Sharp critique at heart of ‘Alfie’

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The Swinging Sixties was an era of stunning cultural renaissance, a revolt against the socially conservative gloom of a post-war United Kingdom. At a time when counterculture movements were changing the face of society, the United Kingdom found itself leading the charge. 

At the heart of this movement was London, where the brilliant boom of art, jazz, free love and more — all laced with a euphoric style — hummed along freely to the tune of a new generation and its new world. 

The classic 1966 film “Alfie,” director Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of a play with the same name by Bill Naughton, appears on its surface to tap directly into the beating heart of this era (and indeed is often cited as a classic “Swinging Sixties” film). From the opening credits, the chirpy echoes of a tenor saxophone inject the film with a dynamic thrill. And underneath the soaring jazz score, “Alfie” presents a parade of sharp, attractive comedy and a shockingly frank depiction of sexual freedom. Its leading man, Alfie (Michael Caine) likewise captured the image of a new type of star: His smooth sensuality and charismatic wit mirrored the image of characters like James Bond or the suave British rock-and-roller. 

But what makes “Aflie” such a fascinating watch today is that underneath the film’s slick charm lies a sharp critique of the worst of the Swinging Sixties — specifically, the misogynistic undercurrents of this supposedly sexually advanced world.  

Often breaking the fourth wall to explain himself directly to the audience, Aflie narrates the story of his sexual adventures with narcissistic glee, as he carelessly bounces from one woman to the next. But despite his intricate plotting, Aflie leaves one woman, Gilda (Julia Foster) pregnant. Although he initially finds a bond with his new son Malcolm, his refusal to allow an emotional connection with Gilda to end his polyamorous tendencies leads her to marry another man and take Malcolm away. Alfie is left only with memories and a plush teddy bear — a present for his boy he was never able to give.

Yet, Alfie stubbornly refuses to see the light. And the inevitable, heartbreaking tragedy and isolation that he heads toward fancifully points out both the obvious faults in his own character and the era as a whole. Alfie’s belief that his sleek suits, Rolls-Royce and women (who he casually refers to by the pronoun “it”) provide the answers to his prosperity reflects the often hollow materialism of the Swinging Sixties. And while the image of the suave, magnetic Bond may have found ground in this more sexually accepting society, the misogynistic boasts of sexuality that underline his behavior are shown by Alfie to be truly horrific.

A bombastic ballad of dreamy jazz still blares as the credits roll, but the grotesque nature of “Alfie” makes it ring all the more eerie.

Contact David Newman at [email protected].