Alfie is directed by Lewis Gilbert, written by Bill Naughton(based on his play), and stars Michael Caine. From a cursory sweep, I can’t find anything particularly remarkable about Gilbert or Naughton, career wise or artistically speaking, other than Gilbert going on to direct three Bond Films and a couple of other play adaptations I’ve heard of. He’s worked steadily, won a few industry awards, but doesn’t seem to have a specific voice of note. As for Naughton, he’s got 12 IMDB credits over 50 years, two of which are a sequel to and a remake of Alfie. I say none of this to diminish their work here. I just wonder how it is that their paths led them where they did. Because this absolutely belongs on the list. As noted, it’s heavily dialogue driven, in part because Alfie is constantly talking to the camera, scarcely ever taking a breath before explaining to us exactly why he does what he does, his philosophies on life, etc. He starts this from the very beginning, explaining to us that we’re not going to see any opening titles after the main title card. It almost seems as if he’s warning us we’re going to have our expectations confounded at every turn. We see a handsome and charming young man and we might assume he’s going to find a young lady, perhaps quarrel with her a bit and by the end they’ll both skip away into the sunset. But this is not a romantic comedy. And Alfie, though ostensibly the protagonist, and indeed a handsome and charming young man, does not behave as we expect such men in movies to behave. The opening scene has him fumbling about in a car with a married woman, then immediately after explaining to us why this is the best situation for all parties involved, including the husband. We see Alfie flit about London, impregnating one woman, and never taking responsibility for it, have a brush with death, then turn around and betray a friend(if Alfie has any true friends) by knocking up his wife and setting up the abortion. All the while he winks at the camera, smiles at us and justifies his behavior. He has the occasional glimmer of humanity, such as when he starts to gain affection for his son, when he confronts his own mortality, when he realizes for a moment that he’s actually aging, and when he catches a glimpse of the aborted fetus that might have been his child. Well, maybe not humanity, exactly, but a pause where he seems to briefly doubt his course. At the end of the film, it seems that these moments of realization may have changed him slightly, may have a modicum of influence on his path, but probably not. I told my friend Adam I was watching this film and he said something about how bleak it was. I agreed that Alfie’s outlook might be bleak, but the film, in large part due to Caine’s performance, didn’t feel bleak to me. It says something for Caine that he made me mostly enjoy spending two hours with someone who, in real life, I probably wouldn’t want to spend two minutes with, let alone let him near my wife or girlfriend. Then again, I also allow that it’s hard to match three of the last list films, The Pawnbroker, Alphaville, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold when it comes to bleak. But that does bring me to another theme I’ve noticed. Many of these titles have flawed male protagonists. Steiger and Burton’s chararacters essentially seemed to be just waiting to die, but were so drained of existence to lack the will to cause it directly. Alfie, on the other hand, was a pleasure to be around, all things considered, though it probably won’t be pretty to watch as he gets older and the charm wears off. I also could see a direct line between this grinning amoral sociopath and Alex from one of my favorite films upcoming on the list, A Clockwork Orange(#45).
Admittedly, there isn’t much to Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman. In plot, it’s a fairly straightforward love story. Boy meets girl, etc. From my, as usual, minimal research, this was very influential in future romantic films. Generally speaking, I have little patience for the films it supposedly spawned. Many critics, though acknowledging its influence, insist it hasn’t aged well and seem to be somewhat. Maybe I’m a sucker for visual style, as I’m certainly not one for this genre. But I found this extremely compelling. Admittedly, this was largely due to the visual style. It shifts between color, black and white, and sepia tone. It includes numerous flashbacks with varying degrees of subjectivity, one even turning into an extended musical sequence. So, I suppose, it’s not always the story, but the storyteller. In addition to the visual style, the lead actors, Jean-Louis Tringnant and Anouk Aimee, are quite natural, believable, and watchable. I also think that the hesitancy of the would be lovers lends it a lot more credence than a film that just dives in to the relationship and is all about being in love, letting us bask in the seemingly eternal happiness. This isn’t about being in love. Or even necessarily falling in love. It’s about two people wanting to love, but, on some level, not sure if they can. Even the ending, though optimistic, is preceded by what looks like the opposite. As a result, it achieves an ambiguity that’s easier to swallow. It ends with a moment of happiness but it’s far from certain what’s next for these two. Oh, yeah, and it looks great, too.
