course that’s pretty much my answer for everything.


Blogger TimT said...

So, what's it all about - Alfie?

BTW - I could totally go a rock cake right about now.

10:42 AM  

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