Alan Sillitoe, who died yesterday in London at the age of 82, published more than 50 books (including the 1995 autobiography Life Without Armour), but if remembered at all, is remembered for two early “angry young [working-class] men” fictions that were made into movies that launched the film careers of Albert Finney (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) and Tom Courtenay (The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, 1962, directed by Tony Richardson before “Tom Jones,” which starred Finney, in 1963).*
“Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” won the Author’s Club First Novel Award. The screen adaptation wasthe most commercially and critically successful of the British new wave/ angry young men flicks of the late 1950s and early 1960s and the one that made Albert Finney a star. The movie was produced by Tony Richardson, who had directed two John Osborne plays (Look Back In Anger, The Entertainer). It was directed by Karl Reisz (1926-2002; a Czech-born British director who has made relatively few films, but they have included the brilliant adaptations of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers as “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and John Fowles’s seemingly unfilmable The French Lieutenant’s Woman from a novel adapted for the screen by Alan Sillitoe). In its day (the novel in 1958, the movie in 1960), “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” was regarded as realistic, and despite censoring, as shocking. I’ll get back to that.
In addition to satisfying curiosity about a “scandalous” movie that there was no chance I would have been allowed to see when it was released (and had it reached the boondocks of the American Midwest), I was especially interested to see this fresh on having finally seen Richardson’s “Look Back in Anger” and HBO’s remake of “The Gathering Storm” with Albert Finney as Winston Churchill (the part Richard Burton played in the earlier version). Finney looks not only very old in “Gathering Storm” (he was 66) but parboiled. (There is a scene with him in a perhaps overheated bathtub.) The 24-year-old Albert Finney also lacked body hair. Although the accent (Midlands) was different, the voice is recognizably the same, a bit stentorian. And most of his roles-except the title role in (Tony Richardson’s) “Tom Jones” – have been bullies to some degree. And more than a few drunks and/or womanizers.
In “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”he plays Arthur Seaton, an oafish young man stuck in a factory job (Sillitoe dropped out of school at the age of 14 and went to work at the Raleigh factory in Nottingham where his illiterate father worked). During the workday, operating a lathe, he fantasizes (this is less the focus of the movie than the extravagant fantasies of Tom Courtenay’s “Billy Liar.”)
The surly Seaton drinks up most of his paycheck on the weekend, is at war with a neighborhood busybody, and is having an affair with the somewhat older wife of a coworker. Rachel Roberts (whom I remember best as the headmistress in “Picnic at Hanging Rock”; she won BFAs for that, for “Saturday Night,” for “This Sporting Life,”
“Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” was filmed in very crisp black-and-white (by the British New Wave’s great cinematographer, Freddie Francis (1917-2007) – who went on to shoot “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” for Reisz in 1981; “The Elephant Man” (1980), Dune (1984), and The Straight Story (1999) for David Lynch, and “Glory” (1989); and had already shot “Room at the Top” (1959) and “Sons and Lovers” (1960).
The movie’s documentary value seems greater than that of “Look Back in Anger,” not just in its location shooting but in Brenda’s problematic pregnancy. The British censors of the day would not allow mention of abortion-which was still illegal when Michael Caine played the womanizer “Alfie” in 1966. Unwanted pregnancies seem the central drama in many of the British New Wave films (Look Back in Anger, The L-Shaped Room, A Taste of Honey). “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which limited its American release.
As in “Look Back in Anger,” the perspective of the film is that of the unready biological father desperate not to be trapped. In “Look Back in Anger” Richard Burton’s Jimmy Porter concludes that he is really in love with his wife, though only after she miscarries their child. Albert Finney’s Arthur manages to be snared by the resolutely virginal Doreen. Although he has vowed not to settle for the dead-end life of his parents, the conventionally “happy ending” has Doreen prattling about getting a new house with indoor plumbing after living with her mother after they marry. As unpleasant as Arthur is, and as lacking as he is in any sensitivity to the feelings of other, this still looks like soul death to me. It is, perhaps, realistic, but it’s hard for me to imagine that so conventional an ending occurred in what was once regarded as a shocking slice-of-life (melo)drama.
The dialogue is not as artificial (stagy) as in “Look Back in Anger,” though much of it is “kitchen sink drama,” filmed in the kitchen of a Nottingham housing project. The most cinematic part (reminiscent of the climax of Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”) takes place at a carnival. The wage of sin for Arthur is being beaten up by the brother-in-law of his mistress after a chase through the carnival. (Can this be enough to make him want to “settle down” with a personality-less wife and recapitulate his parents’ unhappy life together?)
“Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” is interesting to look at and to contemplate as a historical document – more in both respects than “Look Back in Anger.” Both show men at work at unsatisfying jobs and having complicated sex lives. It seems to me that both are soap operas, but that a good soap opera requires a developed female character. The female characters in both of these films are types more than characters; the character development is almost entirely of the male lead and his best mate. I think that the British New Wave films of enduring interest are those with either Tom Courtenay (“Loneliness, “Billy Liar”) or memorable female characters: specifically Simone Signoret in “Room at the Top,” Leslie Caron in “The L-Shaped Room,” and Rita Tushingham in “A Taste of Honey,” “Girl with the Green Eyes,” and “The Leather Boys.” (“Tom Jones” was a transition to the jump-cut male-oriented films of Richard Lester such as “A Hard Day’s Night” and Michael Caine’s break-out performance as “Alfie.”)
Sillitoe’s screenplay was nominated for a BAFTA, losing to Bryan Forbes’s for “The Angry Silence.” The movie won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film of the year.
*An additional two movies were made from Sillitoe fiction: Counterpoint (1967) and The Ragman’s Daughter (1972), neither of which I’ve seen (nor had heard of before today). Sillitoe’s story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner won the Hawthornden Prize in 1959. Having never duplicated the success of his first novel, Sillitoe published a sequel to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 2001, Birthday.