Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Sunday Matinee: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Sunday Matinee: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning



Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960, dir. Karel Reisz, starring Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts, Shirley Anne Field

Story: Arthur Seaton spends the week working in a factory, and the weekend winning drinking contests, sleeping with a co-worker's wife, and generally pissing off everyone in sight.

When the British New Wave hit cinemas in the early 60s, with its unprettified portraits of working-class life, it was seen as part of an overall cultural trend, already predominant in literary and theatrical works (from which many of these films, this one included, were adapted): the rise of the "Angry Young Man." In Look Back in Anger, he's a snarling young Richard Burton, lashing out at his lover yet displaying a wounded pride when she lashes back. Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner spots him at a borstal, where Tom Courteney runs from authorities until the authorities actually want him to run, at which point he stops. This Sporting Life tackles Richard Harris on the rugby field, A Kind of Loving traps an upwardly mobile Alan Bates in an unwanted marriage, and A Room at the Top locates Laurence Harvey's insecurity and exploits it through a frustrating relationship with an older, wealthier woman. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning may be the purest take at this iconic figure, unfettered as it is by the apparatus of an athletic narrative or the demands of an equal female protagonist (Roberts and Field, both excellent, are definitely supporting characters here). Yet Albert Finney, as Arthur Seaton, does not initially seem as bitter, desperate, or frustrated as any of those other furious youths - as his opening narration informs us, "I'm out for a good time - the rest is propaganda!" And indeed, in the picture above we see him grinning after falling down a flight of stairs, drunk as a skunk but flush with victory after out-drinking a sailor. Sprawled out on the floor, he couldn't seem happier but make no mistake: he's angry as fuck.

Before falling down the stairs, he's scolded by an older, more well-dressed woman for spilling his drink, so he makes sure to "accidentally" spill some more right onto her, his look of spiteful disdain making those quotation marks all the more pronounced. Her feckless husband cowers in his seat while she asks him to do something about it, and Seaton sneers. Shrewish women and cowardly men are recurring characters throughout the movie, from the old gossip Arthur shoots with a BB gun to the henpecked husband who flees when Arthur brandishes the toy rifle in his direction; from the shrill civil defense officer who seizes a drunken old man to the old man himself who refuses to flee her grasp after he's caught launching a rock through a window; from the deaf, daft mother of Arthur's girlfriend to Arthur's own dad, a nice enough guy who'd nonetheless rather watch television than live life. Indeed, all of these characters are projections, exaggerations of Arthur's greatest anxiety - that he'll settle into the complacent blandness of his own parents' marriage. His pal Bert (Norman Rossington), always up for some mischief but ultimately a more down-to-earth individual than Arthur, is baffled by the aggressive vehemence of Arthur's hostility towards settling down, or settling period. Yet Arthur isn't a dreamer per se - he has no concrete goals, no utopia he'd like to achieve, no creative energy that could be expressed or unleashed. He doesn't quite know what he wants, doubts he wants anything specific at all, but he knows sure as hell what he doesn't want. Comparisons to Brando immediately greeted Finney's fantastic performance and it's not hard to see why - asked what he was rebelling against, Arthur would no doubt reply "Whadda ya got?" but he'd do it with a wicked, yet no less intimidating grin, rather than a sneer.

Arthur's rebellious hostility, his young-man anger, is expressed through childish pranks, sexual passion, and cutting wit - he's charismatic as hell, but we never feel relaxed around him because he's never relaxed, he's a live wire. This feral energy attracts Brenda (Rachel Roberts), whose own husband (a brown-noser at the same factory as Arthur) is a well-meaning bore - even when he finds out Arthur's sleeping with his wife he can barely summon up much more than a tsk-tsk (though he's quick to dispatch soldiers to rough up the young man). Such apathetic antipathy only heightens Arthur's scorn for the cuckolded co-worker. Indeed, Arthur's sympathetic underdog status, much flaunted in his voiceovers and biting dialogues with Bert, does not extend to those around him; his class consciousness mostly refers to a class of one (himself). The relationships to women are interesting - on the one hand, he's prone to violent pranks and more violent language against all those women mentioned above. Yet he's capable of some self-awareness in his romance with Brenda, not enough to mitigate his selfishness but at least enough that he can admit to it. When she discovers she's pregnant and fluctuates between an abortion and bearing the child but facing the music, Arthur offers mild sympathy but knows that she not he will suffer the consequences. Her ultimate decision to go through with the pregnancy is greeted with rueful acknowledgement that she's gotten a raw deal from him - and then he simply moves on.

