‘Alfie’ (1966) can be a difficult film to watch. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to shake, punch and walk out on what may be Michael Caine’s best known character. At the time of release, perhaps it was thought the Caine would import some charm to the role, making Alfie a loveable rogue. But even if that did happen at the time, it has now worn thin. After 50 years of the promiscuous society, it is now easy to see right through the likes of him and to have had enough of him before he’s even got started. My main reason to carry on watching is for the fab location shots of 1960s London.
|Caine by @aitchteee|
Most fascinating of these locations in Alfie’s flat. He lives in Notting Hill, an area of West London that has been utterly transformed since the film was made. He lives at the top of a house that has been split into several flats. When he is shown leaving the building to chase after Annie (Jane Asher) he runs past a street sign – Chepstow Road. The area is dark, dingy and run down – almost a slum. But look up Chepstow Road now on Google. It is just off fashionable Westbourne Grove. A flat there maybe costs half a million pounds and a whole house well over a million. Street views show clean, white washed and elegant homes; with BMWs and Jags out front. It is fascinating to see how it has changed. Sometimes I think that location shots like this are the best bits of old films.
There are also interesting views of other aspects of life that were on the cusp of change – both of these concerning health. The infectious disease of TB had been real problem in the earlier 20th century, especially in overcrowded cities. Mobile screening units had been introduced to help medical staff stay on top of the spread and to catch it early, when it was easier to treat. Alfie visits a van which is parked up at the side of the street, and we see him get a chest x-ray. At a follow up appointment he is told that he has shadows on his lungs and he is sent to a sanatorium to recuperate. By the end of the 1960s, numbers contacting TB had fallen dramatically and the screening vans were discontinued. Immunisation too played a part – as the scars that my generation all bear at the top of our left arms attest. ‘Alfie’ just catches the end of a medical era on film for us.
1967 - the year after this film was made - saw the legalisation of abortion in the
. ‘Alfie’ seems to be helping to justify the
arguments for this Act. We are given a
graphic view of what a backstreet (illegal) abortion was like. Other films that I have seen merely suggest
the nastiness, but this one doesn’t shy away so easily from the reality. When Alfie gets his friend’s wife pregnant,
she asks him to arrange a termination. We see the seedy abortionist wielding
his power over them both. He then takes
her into the kitchen area and carries out a short procedure, before leaving her
to wait for this to take effect. As she
cries out in agony, Alfie leaves her alone too, and she is left to push out a
tiny foetus into a bowl, which she leaves in Alfie’s kitchen. If complications had set in during this awful
act, then she would have died alone and in pain. Alfie explained to the abortionist that she
had had a “moral lapse”, whereas what we saw was him taking advantage of a
tired and vulnerable woman. We are shown that there will always be unwanted
babies – not entirely the fault of the mother. We all become victims of
circumstance sometimes. Then we are
shown the consequences of forcing abortion underground. UK
The sight of the foetus wakes Alfie up a little. It makes him wonder what it’s all about, as the song goes. We have been on a journey with him, at times fascinating and at times brutal and nasty. I hope that we never have to go back to these unhygienic times, but sometimes I wonder if we aren’t returning to the days of Alfie. I think we are seeing a rise of men who would like to be like him, seeing women as an “it” and paying no heed to the consequences of their sexual misdeeds. Also, housing is again so expensive that we are in danger of returning to 1960s Notting Hill like conditions. I know of pubs being converted into flats for workers on low pay. This kind of overcrowding would be a gift to TB or another disease as infectious. It makes me wonder if we aren’t just going backwards as a society.