The Magazine

What's It All About?

The director and stars of the new Alfie miss what the book was trying to do.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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THE HERO of Bill Naughton's 1966 novel Alfie is a cocky fellow, well-dressed and glib, a Cockney playboy who knows what it takes to woo the girls. When he first appears, Alfie is with Siddie, a "married woman of twenty-nine, so she said." She's his "regular Thursday night bint," he explains, and "a fair bit of grumble, clean as a nut, a trifle on the leggy side for my fancy, with muscles on her calves." But "she's got this beautiful chest." And "talk about cleavage!--it's like the Rotherhithe Tunnel."

They're parked near the Thames, at Blackfriars, in a Ford Consul deluxe. Alfie is done for the night, and done with Siddie too, although she doesn't know. Lately, she's been getting pushy, stepping too far into Alfie's space. "Once a married woman gets too hot on," he advises, "that's the time to cool off. They get you into trouble and it's not worth it."

Alfie is full of advice, an impulsive talker: "I no sooner think something than out it comes. I can't keep anything to myself." His is a riveting voice, by turns charming and repellent, full of shrewd insight and verve. And it's not surprising to learn that Naughton first created Alfred Elkins as a character in a 1962 radio drama that was soon turned into a successful London stage play starring Terence Stamp. Alfie was Naughton's first novel and sold well in both Britain and the United States, where it was promoted as another daring sign of changing literary times--the ribald confessions of a contemporary Casanova.

Born in 1910, Naughton was raised in Lancashire, and critics often placed him among "the Angry Young Men"--a loose category of British novelists and playwrights who came to prominence during the postwar years. These included John Braine, John Osborne, David Storey, Allan Sillitoe, and Kingsley Amis, whose 1954 novel Lucky Jim was widely regarded as a key "angry" work, with its satirical bite and its disillusioned protagonist at sea among the pompous and pretentious bourgeoisie.

It's true that Naughton shared with Braine, Storey, and Sillitoe a sympathetic interest in working-class characters and themes. He came from a "common laborer's background," as he notes in On the Pig's Back, his 1987 autobiography, and for years his highest hope was to land a "regular and assured" job and a decent pension. Naughton did not attend a university and taught himself to write in the early morning before heading off to drive a truck or bag coal--his main jobs before his writing found its way to the BBC and the London stage.

In fact, Naughton became a compulsive writer who drew closely from life. At the time of his death in 1992, Naughton had compiled a vast journal stored in steel trunks. These, he often said, were by far his most important writings--one man's eight-million-word record of a life fully lived and acutely observed. Naughton recorded countless conversations, many of them overheard in the pubs he frequented and the places he worked. He recalled friends, conflicts, flirtations, dreams, withholding nothing. At his request, Naughton's diaries will stay sealed for years to come.

Naughton was also interested in spiritual and religious matters. In his autobiography, he declares bad writing "a sin against the Holy Spirit--from which source all literature springs." He was a devoted reader of St. Augustine and the mystic Jakob Boehme. A practicing Catholic, Naughton's discovery of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis was, he adds, one of the most momentous events of his life, "far more important than getting married, or having plays and films put on or anything of that sort."

IN ALFIE, Naughton's keen observational skills--and his Catholic sensibility--are much in evidence. Naughton, one assumes, had known many Alfies in his life--clever, coarse men who covered up their fears with posings and boasts. Alfie fears both intimacy and pain. His expectations are low, and he lives for the day. Alfie's disdain for others scarcely conceals his hatred of himself. "I've never respected anybody or anything in all my born days," he admits, adding, "I expect I'll go to the grave not having been respected in turn." But then, "you can live without it. It's dying out everywhere."

Doused with Yardley Eau-de-Cologne for Men and looking sharp in his mohair pants, Alfie is both comic and pathetic, in constant need of the attention and affection he accepts as his due. The strenuous pursuit of women makes for a "marvelous life," he insists, particularly when one adds in the extra little privileges that often come one's way. One of Alfie's conquests runs a dry cleaning shop: "I used to get my suit cleaned in the bargain." Another, a chiropodist, is "no sex bomb as they say" but willing to "trim my toenails handsome."

Alfie eventually seduces Lily, the wife of a friend, a motor mechanic stricken with tuberculosis. He isn't particularly attracted to Lily, a dowdy missus who regularly visits her hospitalized husband bearing baskets full of digestive biscuits and homemade marmalade. But when the opportunity arises, Alfie can't resist, telling himself, "What harm can it do? My trouble is--I've never learnt to refuse something for nothing, even when I don't need it. But what man has?"

WHEN LILY BECOMES PREGNANT, Alfie arranges an abortion, quietly hiring "one of these tailoring blokes around London willing to earn a crafty few quid." Lily quickly exits Alfie's life, and he considers mending his ways. But the mood doesn't quite last. At the novel's close, Alfie again meets up with Siddie, and off they go, arm in arm. "Few things in life are more comforting than to have your arm tucked away in a woman's plump arm inside a fur coat," he declares, "even though it might only be dyed Musquash."

Naughton's Alfie is not without sound and tender impulses. Sometimes he wonders if "we've all got what they call an evil thing in us--I shouldn't be at all surprised--that whispers and tells us things that go against our better understanding." Alfie's conscience is represented by the "little man" he sometimes hears deep inside himself. And "the funny thing is this--if I don't do what he tells me it nearly always turns out wrong."

But Alfie's resolutions often melt away like summer dew. Moreover, he has a cruel streak--a need to control and manipulate that, along with his need to be pampered and pleased, is far greater than the erotic desires he vents with mechanical efficiency and speed. Thus, near the end of the novel, we find Alfie, the fabled womanizer, vaguely considering the possibility of finding a homosexual patron, "one of these bent old boys," who might hand him money and free him of all responsibilities.

Naughton wrote the screenplay for the 1967 film version of Alfie, which was produced and directed by Lewis Gilbert, a veteran of the British cinema scene. Gilbert, who also directed Sink the Bismarck! in 1960 and Educating Rita in 1983, wasn't known as a great experimentalist. But his treatment of Alfie was widely considered daring and hip. It starred Michael Caine in what became his most famous film role. And it featured a fine jazz score by Sonny Rollins.

For the most part, Naughton's screenplay closely follows his novel; all of the characters are the same, and most of the dialogue comes directly from the book. Caine's Cockney accent is pitch perfect, and his speech is laced with specifically British phrases and terms. Still, Gilbert's Alfie makes some concessions to the conventions of popular American films. Alfie is punished in the end, humiliated by one lover who leaves him for a younger rival, and another who--looking bored--spurns his advance. The hero is not broken, exactly, but he is left chastened and alone, his only companion a stray mongrel who roams the streets at night.

The new film version of Alfie, directed by Charles Shyer and starring Jude Law, follows generally the contours of Gilbert's film. Like Caine, Law often speaks directly to the camera, cultivating the confidence of the audience with a mix of monologues and asides. This Alfie is similarly superficial, self-absorbed, obsessed with his looks and a collector of stylish threads. "I'm a fashion whore," he cheerfully asserts at the start of the film.

But for all its nods to the old Michael Caine version, this new Alfie is very much what you'd expect from the director of Private Benjamin and Baby Boom. It isn't set in working-class London, but in the same funky, shimmering Manhattan that is a staple of sitcoms and romantic comedies. It's a cool place, and Law's Alfie, who goes clubbing on his two-toned Vespa is, above all else, a very cool dude. He's very good at collecting women--none of whom resemble the lonely housewives and worn-out working girls preyed upon by the self-loathing Lothario in Naughton's novel and Gilbert's film.

IN FACT, the Alfie in Naughton's book--and the Alfie portrayed by Caine--is clearly meant to evoke disgust as well as fascination; he exudes menace as well as charm. For him, women are "birds," an endless source of mystery, but not quite human: They must be belted around occasionally to maintain domestic peace. In Shyer's film, Jude Law portrays an Alfie who is merely spoiled and self-absorbed--but still capable of education. Deep down, he really likes women, and they like him. Eventually he will settle down with the girl of his dreams.

Well acted and often beautifully shot, this Alfie is the story of an endearing scamp who gets his knuckles rapped. It's a sweet piece of eye candy that borrows some of the plot but not the substance of Naughton's fine novel, which offers one of the most memorable villains in postwar British fiction, and a troubling, disturbing look into the darker corners of the human soul.

Though this new film is clearly intended to appeal to a popular audience--a production by cast and crew afraid of the original work they're attempting to remake--the latest reports show it doing very poorly at the box office. That's an interesting turn of events. Audiences should rent the old Michael Caine version of Alfie instead--or better yet, they should read Bill Naughton's novel.

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College.