Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Festering with Frustration
Arthur Seaton is a man of frustration during a period in British cinema history where frustration was seen as a good thing, a political thing. This doesn't mean that the characters in films like Look Back in Anger, A Kind of Loving, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning are political, nor even that the disparate filmmakers behind the films were political either. It is more that the dilemmas addressed cannot easily be seen beyond the social context in which they are placed, even if these problems are much more than the socio-political ones of getting on and moving up the social scale. Even Room at the Top, the one film in what was called the Kitchen Sink movement that indicated a clear and calculating need (on Joe Lampton's part) to get on in life, indicated that here was a man hollowing out his soul for a bit of success. "You wouldn't sell yourself for a few pieces of silver, would you Joe?", the uncle and aunt who brought him up wonder. For Joe, it allows for a crisis of conscience, but in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) seems to lack a conscience at all, even if we might finally find him a more agreeable character than Lampton. In one scene with his married lover, Brenda, they're discussing the abortion she needs, and Brenda says "you know the trouble with you, you don't know the difference between right and wrong, and I don't think you ever will." But the reason Arthur might be more appealing than Joe is that he doesn't hold to societal values which could allow him to make something of his life. This would be a useless compromise in Seaton's view. In another scene in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a sozzled old bloke smashes a window with his beer glass, trying to steal one of the urns behind the glass. Arthur and his friend witness what happened but have no interest in seeing the bloke locked up. One of Arthurs' nosey neighbours who has rushed to the scene determined to see the man arrested, gets a dressing down from Seaton. "Why don't you leave him alone you old bag", he says, after earlier in the film having a run in with her in the local shop, saying "Tara, Fatty."
Hardly values we would easily support, but part of the film's interest rests on the difference between the compassionate and the moral. If Arthur doesn't know the difference between right and wrong it is because right and wrong are social values, and he doesn't have much faith in society. As he says near the end of the film while fishing with his cousin and mate, Bert (Norman Rossington), "I've still got some fight left in me, not like most people." In the closing scene, with his fiancee, Doreen (Sally Ann Field), he says when he was a boy he would go blackberrying with Bert and that soon there won't be a blade of grass let alone berries to pick. He says it at the top of a hill while in the medium distance we see houses that are being built. In both scenes, he can't sit still. While he harangues both Bert and Doreen he is on his feet; they are seated or lying down as the body language indicates a man on the move but with nowhere in particular to go, yet feels he must go somewhere or do something. But we have also indicated that he is a compassionate man, but this compassion can only be understood within his anger. It is in between his moments of anger and contempt that we see in his face a tenderness that he doesn't quite trust, and a feeling for people that his cynicism cannot quite hide. "You're good to me, Brenda. Love. And don't think I don't appreciate it." he says after she cooks him breakfast. To Bert he says "She's a good sort, though, I've given her a lot to put up with." Then, speaking of her husband, whom he has been cuckolding, Arthur says, he is "a bit of a dolt. But he's not a bad bloke really." After throwing a stone just before the end of the film, Doreen says he shouldn't throw stones, offering a tone and a look indicating vulnerability and tenderness on her part, as if she is saying don't throw tantrums and don't throw me away. Arthur looks at her with feeling and says, after she doesn't reply and after a brief silence from him, "come on Duck, let's go down" as he goes for her hand. The scene is pragmatically shot but Eisentinian in its cutting. It plays up high and low angles as we see the power Arthur has over her at this stage, power perhaps he will lose if he marries her and buys her the house she wishes for and the middle-class life she would seem to aspire to. Alexander Walker in Hollywood, England reads it thus: "...the film ends with a dim perception of how a way of life has claimed him, as it's claimed generations before him, and will eventually tame him into social conformity in spite of his half-hearted gesture of chucking stones in the direction of the new housing estate whose middle-classness beckons so temptingly to his girlfriend."
