Anticipating that Alfie, The Remake might leave something to be desired, we rented both of them and watched the new one first. This review will refer to both of them, as after watching the new one I was inspired only to a jape, below.
I’d forgotten just how good this movie is. Alfie Elkins is one of the most fully-realized and complex characters ever to appear on the screen. At first he seems a likeable rogue, who “never means to hurt anybody.” His treatment of women is a mixture of gentleness and depersonalization; he often refers to them with the pronoun “it.” In spite of this, you can’t help liking his wry cockney observations on life in general and on birds in particular. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit that when I first saw the movie I was pretty much in complete agreement with his outlook. What can I tell you? I was 19. I’d read the Playboy Philosophy, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing women as people. Neither is Alfie … yet he sees them that way when he least expects it, and sometimes even seems to realize that his outlook is stunted and will lead only to an empty life. He travels a long way down that road in the course of the movie. He has the capacity for love, but will only allow himself to become that vulnerable with his illegitimate child, who he loses. He can feel empathy, as during the absolutely harrowing abortion scene, and by the end, he certainly knows regret. What’s it all about, Alfie?
Alfie in 2004 hasn’t got a clue. By that, I mean the movie, the actor, and the character. They’ve tried for a softer, cuter Alfie, and ended up totally cutting off his balls and turning him into a cipher I wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with, much less two hours. And how very, very odd that, in 2004, the girlfriend fakes an abortion, apparently just so the screenwriter can wring a little phony emotion from a scene late in the movie. Come to think of it, we hardly ever see a movie or TV show these days where a woman gets an abortion. Too politically charged, I guess, though it’s legal now and wasn’t in 1966.
Michael Caine lost the Oscar that year to Paul Scofield, in a very good but standard portrayal in A Man For All Seasons. Caine should have won. I mean, the movie lives or dies with whether or not we buy him talking directly to us, and from his very first lines I do buy it. It’s a proposition Jude Law never sold me on.
But I can’t end without mentioning two Oscar-worthy supporting roles: Vivian Merchant tore my soul to shreds with her agony, and Denholm Eliot somehow managed to create one of the most horrid characters I’ve ever seen on the screen, the back-alley abortionist, without me ever knowing quite how he did it. Amazing.