Pros: Strong performance by Albert Finney; penetrating study of life in postwar, working-class England
Cons: Had to resort to the English subtitles because the Lancashire accents made the audio incomprehensible
When it was originally released, Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was very provocative and "alternative" in the impression it made on British audiences. Though its subject matter is now routine and, even, bland, it retains its primitive power as a portrayal of British working class life in a given time and place.
Historical Background: Karel Reisz influenced cinema in diverse ways. Born in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia in 1926, Reisz, as a boy of 12, was spirited out of his native country to England, immediately before the Nazi invasion, while his Jewish parent stayed behind and ultimately perished in a concentration camp. He finished high school in a Quaker school in Reading, England and joined a Czech squadron of the RAF near the end of World War II. He then studied Chemistry at Cambridge and taught grammar school for a few years. In the fifties, Reisz began writing film critiques for the magazine of the Film Society of Oxford University, called Sequence. That magazine was influential in launching the so-called British Free Cinema movement that flourished in the mid-fifties and Reisz, together with Lindsay Anderson, edited the final edition of the magazine in 1952. The Free Cinema movement, which was associated with the New Left, was officially launched by Reisz and Anderson in 1956 and centered on documentary films. Reisz and Anderson's aim was to steer British cinema toward contemporary and controversial subject matter more directly relevant to the everyday life of the working class. Reisz himself, as part of this movement, co-directed the short Momma Don't Allow (1955) and then directed We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959), a highly regarded 52-minute documentary about a London youth club.
Reisz was also a fine film theorist. In 1953, he wrote a book entitled The Technique of Film Editing, which examined the aesthetics, more than the technical aspects, of film editing, using examples from actual films. The book was revised in 1968 in collaboration with Gavin Millar and is a classic teaching tool in film schools. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was Reisz's first feature film and his most celebrated work as a director. It was one of the early entries in the so-called "Kitchen Sink Cinema" that took hold of British film from about 1958-1963. Among the best of his other directorial efforts were A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981). Reisz was also either co-producer or producer for a couple of Lindsay Anderson films, Every Day Except Christmas and This Sporting Life.
The Story: Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) is a smoldering, rebellious young man who skillfully works a lathe at a factory in a drab industrial city in mid-lands Nottingham. He's a handsome, robust sort of bloke with a square-jawed face and fiery eyes. He's single and independent to a fault, determined not to sink into the "dead from the neck up" existence of his defeated working class parents, with whom he lives. He's anti-marriage, anti-establishment, anti-authority anti-everything, in fact, except having a good time, which means mainly downing one pint of draught after another and sex with the accommodating Brenda (Rachel Roberts), his married-woman squeeze, who is delighted to cheat whenever her mousy machinist husband, Jack (Bryan Pringle), is away. Arthur is handy at the lathe and equally handy with the women.
Arthur's parents (Frank Pettitt and Elsie Wagstaffe) are nice enough folk, but mainly content to vegetate in front of the teley when they're not slaving away to make ends meet. Arthur's cousin Bert (Norman Rossington) provides him with a loyal fishing companion as well as a confidant and an ear for Arthur's diatribes, during which be swears himself blind that he'll never give up his independence. "What I want is a good time," he says, "the rest is all propaganda."
Arthur's view of life takes a bit of a turn when he encounters the wholesome and comely Doreen (Shirley Anne Field). She's an old-fashioned girl who's not about to give up her virginity without at least the promise of a wedding ring and a house complete with an inside toilet. She's got the bait and ol' Arthur has to bite. Besides, all of his surly independence and bravado is starting to run him afoul of his neighbors. There's the old hag of a neighborhood gossip, Mrs. Bull (Edna Morris), who sics the bobbies on him after he pummels her ample derriere using his air gun. And Jack, getting wind of Arthur's arrangement with Brenda, sends his broad-shouldered military brother around, along with another soldier, to remind Arthur about working-class rules of conduct.
Themes: There's a strong theme in this film, though it is rendered subtly. It has to do with man's insatiable desire for freedom and independence from the monotony and tyranny of daily toil. Arthur represents the social rebel who is still capable of taking pleasure from simple lustfulness and intoxication. He's like an unruly child, standing in solitary defiance of the ugly industrial city landscape and impersonal machines, while his colleagues and relatives are all cruelly trapped by the workaday routine. He shouts his message to the world, "Don't let the bastards grind you down!"
