It is no surprise that Michael Caine stars as the biting, brooding, titular womaniser. His immediate piece of speech to the camera crashes through the fourth wall. Alfie invites his audience inside of his life. His thought process is on display for everyone watching to make their own assumptions about. An unreliable narrator is the oldest trick in the book, but director Lewis Gilbert uses the condescending womaniser to his advantage, turning Caine into a self-centred, coy character. He is assured in his abilities, confident that he can swoon any woman he crosses paths with, and even makes mental notes of what will make them tick. “Make a married woman laugh, and you’re halfway there”, he says as he tries to shoo off another of his victories.
He is the man that collects women as awards, rather than experiences. It is the consistent dialogue to camera that Caine presents that will make or break the ability to invest in his character and those around him. Jealousy is key. Where he finds joy in copping off with other women, it is the double standard he sets for Gloria that defines how shallow his character is. He is worried about competition, not because they pose a threat to him, but because he defines himself as being the best-looking, boldest and brightest of the lot. Planting these seeds early, the promiscuous lifestyle eventually runs stale for Alfie, and the prospect of fatherhood rears its ugly head rather early on. This sudden rattling of his cage is enough to make him reassess his life, but it is the earlier jealousy and annoyance that comes to life once more.
Instead of envy, it is desire. He is overly sensitive when it is disclosed to him that Gilda wishes to get rid of the child. It is the spark here that sets him off on various tangents of how good and saintly he is when the opposite is rather obvious. Alfie purports the bachelor lifestyle. He lives the high life, boasting to the camera that the various dates and dames he finds are supporting his ego. What is shown on the screen is very different to what he says. Caine’s dialogue brags of a rich and fun lifestyle, but he is shown to be slumming his way through the streets, supporting a child and young mother, contrasting the dark blue suits and slimming, upper-class iconography he is clad in. Whenever he is around Gilda and the child, his colourful flare fades, in its place a cobbling of tweed browns and pastel grey shirts. He is conforming to the lifestyle expected of the young couple raising an unexpected child. Alfie says one thing, yet lives out the complete opposite.
He does not linger long on this lifestyle. Back to his adventures on the road, picking up those who find themselves desperate enough to get to the next stage of their life. Gilbert is key to show that the women Alfie hones in on are not dumb, they are just lost. Alfie is lost too. He tries to escape his child and responsibilities by chauffeuring, forging and faking. Is it intentional rejection? Or is he trying so hard to fit in, but keeps falling back on the same few habits? Caine cowers behind the masculinity of his wordplay and actions, not because he desires everyone often, but because he fears the isolated intimacy. It is shown through the skittish, slightly disjointed styling of the story.
“Don’t be vague”, the disconnected voice says to his trophies. He does not refer to women by their name, only by grouped categories. He titillates anyone he touches and teaches them to obsess over him until he inevitably leaves them be. His attitudes are dated, but therein lies the point. Alfie presents a character that would, to some extent and with a few minor changes here or there, exist in the modern world. He eventually exemplifies those changes. As it turns out, he is a decent fatherly figure, albeit one that is deeply strained and longing for his life of freedom. There are pockets of comedy found within to lighten up these heavy tones, a scene in the doctor’s office has Caine balance the talking to camera with a chat in the real world, and it is the intricacies of such a seemingly simple scene that make Alfie an endearing film about a man gripped by the terror of love.