Saturday, April 16, 2011

Saturday at the Movies #39 - Dueling Alfies (long)

Normally, I'm not in favor of remakes, especially of standout films, but once in a while, things do work that way. Case in point, this week's entry; dueling Alfies. The original, based on a play by Bill Naughton, starred Michael Caine, and made its debut in 1966, followed the exploits of one Alfie Elkins, working class playboy with a taste for the ladies. Not any one in particular, but the fairer sex at large; at least the services only that gender can provide. The Jude Law version, which came out in 2004, transplants Alfie to present day New York City, and makes other adjustments, such as Alfie's medical condition and reproductive track record, so one could argue the 2004 version is a reimagining rather than straight remake.

The essentials, though, are still in place with both - Alfie's opening encounter with a married woman who wants more from him, a later pickup with a lovely young thing, and both Alfies have to deal with an unexpected pregnancy from a one-time fling, where the mother is in another longterm relationship. Also a constant is Alfie's affair with a wealthy older woman (Shelley Winters in 1966, Susan Sarandon in 2004, and it's a draw here, as both women give wonderful performances)that plays a role in Alfie's willingness to examine the path of his life.

1966 trailer:

2004 trailer:

Both versions have a unique look that could be considered a character in itself; working class London versus glamorous Manhatten. Both have Alfie breaking the fourth wall to address the viewer directly and let us in on what's going on in his head, which isn't always what he lets on to the rest of the world. Both are beautifully acted, with memorable performances by both Caine and Law, but that's where the differences lie. While both performances struck me as very believable and in character, we have two varied interpretations of the character of Alfie. Though both actors were nearly the same age when they filmed (Caine was 33, Law, 32) the Caine version of Alfie struck me as being in his midthirties and the Law version, midtwenties. This added an extra punch for me in the final Alfie/older woman scene.

I went into this venture expecting to see the Alfie character as a charming rogue, shallow but not malicious, which may be why I have to declare the 2004 version as the winner for me. While I would watch both versions again, it's the Law version I would purchase, because I feel more convinced that his Alfie has learned from his experiences and may decide to make different choices from here on in, those lessons hard learned. The two scenes that stick with me the most from this version are echoes of scenes from the original; one, where Alfie sees the child born from his one night stand with his best friend's fiancee (variation on a scene from the original) and his final scene with his older lover, for whom he admits genuine feelings (consistent with original.)

My impression of Michael Caine's Alfie is that he's a sociopath. His character refers to women as "it," and exhibits controlling behavior that set off abuse flags for me. While he does exhibit some tender feelings for the toddler he shares with a former flame, it comes off as more of a playmate-playmate relationship than father-son. the most effective moment of the Caine version takes place when Alfie can't run from the consequences of one of his affairs, but I'm still not convinced at the end that he's going to do things differently in the future. Maybe, maybe not, and maybe that's what the intent is for the takeaway.

The final scenes/final speeches are quiet, intimate, Alfie addressing the viewer with some philosophical soul searching, and I could imagine either as an effective monologue on their own. The Caine version fades out with Alfie playing with a stray dog, while the Law version leaves Alfie on his own, each after a failed attempt to pick up where he left off with the married woman from the opening scene. Alfie can't go back to his old life, but the question is, where will he go from here? It's entirely up to the viewer, and for my money, that's exactly where we should be leaving Alfie.

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