There is nothing conspicuous about the editing strategy, no sense in which Reisz (who wrote a key book on cutting films called The Technique Film Editing, first published in 1953) is interested in imitating or homaging Eisenstein and Welles whom he writes so well about in the book. But this is nevertheless editing that is deliberate in its meaning: the angles emphasize the power difference as Doreen looks small and vulnerable, Arthur, strong and assertive. Yet is this a man asserting his will aware that he doesn't have much fight left in him, or someone who might take that wilfulness into a relationship with a weaker woman? The editing is thus categorical from one point of view but ambiguous from another, which is why we can talk about Reisz learning from Eisenstein but with little interest in apeing him. Eisenstein purpose wasn't to document a situation but to assert a position. When the sailors discover the maggots in the meat in Battleship Potemkin, the director offers no ambivalence: this is an atrocity that needs to be registered both filmically and politically. As the sailors insist the meat is inedible, the ship's doctor inspects the meat more closely and insists it will be perfectly okay: it is covered in maggots and not worms; washing it through with brine will be enough. While the film shows the maggot-infested meat in close-up we are in no doubt on whose side we are supposed to be on as the intertitles quote the sailors' remarks. "Russian POWs in Japan are fed better", "it's not fit for pigs". As Reisz says in his book, Eisenstein and others "set about finding new ways by which to express ideas in the film medium and this is where Eisenstein was never shy of overstatement. Characters were broadly drawn and the editing was so insistent that it didn't always respect logistics. If the proletariat were oppressed, there was nothing wrong with showing that oppression from different angles and with pushy metaphors, evident in the scene where a stone lion is shown in three shots to give the impression of movement, rising up against the masters. Eisenstein was brilliantly interested in expanding formalism; Reisz in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in squeezing the material into the tenets of realism. This is why we suggest that the moment when Arthur is low-angled and large next to Doreen in the next shot remains well within the limits of narrow form: it doesn't call attention to the editing but remains invisibly plausible. It can seem like a very straightforward way to shoot the scene despite the high and low angles adopted.
Eisenstein was interested in revolution - Reisz is interested in, as we have noted, frustration. Revolution is a political thing; frustration is a human thing, Frustration can lead to revolution, but revolution can only use frustration - precisely what Eisenstein does with the maggot meat as the sailors stand around exasperated by the doctor's belief that the meat is still edible. It feels very much a means to an end and Eisenstein's editing serves a political cause rather than a diegetic need. V. F. Perkin makes this very point when saying "it seems a serious criticism of Eisenstein's device that the lions served no purpose in the movie beyond that of becoming components of a montage effect. They are not represented as, for example, elements of the Odessa setting, nor as targets for the Potemkin's attack." (Film and Film) Eisenstein saw the scene as both idiomatic and political, noting there is a Russian idiom "the very stones roared" indicating all hell breaking loose, and that "in the thunder of the Potemkin's guns, a marble lion leaps up, in protest against the bloodshed on the political steps." (Film Form) We needn't attack or defend Eisenstein's montage effects; only to say that Reisz, well aware of them on the intricate level of having written a book that sees Eisenstein as central, chooses to eschew them. They would not have worked to convey frustration.
But what exactly does? The opening sequence in the film begins with a roar not of lions but of machinery as we see Seaton in the factory. The insouciant music comes in and a voice-over accompanies it: Arthur saying "no use working every minute God sends, I could get through the work in half the time...don't let the bastards grind you down." As we see him smoking a cigarette mid-shift this might seem like a man of determined leisure while still at work, but the film manages to convey ambivalence here as Arthur doesn't appear too relaxed and the tone in which he delivers his thoughts indicates anger. The piercing noise of the machinery makes clear Arthur's world is a difficult one and that he doesn't so much take it easy as take his moods out on others - a point the film will convey throughout. But he also seems a man who wants others to take things out on him too, as though the frustration brings forth a masochistic streak that demands a good hiding. Indeed, the thrust of the film's story, such as it is, can be seen as frustration manifested as masochism. When Walker indicates that novelist Alan Sillitoe saw his book as a series of incidents rather than a plotted novel, the film solves this problem partly through this idea of masochistic frustration, caught perfectly in Finney's performance, an aspect we can find in other Finney roles, evident in anything from Charlie Bubbles to Under the Volcano, even in Two for The Road, where he cannot seem to accept that he loves Audrey Hepburn until he must humiliate himself a little to win her back. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning may be about working-class life in Nottingham, but it also uses a working-class milieu to explore a masochist's need to see his life as self-destructively determined. Early in the film, he manages to drink another man if not under the table, then to the point where the bloke collapses on top of it, while shortly afterwards Arthur himself tumbles down the stairs as Reisz seems to draw on Hitchcock - the great director of the threatening nature of staircases in anything from Suspicion to Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo to Psycho. The film cuts from a low angle on Seaton looking sozzled, to a high angle shot of him falling down the stairs, before a close up on Seaton's face shows him smiling. A feat accomplished indeed: not only has he been busy doing sufficient damage to his liver, his bones will be aching too.
