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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) is the ‘new wave’ film which has most preserved its reputation with modern critics. Albert Finney is the cocky, belligerent antihero of Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, scripted by Alan Sillitoe from his novel: a truculent toolmaker with an off-duty taste for fine suitings. He’s getting his oats with a married woman, the superb Rachel Roberts, and exchanging badinage with Aunt Ada: the incomparable, but here very restrained Hylda Baker.
Over forty years on, the film still packs an impressive punch. At the time, its impact with critics and audiences lay in its depiction of a working class world that was previously unseen on British screens. What’s more, this world was presented in matter of fact terms, rather than being seen as a ‘problem’ to be solved in the late ’50s manner. People drink, fight, commit adultery, get pregnant, get married – that’s the way it is. Some punches were pulled in the production process, but it was still remarkably frank for the time in its treatment of adultery, abortion and violence.
It was the first real look at an industrial working class that was no longer a victim to be stroked and pitied; now people had money in their pockets and with it more freedom. Arthur (Albert Finney) recognises that he is still essentially powerless in the scheme of things, but his response is to do what he wants regardless of anyone else; ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ and ‘what I’m out for is a good time’ is his philosophy. It is Arthur who makes the film still seem so fresh and exciting now, long after the factory floor, back to backs and pints of mild are no longer the norm for most.
Albert Finney‘s performance is a defining one in British film culture. His swagger dominates the film and, for all Arthur’s self-regard, he takes us with him every step of the way. In fact the filmmakers intended a more ambiguous view of the character. Karel Reisz sees him as a “sad person, terribly limited in his sensibilities, narrow in his ambitions and a bloody fool into the bargain.” It is a tribute to Finney that we do not experience the film like that. Arthur may be a liar, a cheat and many other things, but he is most definitively alive, and his unbending defiance in the face of expectations feels liberating.