I have always been fascinated how director Lewis Gilbert and writer Bill Naughton develop London Casanova Alfie Elkins‘(Michael Caine) relationships with women into segments. Like Naughton’s The Family Way (Boulting, 1966) where time is taken to criticise the protagonist’s sex life, criticisms of Alfie are fleeting up until a point, when the women leave him. Gilbert uses many locations around London, Sonny Rollins jazzy score and the slow motion effect give the film the fleeting blink of the eye moments of happiness for Alfie. Siddie (Millicent Martin, known for her role as Gertrude Moon in Frasier) is looking for time away from her husband; a Chelsea FC supporter with a keen interest in gardening, Alfie fills her void of boredom. Another woman Gilda (Julia Foster) is looking for a future with Alfie, they have a child together, Alfie’s self-centredness and unsurprising lack of commitment breaks their relationship. The pregnancy of his friend’s wife Lily (Vivien Merchant) is devastating; Jane Asher’s Annie is looking for a lover in Alfie after an unknown sad past about a lover named Tony. Shelley Winter’s Ruby is all flash, her rejection of Alfie has him pondering on Waterloo Bridge, ‘what it’s all about?’ in an ending so open, anything is possible, but knowing Alfie it’ll be more of the same.
Alfie’s breaking of the fourth wall wasn’t a common technique in 1966 (viewers of my generation found the technique used in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to be groundbreaking at the time, at least I thought so.) Rollins’ theme tune with its optimistic sax invites the protagonist to take chances; cheat and live life to what he believes to be the full. One wonders what kind of trouble Alfie was in before the film starts; it surely wasn’t all fun and games. I have not seen the 2004 remake with Jude Law, but I do believe that an Alfie-type can exist today in 2017, such a narcissistic personality with never die out it seems. The interiors from Alfie’s cramped flat, the local pub, the garage where Alfie works at the beginning all suggest a working class which Alfie would rather not focus on as he sits in his chair suggesting that Gilda should rob the till of the cafe where she works just the people make money. Caine said in later interviews that Alfie’s fast talking speech rhythm with his big hand gestures were done so that the other characters would pay attention to a working class cockney. In Get Carter (Hodges, 1971) it’s the opposite as Caine’s gangster speaks slower because he knows he can be heard. It seems Ruby is only woman Alfie considers a future with; ironically she dumps him for a younger man just because he is younger. Alfie’s real loss is his son Malcolm who he had by Gilda, Alfie speaks poignantly about the child and the montage of Malcolm and Alfie in the park are Alfie at his most fulfilled, it’s his lost moment. The agony of what might been with the women is briefly pondered by Alfie as he reflects on being cheated on just he had done so many times. All he can do is walk away and ponder his lack of peace of mind.
Brian De Palma is famous and rightly so for his set piece sequences, from the bucket of blood sequence in Carrie (De Palma, 1976) to the Grand Central Station chase in Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993) to the rope through the vault sequence in Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996). I would argue that whilst his scripts are often Hitchcockian, his film style is unique to him. I don’t recall Hitchcock using slow motion often if at all apart maybe in the shower scene from Psycho. The sequence I have chosen is the elevator scene from Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980). In his book Mise en Scene and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art Adrian Martin (2014) focuses on how De Palma pumps up Pino Donaggio’s score on the first part of the scene in which Angie Dickinson is brutally murdered. I have chosen 60 seconds in which Nancy Allen discovers Dickinson dying and slowly but surely she notices the murderer through a mirror. De Palma (2015) has stated that the set up and details of these sequences ‘go on forever’. De Palma takes 6 minutes to tell the sequence. These crucial 60 seconds I speak of are spellbinding on repeated views and definitely sum up De Palma’s style.
The sequence is done in slow motion in roughly 40 shots. Michel Chion has written that a film’s sound cannot studied without its image and film’s image cannot be studied without its sound. I believe it is a certain ambient sound like a helicopter on the soundtrack at the climax of the 60 seconds; this is what still stuns me after so many viewings. This sound bridged with De Palma’s rhythmic and artful images deliver a film style that pulls absolutely no punches. To begin with the first shot Allen sees Dickinson as she lies bleeding in the lift, Donaggio’s strings rise to the occasion of her shock. Dickinson starts to reach out her arm but before she can De Palma cuts to Allen in distress as the camera zooms in a manner that might have impressed Rainer Werner Fassbinder. De Palma is interested in the quick flash of detail as Allen’s forehead disappears from the frame to focus on her hands clenched to her face. I cannot but help be reminded of the way Nic Roeg films the eyes of the witches in his Roald Dahl adaptation from 1990 from the way De Palma sets up a reaction of a slow zoom into Dickinson’s blood pouring eyes. Donaggio’s score builds as the murderess in reaction gestures her hand forward moving the razor blade up, the audience holds its breath. Allen’s hands shake in reaction, Dickinson’s raised hand towards her murderer (who of course Allen cannot see) is almost biblical. Donaggio’s score and De Palma’s cuts align with the closing of the elevator door before Allen stops it, De Palma crucial cuts as Allen’s hand of goodwill gestures out to hold the door. De Palma then settles on Dickinson’s bracelet and the blade each reflecting light in turn. This is when De Palma really uses slow motion to full effect as the film almost stops for Allen to gesture her eyes and faces up towards the elevator mirror above, this is when De Palma’s stunning use of ambient sound kicks in and the sequence begins to unwind with rhythmic precision. Allen’s stunning facial numbness in the moment holds the scene in all of its crystal glory as one of greatest moments in cinema history.