Earlier when Brenda says he is an impressive drinker but that isn't anything to be proud of, he replies: "you get thirsty working on a machine all week." Arthur justifies his masochism through his work ethic and his working-class status. While the film doesn't undermine the arduous labour and the stunted life, it also wonders if Seaton's miseries are his own or those of his social class. Following Finney's career in other films showing men much more successful than Seaton here (Charlie Bubbles drives a Rolls Royce; Mark in Two for the Road is a wealthy architect; Geoffrey a former British Consul in Under the Volcano) we can see in Reisz's casting a deep dissatisfaction that goes beyond the unhappy or the politically disenfranchized. This has nothing to do with who Albert Finney happens to be in life, just what his persona happens to be in cinema. Walker in Hollywood, England reports that Peter O'Toole had been interested in the role, but O'Toole was too conventionally handsome for the par. O'Toole's capacity for masochism, however, would also seem quite different from Finney's. O'Toole voice, features and height suggest a man of lofty superiority or at least social obliviousness. Finney indicates a constant awareness of others, which is why we wouldn't entirely agree with Walker's generally very perceptive account of Finney's Arthur: "with his wary eye, cocky banter, short neck and jutting chin, Finney possessed the naturalistic vitality of a working-class environment where survival bred swift responses and not too much care for other people's feelings." Finney appears to be someone who is interested in other's feelings but at the same time would like to anesthetize his own.
We can see this in the dynamic with Jack, Brenda's husband. Jack is far from an oblivious figure in Seaton's mind. At the beginning of the film he observes Jack and says after saying you shouldn't let the bastards grind you down: "Jack is one that ain't learnt it. He's one that wants to get on." Is sleeping with Jack's wife an attempt to teach him a lesson? There are times in the film where it looks like he wants to be found out: whether it is dawdling over breakfast knowing Jack is on his way home after a weekend away with his son, or later in the film insistently and publicly being seen with Brenda by Jack and his squaddie brother-in-law and his squaddie friend. He knows a beating awaits but that doesn't seem to bother him. Some might see this as the lesson Arthur learns at the hands of the squaddies, but Arthur could claim it is a lesson that Jack needs to learn: that his determination to get up and on (he has started working night shifts) means his wife has developed feelings for another man. Any idea that Arthur is only out for himself needs to acknowledge a masochism that counters the selfishness. There are numerous people in the film he does care for or give consideration to: most obviously Brenda and even Doreen, and a little to Jack and certainly the old man who breaks the window and whom he refuses to grass up when the police arrive. Concerning the latter situation, some might say this is Arthur refusing to respect authority. Perhaps; but it seems to us more that he respects the old man - feels for his pain enough to protect him from a custodial sentence. He would prefer to get into trouble lying to the police than letting a grieving old geezer get locked up for a minor misdemeanour. This is a sort of Marxist masochism, with Arthur willing to put himself into difficult predicaments all the better to show up the passive nature of an exploitative society. He isn't politically astute enough, or so clearly selfless enough, to turn his thoughts into political purpose, but we can be suspicious too of Seaton's claim that "what I'm out for is a good time, All the rest is propaganda." Let us look at it a different way. Arthur gets so drunk on a night out that he appears to be forgetting his worries rather than finding his pleasure at the bottom of a pint, takes up with a married woman whom he impregnates but who has no wish to leave her husband and have a baby with him, gets beaten up and then looks like he will settle with the potentially bossy and upwardly mobile Doreen. The film is more nuanced than that, but our reading would be no less categorical than one which goes along with Arthur's narrative that insists he is out for a good time and that he won't let the bastards grind him down.
