The one thing everyone remembers about the original Alfie (1966) — and, I think, one of the great moments in cinematic history — is the scene in which Michael Caine breaks down on seeing the dead fetus an abortionist (Denholm Elliott) has left in his kitchen. Lewis Gilbert’s film version of Bill Naughton’s play allowed us to watch as this jaunty Lothario who’s got it all figured out suddenly and unexpectedly acquired a conscience. Afterwards, Caine’s Alfie treats his emotional lapse as a curiosity. “I don’t know what I was expecting to see,” he says to the camera; “certainly not this perfectly formed being.” He “expected it to cry out. It didn’t of course; it couldn’t have done. Still, it must have had some life.” And then there comes, like “praying or something,” his moment of insight when an “it” becomes a “him”: “‘You know what you done?’ I says to myself. ‘You murdered him.’”

Of course, this would be an impossible line in Charles Shyer’s new remake of the picture, which stars Jude Law in the title role. Shyer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Elaine Pope, must have seen that the last 40 years of feminist consciousness-raising have made “You murdered him” in this context into a political — and, of course, a reactionary — statement. Still, Alfie would not be Alfie without his brief fit of conscience, so naturally I wondered how the new version would handle it. I can’t reveal the answer here, as it depends on a minor plot-surprise, but I will say that Alfie’s moment of emotion and moral insight comes from remorse at the betrayal of a friend.

It’s an ingenious solution to an obvious problem, but it just doesn’t work. In the original, Alfie is made to realize that there is a transcendent dimension to what he has hitherto treated as nothing but the satisfaction, to which he is manifestly entitled, of appetite. Now, if only for a moment, this becomes literally a matter of life and death. For the first time, perhaps, he is forced to see another person as actually existing, apart from the use he can put it to. That’s the real point of his referring to women as “it.” This presumably looked to Shyer and co. like too obvious a bit of old-fashioned “male chauvinism” for inclusion in the remake, but once again our moral sensibilities have been blunted by feminism. It wasn’t just women but everybody with whom he came in contact that Alfie regarded as an object. Our response to him should be to a human being, not just a man.

Similarly, the new Alfie’s regret at losing a friend, even apart from the fact that it doesn’t pack the same moral wallop as horror at a murder, is experienced only in terms of his own feelings. His feeling bad in the circumstances is expected. Who wouldn’t? Do not even the Scribes and the Pharisees feel as much? Betrayal and remorse in this situation lacks the transcendent dimension. Was it just this woman that he shouldn’t have trifled with? Is the rest of his string of conquests morally unproblematical? If so, why should he feel the need to change — whether or not he does change — his whole life?

Ultimately, this movie fails because we have stopped being so hypocritical about sex. Back in the day when everyone pretended to think that, in the words of the song, love and marriage went together like a horse and carriage, shock at a character like Alfie was obligatory. Naughton and Gilbert played upon this automatic response in order to remind us of two things: first, that we weren’t as shocked as we pretended to be and, second, that we should be. Nowadays, hardly anyone thinks that sex outside marriage is wrong per se — apart, that is, from personal loyalty and betrayal. And if Alfie’s sort of tom-catting is disapproved of, it is chiefly as a matter of degree.What was once a glimpse of a whole moral universe has been reduced here to the banality of that well known ailment, commitment-phobia. “I come stamped with an invisible warning,” he tells one of his women: “‘Will not commit.’”

That’s why, even in the capable hands of Mr Law, this Alfie is morally too unremarkable to shock us — or even to engage our sympathies to any great extent. Partly, too, this is owing to the translation of the setting from London in the sixties to New York today. In the original, one felt that the characters lived in the real world. Alfie was a familiar figure one might have known from the neighborhood. Michael Caine wasn’t then the megastar he was to become long before he showed what acting was (or had been) by playing the genial, ether-huffing abortionist of The Cider House Rules (1999), nor were his lovers, who included Shelley Winters, Vivien Merchant and Jane Asher the brightest stars in the firmament. He looked like a pretty ordinary bloke, and they looked like ordinary birds.

This ordinariness allowed the movie to convey the idea of an organic community. It had some standards of sexual rectitude, but it was too messy and inconsistent not to behave with a certain tolerance towards those who, like Alfie, flouted its standards. In the new version, not only are there no community standards, there’s no community. Both Alfie and his women, including Susan Sarandon, Nia Long and Marisa Tomei, belong nowhere but a place like Manhattan where no one belongs. He’s a rootless cosmopolitan, a Brit on the make in New York, while they are all far too beautiful and suffused with Hollywood glamour. The idea of treating these people as moral everymen (and women) is laughable. That may not be what they’re here for, but in that case it’s not clear what they are here for — except to pay homage to a classic in the only way Hollywood knows how.

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