He moves on to Doreen, a lovely swan of a girl (played by a gorgeous doe-eyed Shirley Anne Field) - by the end it seems clear he will marry her and end up in one of the new housing tracts emerging on the hillside where he used to pick blackberries with Bert. Yet domestication will never come easy, a fact Doreen still doesn't quite seem to understand; scolded by her for throwing rocks at one of the new houses, he narrows his eyes and states lucidly, "It won't be the last one I throw." Then smiles, holding hands, and down the hill they go (albeit with a bit of a tug along the way), but the warning has been stated. It's like the end of Best Years of Our Lives ("we've got tough times ahead") but less optimistic. Throughout the film we've wondered if Arthur will be able to hold onto his energy, his individuality, and resist the urge to conform and settle down. Now that concern is flipped on his head: we wonder how his rough edges will manifest themselves in this future marriage, and regard his wife with pity - she doesn't quite know what she's in for, the poor kid...

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning's style manifests the hero's restless energy and the grinding tensions of his world. Reisz and cinematographer Freddie Francis (later a director himself, as well as David Lynch's DP on several films) shoot with a mixture of naturalism and elegance. Compared to previous British studio productions, the film is practically documentary in its verisimilitude; mostly filmed on location in Nottingham, it employs natural lighting and real, gritty settings to great effect. Yet in its camerawork and editing the movie is much more conservative than what was to come - save for the dizzying, greatly expressive set piece on an amusement park whirligig (movies always find their most "cinematic" energy in carnivals, don't they?). Comparisons to Tony Richardson's Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner are telling, both in terms of narrative structure and formal technique. Both screenplays were adapted by Allan Sillitoe from his own fiction, and both - in book form - feature impressionistic stylization (apparently the novel Saturday Night gives Arthur extended fantasy/flashback sequences while he's working at his mechanized job). Yet only Loneliness carries out a fragmented, impressionistic approach to the material - Saturday Night is very straightforward, unfolding chronologically and without any dreamy asides or dips into memory. Whatever the virtues of the looser approach, this directness lends Saturday Night a relentless, intense feel, a slightly claustrophobic edge to the story - unlike Colin, who can both remember and run (and eventually not run), Arthur has no escape hatch.

Visually, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning manages the trick of being both gritty and beautiful. It moves like Arthur does - no artificial grace, yet with a hearty and self-confident air. Camera movements follow the characters, the cutting is ample yet restrained, and overall the style is very classical, which lends the film a rich, interesting feel. Especially seen in the context of the later Woodfall (and European New Wave) films, it's like a young person trapped in an older man's body; the edge is blunted rather than sharp, but sometimes blunt objects are the most dangerous. Because it has no outlet in rapid montage, defiant trickery, impatient handheld or restless moving camera, the film's energy only builds up, simmering and setting the viewer ever more on edge. Complemented by Finney's cheerfully furious performance, this adds up to a fresh manifestation of the British New Wave's trademark rough-and-ready aesthetic, expressed here through the uneasiness of restraint rather than the exhilirating buckshot of freewheeling stylization. Soon enough, the youthful, rebellious energy still contained here (and given a macho Fifties sheen) would find expression and release on the screens and streets around the world. In that sense, Arthur Seaton couldn't have been more prophetic in that closing statement: this was not the last stone, but rather one of the first in a hailstorm to come.

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