Friday, 1 August 2014

Alfie - Bill Broughton


The ingenuity of Bill Broughton was in his creating a character that was totally self-centred and utterly immoral yet charming and very, very funny. As played by Michael Caine, Alfie has gone on to become an icon of 1960s British cinema though for younger generations the re-make featuring Jude Law is perhaps better known than the original. Of the two films the 1966 version is the superior for a multitude of reasons that are just too numerous and too obvious to go into here.
It's a funny thing, actually, how films can be re-made but books are never re-written. Why is that?

The sexism displayed in Alfie is outrageous and many will nowadays find it repulsive but if you can get your head around it and view it as, for example, a comic device then Alfie stands as a brilliant book on a par with anything written by Sartre or Camus. I choose these two examples carefully because in my opinion Alfie is an English existential anti-hero worthy of as much consideration as any character created by these aforementioned authors.

Alfie is an Outsider in the classic Colin Wilson sense. He's detached from the everyday preoccupations of everyone around him and instead spends his time chasing a fugitive vision of freedom propelled by a nagging feeling of absurd hopelessness in the face of life: "But what's the answer, that's what I keep asking myself." he says "No matter which way you turn you're caught. I go through life with that question on my mind: what's the bleeding answer?"

Alfie's philosophy and world view is forged through the prism of a politically conservative working class life. He's a Cockney upstart who's out for a good time and - as Arthur Seaton put it in the film version of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning - all the rest is propaganda. He sees money as being everything and that as "nobody don't 'elp you in this life - you gotta 'elp yourself." He views coalminers as being the backbone of the country and civil servants as being a "steadying influence"; whilst the only way to keep people working is to scare the life out of them. He has little time for male friends, particularly for the blokey sort but spends his time instead with as many women as possible.
Alfie loves women and women love Alfie, the problem being, however, that he loves them for only one reason and that's simply as a way of bringing him pleasure. Respect for women just doesn't enter into it and in fact, his view of them is so primitive that it makes for high comedy. He calls women 'it' instead of 'her' or 'she' and to him they just seem born to suffer: "Never stop a woman from working." he says "If you do you'll get her frustrated. Poor bloody women, they don't half suffer one way or another, but what can you do? You can't argue with nature." He has little care for their thoughts and believes "There's nothing a man enjoys more than seeing a woman slaving away for him."

If his thoughts are shocking - "Know what, I sometimes think this world would be a happier place if all the sick people and whatnot dropped dead. When you get down to it they're only an encumbrance to themselves and everybody else." - then his actions are even more so. One of the main scenarios in the book is regarding a back street abortion which takes place at his lodgings. Alfie is the father and the pregnant woman is the wife of a fellow patient at the hospital where Alfie stays whilst suffering from tuberculosis. On inducing the woman, the abortionist hurries away and Alfie puts his coat on to do the same:
"You're not going," says the pregnant woman "You're not going to leave me, Alfie?"
"You'll be better on your own," he replies "It's one of them things where nobody can help you - and you've got to suffer it out on your own. Let go, Lily, and don't look at me like that, as if I wasn't human. I could flannel you, but where would it get us? If the pain comes on hard - stick a pillow in your mouth. That'll drown the sound."

This event in the end does have a profound shock on him and he decides to stop chasing "the birds" and to settle down with one of his flames. He sets off for her flat with a bouquet of flowers but when he arrives there he finds her in bed with another man - in the book, one of his so-called friends though in the film it's a younger man.

The book as does the film ends with Alfie contemplating the meaning of it all: "Look at me now. I've got some money, haven't I, and I've got a few good suits, a fair car, and I've got my health back. But I haven't got my peace of mind. And if you haven't got that you've got nothing.
But what's the answer? That's what I keep asking myself. I suppose it's what everybody in this life is asking themselves."
In the film, of course, Michael Caine finishes his monologue by asking "What's it all about? Know what I mean?" before Cilla Black enters with the theme song asking the same question: "What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?"

The book doesn't provide any easy answers, and instead simply depicts the character of Alfie and poses the questions. His behaviour and his attitude isn't condoned or condemned though it successfully shows him as being a fool unto himself. The lesson Alfie fails to learn is to learn from his lessons and it's this which keeps him rooted in one place, condemning him to live what essentially is a very lonely life. The women too are also foolish for putting up with Alfie's behaviour and for entertaining his absurd opinions though they unlike him are able to learn and in the end move on to better things.

Both the book and the film have always been presented as bawdy comedies and whilst they are indeed both extremely funny and entertaining they are also - the book in particular - deeply philosophical. The Jude Law re-make has somewhat clouded the water by transforming the whole story into a romantic comedy set in New York but the original film is so much more than this and the original book even more so and is deserving of reappraisal.  

Know what I mean?
John Serpico

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