A movie – like a song – is an artform that can become a wormhole, taking the viewer back to the place and time they first watched it.
The effect it has on us can be so powerful, that certain characters or individual lines seem spoken for us personally. They reflect a truth in our hearts or desires, that we ourself were either unaware of or unsure how to articulate.
In this series I have brought together a few classic moments from films that have stayed with me over the years. Part one focuses on the tragic male hero and anti-hero. The struggle most men have to face as they grow has been wonderfully illuminated by great writers, adaptations in film and the masters of acting that portrayed them.
Alfie is a 1966 classic, based on a play by Bill Naughton. His original writing makes this fifty something year old movie still feel current.
Like a great painting or novel, the time between its creation and where the viewer watches from only increases its allure. Helped in large part by a youthful Michael Caine producing one of his finest performances to date.
I watched Alfie for the first time as a young teenager. I clearly remember the effect this old movie had on me. I was emotionally engaged to the film’s story as I accompanied the charming womaniser, through his pursuit of conquest around sixties London town.
The story swings left and right, characters come and go so that by the end, the viewer witnesses the full tragic emptiness at the heart of the film’s protagonist.
A man who on the face of it has everything, good looks, women and youth, is by its conclusion, exposed to his own destructive path through many women’s lives. People who deserved better are damaged by his actions. He is older, he is ultimately alone – although he had plenty of chances not to be – finishing with little but regrets and questions – with the famous final line or two containing – “What’s it all about?”
Personly speaking, there a moment I would highlight as having stood out for me. It comes after Alfie pushes a friend too far, a man whose wife he will go onto sleep with. After a brief altercation, Michael Caine’s character says innocently, somewhat surprised by the effect his words have had on his companion (and I’m paraphrasing ) –
“I never mean to hurt anyone.”
“But you do Alfie, you do.” comes the accurate response.
I look at my own life and in light of the last few months, I feel I have gone down a road that has caused more ill than good. I have separated with a woman who deserved far better. I don’t think of myself as a bad person. I never set out to hurt anyone – but I do. Alfie reminds us that we can be a harmless character with a cheeky smile, and still cause serious harm, however inadvertently.
Another damaged great of fiction is Scrooge. A titan of imagined characters recreated year after year on stage and screen. One of the best portraits of Ebenezer has to go to Sir Patrick Stuart, an incredible actor who has done more than any other in recent years to highlight the intricate and profound truth at the core of Dickins masterwork. To watch his performance is to get as close as we can to be led into a tale of biblical allegory and timeless relevance.
I have never pursued profit and material gain but the scene where Scrooge allows his fiancee to walk away forever has continually been one of the most touching in literature. In light of recent events in my own life this scene has taken on a personal significance that I fear shall in years to come bring this tale even closer to my heart.
Belle is beautiful. She loves Scrooge. She sees the good in him. She offers one final chance to live a happy, simple life, the one she wished for when they first became engaged. Scrooge has by this stage in the story withdrawn further from her and places profit over love and human affection. She reluctantly releases her fiancée from his solemn vow.
We see the old scrooge imploring his younger self not to be such a fool and to go after her. To put his pride down. Of course he doesn’t, instead, he lets her go, despite her offering a final glance as if to say, “it’s not too late.” He ignores her and the course of his life is cast forever.
Alfie and Scrooge are at the centre of their stories, fixated on a personal gain of one sort or another – wealth and women.
I judge that the tragedy that these epic stories forwarn us of lies in their lack of love. That must be the central theme of these tales, that love overrules all other profits. It is all that can fill us and live on after us, not lust or designer labels. One heals and gives hope, the other hollows out our hearts, eventually leaving us with nothing, even if we have everything. The true tragedy lies not in that singular truth, but perhaps in the way, we so readily fail to learn its lesson. Eventually repeating the same mistakes throughout our lives – Love is never secure in a man’s heart, it is always under siege from less noble characters.
Both stories end with a form of redemption at least. Alfie questions his life, seemingly recognising the void at his core. While Scrooge’s heart is filled with a new burst of festive light and life, but only after being brought face to face with the consequences and causes of his actions, and importantly a clear indication of what those actions will lead to.
Unfortunately, in the real world, we don’t have the chance to see our future or our past so clearly and that is why the masters of the pen and the masters behind and in front of the camera need our thanks. If anyone is looking out for us, in a strange way, it is surely them.