A titan of the British New Wave and the launchpad for Albert Finney, Karel Reisz’s somewhat dated film is given a loving release from the BFI.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning seems to have been to the British New Wave what Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was to the French New Wave. Released in 1960, both films are the easy (though chronologically incorrect) starting points of their respective movements. Both were directed by men making their fiction feature debuts. Both retain a brashness and emotional brutality that must’ve seemed like breathing fresh air upon their respective releases. Both launched the careers of major international stars who appropriated the spirit of Marlon Brando to deliver dynamic and vaguely sympathetic performances. And both probably paved the way for better films.
If Saturday Night and Sunday Morning hasn’t achieved quite the same canonical status as Breathless, and you’d be hard pressed to say it has, I don’t think it’s a dent on the British film. Godard pretty obviously outpaced Karel Reisz, the Czechoslovakian born director of Saturday Night, and the British New Wave had neither the depth nor the quality of its French counterpart. The two pictures nonetheless seem to have had an almost equally revolutionary impact on their countries’ film output. I wouldn’t lean too heavily in either direction, and my preference is really for some of the films that followed, but one shouldn’t devalue the importance or accomplishment of either. The comparison, thus, is at least as fun as it is inconsequential.
There’s also an equal degree of disappointment that might greet first-time viewers of these important, but dated movies. Saturday Night’s boorish protagonist Arthur Seaton (the shattered embryo of Albert Finney) likely would not approve of any such thoughtful exploration. Arthur is a falsely steadfast young man of working class roots in Nottingham, a factory worker prone to caddish behaviour. He looks down upon the married domesticates who glue their eyes to the telly as they waste away their life one day to the next. “Dead from the neck up,” he comments late in the movie. Some of this rhetoric resonates while just as much sounds like the typical young person who has it all figured out prior to facing life’s realities. The fact that most audiences will know how much bunk Arthur’s ideologies contain works in the film’s favour by reducing the character to a level of understandability otherwise lost amid his repellent actions. Without Finney’s inherent ability to inspire conflict in the viewer, Arthur would be almost unbearable.
That the film is based on an autobiographical novel written by Alan Sillitoe, who also adapted his book for the screenplay, increases the level of bravery in depicting a character easily judged as flawed though really not fully formed and blissfully raw in his imperfections. I greatly prefer Tom Courtenay’s performances in Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to Finney’s work, but it’s not a delineation of merit. What Finney does in Saturday Night is impressive in dimension. I identify more with Courtenay’s characters, but I’m sure there’s a contingent of angrier disenchanteds who latch onto Finney. Arthur Seaton is the raffish bull while Billy Fisher is a resident dreamer more inclined to withdraw into himself. Arthur accidentally impregnates a woman married to his co-worker and Billy can’t even muster the courage to join Julie Christie on a train out of town. Finney is more obviously forceful as he gives Arthur the perfect inflection of stubborn confidence the character probably hasn’t earned.
While Finney gets us in the door, the remaining aspects of the film have allowed it to endure. I can’t say why Reisz never established himself as a top tier director. Poor decisions perhaps, starting with the Night Must Fall remake he did with Finney right afterwards. Regardless, his direction here is fluid and accomplished. There’s a vibrancy present in the film, never more obvious than the carnival sequence when Arthur must uncomfortably juggle the impregnated adulteress Brenda (Rachel Roberts) and the younger, prettier Doreen (Shirley Anne Field). The audience isn’t tipped off as to Arthur’s motivations. The whys are never explored. He simply doesn’t sweat it, whether the task at hand is an unwanted pregnancy or getting beat up by a couple of uniformed ambushers. Arthur is frustratingly placid in his lack of distinction. He works, he drinks, he picks up girls. The essence of the blue-collar male has been distilled into Arthur Seaton.
