FILM REVIEW: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (UK, 1960)
Directed by Karel Reisz
Starring Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Rachael Roberts, Hylda Baker

In the immediate post-war period, British cinema lost a lot of the sparkle and sense of adventure which it had previously embodied. With Alfred Hitchcock now permanently based in America and Powell and Pressburger past their prime, cinema became increasingly populated by American melodramas, jingoistic war films and ropey comedies. It would take something truly momentous to shake cinema out of this stupor: that something was the British New Wave.Beginning with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the New Wave sought to reinvigorate film and theatre, tackling controversial subjects head on and presenting a view of the working classes which was the very opposite of patronising or parochial. In time the genre, with its left-wing undercurrents and subtle emphasis on counter-culture, would come to be epitomised by Lindsay Anderson, the director of If.... and This Sporting Life. But well before the latter entered production, Anderson's colleague Karel Reisz was blazing the cinematic trail with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.Based upon the novel by Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a rich and respectful work which depicts the life of the working man in Nottingham in a completely uncompromising way. Reisz' background in documentary filmmaking makes him a naturally understated director. His camera is always an observer, sitting passively in the corner; it never flinches or mitigates, and it makes no apologies for what occurs on screen.

Not only does this approach make the action more realistic, but it helps to convey the message of the film. It allows the characters to speak for themselves, to create and form their own voices and identities, rather than having to conform either to the conventions of Hollywood or to social attitudes of what is considered 'proper'. The central line of the film comes towards the end from Albert Finney: "whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not", from which we get the title of The Arctic Monkeys' debut album.The visuals in Saturday Night reflect this desire for the characters rather than the director to do the talking. The film is shot by Freddie Francis, who also shot The Elephant Man and would work with Reisz again on The French Lieutenant's Woman. His choice of angles is simple but effective and he never attempts to play up the emotion of a scene by resorting to thriller tropes in the manner of Hitchcock or surreal, dreamlike shifts in the manner of Michael Powell. There are moments of visual exuberance - for instance, the blurring of the footage at the fairground to convey Arthur's disorientation - but these are only used as occasional devices.

Shooting in black-and-white, whether for artistic or budgetary reasons, always seems to give a film a sense of gravitas and ruggedness, something which was comparatively lacking in Technicolor efforts from the same time. Francis' cinematography and Reisz' direction show up unashamedly all the rough edges of working life, from the thundering monotony of the factories to the grimy back streets and beer-drenched pubs. There is an underlying respect for what they document, but they do not glamorise working life to the point of parody, in the manner of Sergei Eisenstein. This might help to explain why the film was awarded an 'X' certificate when first released (it has since been downgraded to a PG).This ruggedness and gravitas is never more noticeable than in the performance of Albert Finney. In only his second film role, he inhabits Arthur Seaton, creating a complex and contradictory character that we spend the entire film trying to figure out. He is anti-heroic, and largely amoral save when it comes to his own skin. In certain scenes he is borderline sociopathic, like when he takes pot shots at a nosey neighbour with an air rifle. But he remains compelling in his capability to love, to think beyond what we expect of him, and - on occasion - to do the right thing.The most interesting moments of the film, which lift it out of the clichés of what would become kitchen-sink, see Arthur and his colleagues passing the time at weekends fishing or drinking, and discussing what the point of their lives might be. Arthur makes passing comments about a life beyond this, saying that he doesn't want to get married until he feels ready. His angry voiceovers about the factory and wayward relationships with women reflect a restless attitude towards the limits of the world put before him. He knows what he doesn't want, but can't quite communicate anything beyond that.

This desire to communicate creates an emotional involvement with Arthur which makes the story gripping and engrossing. Like most kitchen-sink dramas the actual plot is quite slim, and has a number of similarities to A Place in the Sun - the central one being a male protagonist who is torn between two women, and who is threatened with ruin when one of them falls pregnant. But Saturday Night rejects the melodramatic tone of that film, just as Arthur remarks upon living the cinema that he always knew where the film was going.In A Place in the Sun, like so many melodramas, the characters are so clearly drawn that you knew where things were going after about fifteen minutes: Montgomery Clift is bound to fail and make the wrong choices, because that is the archetype into which he fits. In Saturday Night, there are no such guarantees and no stock ending to dampen the mood. Not only do the twists and turns feel more realistic, they carry a greater weight because the various parties do not have to respond in a manner predetermined by genre. Because Arthur is so conflicted, we don't know what choice he will make and therefore there is no assurance that he will emerge intact.The film deserves further plaudits for sticking to its guns in depicting the darker elements of urban life. It's one thing to go for realism when things are rosy for the protagonists; it's quite another to follow through with this and risk the censors' wrath in the process. The film is quite happy to linger on the scenes between Arthur and Doreen, but it is equally candid in the fight between Arthur and the squaddies which leaves the former near-dead. The ending itself is quite ambiguous, as Arthur surveys the housing developments and wonders whether he can change even as the landscape changes around him.If there is a flaw with Saturday Night, it is purely a question of scope. Apart from little details that have dated and any resounding prejudiced surrounding the now-ripe genre of kitchen-sink, the big problem with the film is that it is a little too self-contained. While it captures this particular part of Nottingham exceedingly well, it doesn't have quite the same general reach as Anderson's work - it doesn't reach out beyond its tight-knit community in the manner of This Sporting Life.In spite of this problem, which has prevented it from ageing quite so well, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning remains an important work in British cinema. In the long-term its realistic treatment of ordinary life and uncompromising storylines can be seen in everything from Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to the more recent work of Lynn Ramsey and Andrea Arnold. Reisz directs beautifully, bringing Sillitoe's novel and screenplay to life through a series of refreshing performances, resulting in a very fine piece of work.

Verdict: A compelling and well-crafted drama


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