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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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.