The social realist agenda Reisz explores comes in as limited under a modern perspective, but you can understand its importance when taken in context. It doesn’t necessarily improve Arthur’s temperament and there’s still a lack of easy identification for outsiders. Even so, the very same problems Arthur faces in the film are universal quandaries. They perplex the best of humans, especially those not ordained with obscene amounts of money to make the distractions go away. The class struggle emanates throughout British New Wave films, and Saturday Night is never hesitant to show the dangerously oppressed vision of common longing. Arthur wants a different life than what he sees his parents as having. Brenda is bored with husband Jack. Deena is a bit less developed, but still desiring something more than what she has at the moment.
The irony comes in the end when Arthur apparently falls victim to exactly the sort of thing he’d repeatedly complained about so strongly. It’s a defeat and a dose of reality. The ideological once again loses out to the practical. I don’t know what it says about the film as a whole when the protagonist has been spouting off concerns which he then entirely moots by descending into the well of adulthood. Arthur surely matures in the sense of learning that life is hardly an ideological endeavour. If he really has ideals, they become compromised. The grand secret of adulthood is, indeed, compromise. We’re all relenting for the opportunity of small, moral victories. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, too, extinguishes some of its tenacity in lieu of a realistic play at the roses. The film doesn’t give up, it just remembers reality. If there’s any message to be taken home it’s in the line of the pessimistic predictability of our existence. More than likely, those raised in one class will continue in that class. It’s the nature of the beast. There may be spirited internal fights, but that house on the hill always looks mighty nice next to a wife and a couple of kids.
The BFI has updated its out of print DVD release for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with new editions in both standard and high definition. The single-layered Blu-ray is encoded for Region B playback only.
The film’s original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is maintained on the disc. This is a true honey of a transfer the BFI has produced. The enclosed booklet states that the film was transferred in high definition using an original 35mm finegrain film element from the BFI National Archive. The picture was then restored to remove various dirt and scratches, which has been accomplished beautifully here. The detail shines through boldly and contrast too looks exceptional. It’s an improvement over the simultaneous release of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and the brightness is comparatively toned down. Some mild grain has still been retained, but at a consistent and appropriate level. There obviously haven’t been too many black and white films brought to Blu-ray thus far, but the only one I’ve seen that outdoes the BFI’s work here is Casablanca from Warner Bros.
Original English mono audio is presented in an uncompressed PCM track spread across two channels. It was sourced from a BFI preservation 35mm print. I found it to also be stronger in quality than what’s on the concurrent Loneliness release. Super clear, well-balanced, and robust in volume. There’s nothing immediately striking in the mix, but it very nicely gets the job done. Subtitles are optional and provided in English for the hearing impaired. The font is white in colour.
An informative commentary is repeated from the original BFI DVD release. It’s dominated by film historian Robert Murphy, and also features separate, limited contributions from writer Alan Sillitoe and cinematographer Freddie Francis. I think Murphy must prefer this film to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which he also provided commentary for, because he has more to say and delivers a deeper level of analysis here. Nonetheless, I can’t say his comments really increased my appreciation for the movie, even if the effort itself was admirable.
A somewhat choppily edited interview (10:00) with actress Shirley Anne Field is new for this release and presented in HD. She discusses her career and the impact the film had on it, among other things. Another short piece (4:10) with Albert Finney is audio-only and taken from a 1982 interview of the actor at the National Film Theatre. The finest extra, essentially another film, is Karel Reisz’s 1959 documentary We Are the Lambeth Boys (50:38 ). I had never seen it before and enjoyed the glimpse at another time (and culture) found in the film. Frankly, I’d probably rate it higher than the feature it’s supplementing on this disc. Without any hesitation, We Are the Lambeth Boys is worth the time to view. Though the Academy ratio HD video looks good, with a few damage lines and some grain, there are audible crackles and pops in the mono audio.
The standard BFI booklet runs 24 pages for this release. Philip Kemp writes a pair of pages for the film and three on director Karel Reisz. A few paragraphs are also devoted to Alan Sillitoe, We Are the Lambeth Boys and the Free Cinema, combined with tasteful stills to fill it all out.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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