It’s probably been 25 years since I last saw the film version of Edward Albee’s brilliant play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But it’s time to declare some baggage. It’s one of my favorite plays of all time by one of my favorite playwrights. I saw the 2005 Broadway revival with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin twice. I even started to convince myself that Irwin’s interpretation of George was a more valid one than Burton’s. Not surprisingly, I was looking forward to revisiting this one with great anticipation. I wasn’t disappointed. Not only were all the performances riveting and compelling, Albee’s dialogue is given all due reverence. This was Mike Nichols film directing debut, previously better known as a performer and a theatre director. It’s very fortunate that he and the producers were wise enough to respect the fact that Albee’s writing was the most essential part. Apparently, the screenplay, adapted by Ernest Lehmann, was thrown out and replaced by all of Albee’s original dialogue save two lines. There are a few attempts to open it up, as the play took place all on one set. Though these attempts, particularly one to a roadhouse, are hardly necessary, they don’t detract from the power of the work at all. I could go on and on about this one. Perhaps the best work ever done by Taylor and Burton. Beautifully shot in black and white, both emphasizing the starkness of this existence and successfully masking the attractiveness of its two stars. Well, not entirely. Taylor is still quite attractive, but successfully pushed in the other direction to appear past her prime. I do want to say one last thing about my previous misconception about Burton’s performance and that of Bill Irwin’s on Broadway. Though revisiting this one reminded me of its power and I no doubt appreciated it more fully than I did in my teenage years, it in no way diminished the impact of the brilliant stage version. If anything, it reinforced how great the writing is, being malleable to all sorts of power dynamics. Two different but equally valid interpretations.
From a 130 minute film where the dialogue is almost nonstop, I moved on to Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s film about a young, brilliant, and temperamental photographer. Though artfully scored by Herbie Hancock, this film also has long sections with no dialogue and no score. I first saw this at a revival house only a few years ago, and this was one of the things that most impressed me. It’s hard to imagine contemporary audiences having the patience for this, when so many films are overscored and indicative, frequently cueing the viewer how to feel. When Hancock’s score was used, it reminded me, coming on the heels of Alfie and The Pawnbroker, how effective jazz can be as a scoring device. Unlike traditional film scoring, which, to some degree was parodied in Alphaville, jazz creates a mood in more of a subtle way. At least it does in these examples. This also continues the theme of antisocial young man mentioned in Alfie. David Hemmings character gets away with all sorts of horrible behavior, both in the way he treats his subjects, and in the way he constantly seems to be trying to keep people off balance. In one restaurant scene, he stops a passing waiter, simply points to a plate, indicating “I’ll have one of those” and merely says “and a pint.” Presumably he gets away with this because he’s a brilliant artist, and of course, this is always tolerated, especially in the fashion industry. One particular memorable version of this is a scene where he’s telling Vanessa Redgrave about his “wife.” As he tells the story, he keeps changing it, indicating that he’s married to her, but not, that they have kids, but not, that she’s easy to live with, but not, and that’s why they don’t live together, etc. This scene is also notable in the fact that Vanessa Redgrave is topless for a good portion of it, and Antonioni comes up with endless ways to shoot her without exposing her breasts. The nude scene in Austin Powers must have been partially inspired by this. Anyway, Hemmings discovers that he may or may not have witnessed a murder and in his investigation into this, his attitude changes entirely. As he tries to uncover this, he only gets further away from what may or may not have happened, and kept me second guessing what I had and hadn’t seen. The film finishes with more questions than answers. A murder mystery with no resolution. Some commentary I have read suggests it to be a criticism of 60’s youth culture. The cavalier and callous character perhaps representing young people mocking society and reevaluating when confronted with something real. If so, this represents a rather conservative point of view, as it ignores the very real social protest movement which was more than merely a rejection of norms but a confrontation of what was wrong with the system. Or that could be all bullshit. In any case, this is a very compelling film and I was glad to revisit it. Admittedly, the pace is rather slow at times, and I found I was more prepared for this on a second viewing.
Overall, I found 1966 to be one of the strongest years to date. I find the more films I screen that I’m truly engaged in, the less I find myself concerned with contextual analysis, re: why it’s on the list, how it fit into the climate, etc. And I’m not especially concerned with that. If the tone changes from entry to entry, if I’m inconsistent, I think that’s just how I want this to organically evolve. Certainly one of the most freeing things about the blogosphere is that I can make up my own rules. And then change them. Anyway, hope anyone paying attention out there is enjoying this. Just passed 100 hits and have acquired one follower. Not much in the scheme of things, or anything, but it is what is. Be back soon with 1967 part 1.