Monday, January 09, 2012

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Karel Riesz’ Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) is a testy, petulant, balled-up-fist of a movie. It’s portrayal of a young factory worker struggling to keep his life from sliding into a sea of boredom and ennui is one of the vanguard films of what was to become known as the British New Wave in the early sixties.

Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) is a Nottingham lad who has two facets to his life. By day he labors at a bicycle factory – Nights and weekends, he’s at the pub. Albert has a definite edge to him, that’s plain to see. Watch his swagger when he hits the town in his stylish suits or the smug way he exhales cigarette smoke. He’s a likable rogue, and it’s easy to imagine women being drawn to him.

Brenda (Rachel Roberts) certainly is. She’s with him as the film opens, and if the fact that she’s married bothers either of them, it’s hard to tell. That’s the thing about the blue-collar world of SN&SM – The people are beaten down by life, and they don’t seem to give much thought to anything outside their own orbit. Arthur likes this woman, and is romantic with her, but one doesn’t get the sense that his investment in her runs very deep. For her part, Brenda gives no indication that she wants out of her marriage (to a co-worker of Arthurs) – It’s more like she just feels a bit more alive when she’s with this wild young man.

This was Albert Finneys’ first starring role, and he is electric as Arthur. The role calls for Seaton to be a charming cad, but also to be selfish and thoughtlessly cruel. That is a hard package for any actor to shoulder, but Finney pulls it off beautifully. Watch him as he woos the pretty young Doreen (Shirley Ann Field). He is almost insanely cheeky and confident as he pushes through her defenses, and by the time the conversation is done, he’s got a date with her.

The thing that elevates this film to masterpiece, however, is the world that Seaton occupies. This is working class England in 1960, and the film illustrates a country still trying to regain its footings after the devastation of World War II. Most of the guys in the factories and pubs would have been veterans, and they are realizing that the better England and better lives that they hoped to find after the war aren’t going to be there. The cinematography by the great Freddie Francis helps add shading to the feeling of societal malaise that pervades the film. Everything looks sooty and worn out.

That’s the life that Arthur is terrified of. He tries to live his life as a rebuke to all of this, and says so at every opportunity.
“That’s what laws are for. To be broken by blokes like us!”
“Think of number 1. Share and share alike’s no good.”
“I’m out for a good time – All the rest’s propoganda!”
Arthur talks tough, but it’s hard not to see that he’s an empty shell. The idea of marriage amuses him, and we already know that fidelity and loyalty are foreign to him. He lies to every single solitary person that he encounters in this film, and seems to have no guilt about it. For all his bluster, Arthur realizes that he is probably going to end up just like those poor blokes that he so despises.
The film seems to reach a turning point when Arthur finds out that Brenda is pregnant by him. His reaction is what we might expect – That she has to “Get rid of it”, and it’s in these exchanges between Arthur and Brenda that the true soul of SN&SM resides. Arthur is supportive and not completely unsympathetic to Brendas plight, but the thought of the baby fills him with dread. It’s an inconvenience.

For her part, Brenda is the films most tragic character. Send by Arthur to see his aunt about an abortion, she comes back with a pitiful tale about being told to “Sit in a hot bath and drink gin.” She has allowed herself to become close to an attractive but irresponsible playboy, made a mistake, and now finds herself abandoned by him. She also faces the prospect of going to her husband with the truth about her pregnancy. When she confides to Arthur that she is going to keep the baby and confess her infidelity to her husband, it’s a beautiful, brave scene.
Near the end of the film, there’s a line that Arthur throws out about his parents that seems heedlessly cruel and unfair. When his cousin remarks that they seem happy, Arthur shoots back “They’ve got a TV set and a pack of fags, but they’re both dead from the neck up.” - Meaning that they have fully surrendered and are just marking time until death. As harsh as that sounds it’s not really wrong for most of the people we see. When Arthur encounters Brenda’s husband near the end of the film, instead of anger and violence he gets sadness and resignation. The man doesn’t feel the need to vent on this punk who cuckolded him, and this amazes Arthur. He would have respected the man more if he had tried to fight him.
The final passage of SN&SM is quiet and reflective, and anticipates what Arthur has fought his whole life against. Arthur and Doreen walk to a grassy hillside overlooking rows of factory houses, and Arthur remarks that when he used to come up there when he was a kid, there were no buildings. As the couple talks about getting married, Arthur hurls a stone at one of the houses. Doreen admonishes him saying “That could be our house” and Arthur replies, “It won’t be the last one I throw” By now, Arthur is starting down the path to surrender himself, and he knows it. Just like the blackberries gave way to urban sprawl, his youth will ebb away, and he will be like the rest. Dead from the neck up.



No comments: