Alfie (Michael Caine) is a chirpy Cockney, coasting along on charm as he beds and dumps various women. Along the way events force him to confront the consequences of his hedonistic lifestyle.
The trailer sells it purely as a comedy- and it is very funny in places. At the time it was the frank attitude towards sex that was comic, but now we can laugh more knowingly at the outrageous sexism. There is however a dark undercurrent underneath Alfie’s misogyny; the women in his life cower before him. He picks up a young woman hitchhiking from Sheffield (an appalling accent from Jane Asher) and essentially turns her into a domestic slave, which he slowly becomes repelled by. Caine portrays the conflict between how Alfie sees himself- Cockney player- and how Alfie really is- a cold brute very effectively. The Cockney accent and Alfie’s hip slang is dated and a little grating but in the moments where it matters, Caine steps up the performance. The scene with the backstreet abortionist and Alfie’s shock at seeing the dead baby are chilling.
Shelley Winters does a good job as Ruby, the older woman who can play Alfie at his own game. She adds some humour to the film; even when Alfie hits dark places, director Lewis Gilbert manages to bring it back to the comedy.
Definitely a product of its time, it explores similar themes to The Graduate. Until the central characters understand themselves and their place in the world, they are unable to sustain a relationship. Whilst they are free agents and make the most of the sexual revolution they are isolated. This conflict makes the film compelling; if you can look beyond the iconic status, there’s much more substance than its place in film history would suggest.