The tale of Michael Caine’s Jack the lad turned 50 this year. We asked Jess Fostekew to watch and see how time has treated it.
What and why: Released in 1966, Alfie is a comedy ostensibly about the frolics of a scoundrel. A heartless philanderer, played by a diamond-eyed, long-lashed Michael Caine. It’s written by and based on the play by Bill Naughton and directed by Lewis Gilbert.
I’d never seen it until now but it’s been on my ‘classics you really ought to have seen by now, please’ list forever. It won awards at Cannes and the BAFTAs and it was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture. It was a big deal.
In 2004, there was a remake with Jude Law which, critically, went down as well as a follow-through in a wedding dress. Now, Law is perfectly capable of ruining a great thing singlehandedly. But usually, when everyone gets that wobbly-lipped about a remake it means there was something very special about the original.
Rated or dated: I wasn’t alive in the mid-60s so I can only try to imagine the power this had in the context of the world it’s set in. Watching it now, I got a lot more than I bargained for. As is the way with a few of my favourite comedies, I found it utterly harrowing.
Michael Caine plays Alfie as naturalistically and deadpan as it’s possible to with a character whose trademark is to talk directly to camera. He is outstanding and it has to be said, disarmingly beautiful. His eyes are so twinkly. Anything less, I suppose, and it would have been unwatchable.
There’s no complex plot. It’s an olden days version of a lad’s ‘vlog’. Alfie goes from conquest to conquest, an emotional wrecking ball, and we’re allowed along with him. But that’s not to say there’s no journey, there’s a horrific rollercoaster ride of one. And it goes down a tunnel with only darkness at the end.
Alfie hates women. Within the first 10 minutes he’s told us, “Any bird that knows its place in the world can be happy.” Later, he’s reprimanded by a friend: “Who you callin’ ‘she’? That’s my wife,” and he responds, “She. It. They’re all birds.”
“Perhaps a bloke like that might have been greeted with an eye-roll and a tut then, whereas now the things Alfie does to women are recognised as heinous. I wanted him dead.”
From the off and throughout, women are referred to as ‘birds’, ‘it’ and things men have ‘got’. At the time that might have been language that was par for the course among men who didn’t go on to actually treat women half as terrifyingly as Alfie does in this film. So you can see how at the time the film starts as a cheeky, chirpy thing and descends into a horror show of morbidity.
In 2016 though, that’s hard to swallow from the start. Outside of Trump’s locker room, in the perhaps naively progressive company I keep, that language is obscene and extreme. It made the character loathsome to me from the off. He makes Dapper Laughs look cute. That’s not to say I wasn’t properly captivated, I was. But in the same way that I am when I watch a documentary about a serial killer.
I believe this film is meant to start light-heartedly. Alfie’s a ‘cheeky monkey’, just a ‘Jack the lad’. If that had been the case and one had spent the first part of the film giggling and charmed, perhaps the increasing revelation that he’s actually a monster might have hit even harder. His behaviour gets worse and worse until you can’t believe it can get worse still. And then it does.
I’m keen to avoid spoiling. But there were times where I was shouting at the screen: “No! Not her. NO.” He’s a moral vortex. Or perhaps a current value-set about gender equality is what makes the film quite so affecting? I can’t decide. Perhaps a bloke like that might have been greeted with an eye-roll and a tut then, whereas now the things he does to women are recognised as heinous. I wanted him dead.
There are small moments where we’re meant to glimpse his humanity, his complexity. Moments where he gets tiny shards of comeuppance. I found them all to be just teases, mirages. How far it goes is totally brilliant. At the time the talking to camera was novel and I do think that without that personal connection it might have been unbearable.
For a comedy, I didn’t ever laugh. I maybe smiled a few times but really I was too busy wringing my hands. It really hit me in the guts. It is absolutely still RATED, potentially more than ever. It goes to lengths you don’t think it will and I know I’ll be thinking about it for ages.
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Jessica Fostekew is a writer, comedian, actor, law degree-waster, sister, daughter and beard-fan with an unabashed food infatuation.