Is he fighting a losing battle? The ending is ambiguous and let's you decide for yourself whether Arthur, too, has been beaten into submission by the system or whether he will retain some sense of self-determination and individuality. A good marriage, after all, is not necessarily the end of an individual's existence. There's still opportunity for simple pleasures if the couple determines to include that among their objectives. As Arthur says to Doreen, in conceding her demand for a new home with a bathroom, "I may continue to throw things now and then." He'll have to give up the potshots with the air rifle at his neighbor's canister and the trysts with Brenda, but there's no reason he can't still down a few pints and go fishing with Bert.
Production Values: The screenplay for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was written by Alan Sillitoe, based on his own first novel of the same name. The story is dominated by matter-of-fact, working class realism. Sillitoe's second novel, even more successful, also served as the basis for one of the Kitchen Sink films, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. What Sillitoe and the Angry Young Man films accomplished was nothing less than the liberation of the working class people from cinematic stereotypes that had relegated them to caricatures as shiftless or oppressed types, representative of their type rather than fully developed individuals. Using vernacular speech, ordinary situations, location shooting, and realistic, everyday examples of humor, Sillitoe and then Reisz generated characters that were fully fleshed out. We may not like some of the attributes of the protagonist, Arthur Seaton, such as his polished capacity for prevarication, but he's cheeky, brash, and compelling and appeals to every viewer's desire for personal independence. It's too bad that the British Board of Film Censors felt obliged to remove a reference to successful termination of pregnancy by abortion as well as the use of the word "bogger," for no better reason than its similarity to the British swear word "bugger."
The cinematography provided by Freddie Francis has a gritty documentary feel, seemingly an outgrowth of the Free Cinema movement. There's strong contrast in the black-and-white images and sharp resolution. The transfer to DVD presents the film in near virgin condition. Johnny Dankworth provided a splendid and elegant jazz score for the film, though it is scattered somewhat sparsely through the film's length. I watched the film with English subtitles on because I was having great difficulty deciphering the dense Lancashire accents from the audio alone.
This film helped make Albert Finney a star in Britain and his follow-up triumph in Tom Jones (1963) extended his fame to international dimensions. Finney shows himself to be a fine actor and his sturdy accent merely adds to his character's appeal. Finney was nominated for Best Actor at the British Academy Awards, but had to settle for the trophy for Most Promising Newcomer. He spent hours mastering the use of a lathe at the Raleigh bicycle factory in preparation for his factory scenes in the film. Finney's other best work included roles in Tom Jones (1963), Two for the Road (1967), Scrooge (1970), Gumshoe (1971), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Dresser (1983), Miller's Crossing (1990), Washington Square (1997), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Big Fish (2003).
There's also a commendable performance by Rachel Roberts as the married woman, which earned her a BAFTA award as Best Actress. Robert's other best roles were in This Sporting Life (1963), O Lucky Man! (1973), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and Simone (2002). Shirley Anne Field also made a strong impression in her role as Doreen. She had already appeared in Peeping Tom (1960), The Entertainer (1960) and went on to roles in Alfie (1966), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and Hear My Song (1991). I also especially like Norman Rossington and Edna Morris in the supporting roles of cousin Bert and Mrs. Bull respectively.
Bottom-Line: This film took the BAFTA award for Best British Film in 1960. I purchased the DVD version from MGM, which was inexpensive but short on extras, offering only the original theatrical trailer and a choice of subtitles in English, French, or Spanish. I was glad to have the English subtitle option. Apparently, there's a BFI region 2 release for the film that is packed with extras, including a commentary by film historian Robert Murphy, comments from writer Alan Sillitoe and cinematographer Freddie Francis, a five-minute audio interview with Albert Finney (now sporting an upper class accent), a gallery of stills, and text histories of Karel Reisz, Alan Sillitoe, and the Free Cinema movement. The film is about 89 minutes in length. It's entertaining and quite original, skillfully illuminating a way of life that existed in the industrial sectors of postwar Britain.