True, he is not like the older men he sees working in the factory. "That's more than them poor buggers know. They got ground down during the war and never got over it ..." he says, yet he might be ground down nevertheless. Agency lies in self-grinding, in feeling that you have taken responsibility for the beating you receive, for drinking yourself into a stupor but taking a moment longer to get there than the man next to you. Interviewed by Rolling Stone in the early eighties, Finney interestingly suggested that his heavy drinking in the sixties had its own internal paradox: "I guess it's possible that it was a kind of escape hatch. If you're regarded as someone of talent, expected to be an achiever, perhaps if you screw yourself up, they'll say, 'Well, if only he hadn't become an alcoholic, he would have fulfilled the promise.'" This would be an example of masochistic failure, with someone insisting they cannot succeed and finds a way of doing their damnedest to fulfil such a prophecy. Finney failed, and became a success; Seaton looks like he will succeed and become a certain type of failure. It is as if Seaton knows that society really is against a working-class individual such as himself. His purpose may be to acknowledge the nature of that impossibility without self-delusion.Thus, rather than seeing Arthur as a man who selfishly looks after number one, he is the young man who refuses to believe that he can make something of his life, aware when he looks at number two, three and four what he sees is compromise and failure. We see after all that he does give thought to those around him, whether it is the old men in the factory who fought in the war, or the foreman who "ended up with a fat gut and lots of worry." "I'd like to see anyone try and grind me down", but by the end of the film the assertiveness of such a statement might demand a reassessment. Nobody will grind Arthur down; Arthur will do that on his own, a self-grinding that requires no war to fight or sycophancy towards others. Seaton will be a self-made failure even if that might mean marriage and kids with Doreen.
Perhaps we are being overly paradoxical here, but this is all the better to bring out a contrast we can see with contemporary British films that not only frequently fail to address working-class life, but when they do, lack the nuance of Kitchen Sink cinema. The need to plead and please replaces the need for nuance and resonance: the films often feel obliged to make the working class funny or purposeful, as we can find in numerous late nineties movies like The Fully Monty, Little Voice and Billy Elliot. They feel like middle-class accounts of what working-class life should look like. Obviously, at the same time other films including Nil by Mouth, Under the Skin and Ratcatcher have been as complex as the best kitchen sinks, but some commentators believe the situation has become hopeless in the last few years. Danny Leigh offered a two-pronged attack in the Guardian and Sight and Sound, saying in the former: "even the actors are vanishing", quoting Equity president Maureen Beattie's claim, "'we have got a big problem'. She was speaking about "the lack of opportunities for working-class performers. Actors including Maxine Peake and Lesley Manville appeared at the BFI this spring to publicly highlight the crisis. Drama has been cut from the classroom, young actors priced out of training, a glum contest among those who remain for dwindling roles as gang members and sex workers." In Sight and Sound he says, "so here we are. Working-class stories are rare, with working-class actors stuck in supporting casts." To explore this would be for another article, yet for this one we can see that many films of the early sixties very much put people from working-class backgrounds in leading roles, and cast actors from those backgrounds in the part. There is a sense when we see Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as well as A Kind of Loving, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey, that even as the characters criticize where they are from, the filmmakers are playing fair by location and no less fair by biographical characterization. When Arthur meets with Brenda to discuss the abortion, Arthur dismisses the town he literally looks down on, saying "I was just looking at the lovely view" as Brenda arrives. However, not all of the film was shot in Nottingham: Movie Locations notes that "despite claims to background authenticity, not all the locations are in the Midlands. The funfair scenes were shot in London, and some interiors in the studio at Twickenham." Also, that "it's outside The British Flag, 103 Culvert Road, on the corner of Rowditch Lane, south of Battersea Park, Battersea, London SW11, that Seaton and his pal witness a drunken old man smash a shop window, and later, that Seaton gets beaten up by squaddies. It is worth keeping such realities in mind when arguing for the authenticity of a given film. Little Voice and The Full Monty were at least as faithful to their setting as locational source as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning happened to be. Reel Streets breaks down the shots in Little Voice from the context of used locations, many of them around Scarborough where the film was set. Sheffield Telegraph explores the locations and how they have changed in The Full Monty.
What this makes clear is that filmic authenticity isn't always factual; that it frequently happens to be a question of sensibility and enquiry. It concerns what the filmmaker wants to reveal, not merely show. This distinction allows us to go beyond location, beyond even casting actors from the region in which the film is set (even if such aspects are far from irrelevant), and to wonder what the film happens to be revealing. Finney was born in Salford, for example, not Nottingham - a distance of around a 107 miles; Nottingham to London is 127. There would seem to be little difference between casting an actor from London or from Salford - neither would pass for the strictly authentic. But could we imagine Michael Caine in the role of Arthur? Not really; yet Jack Clayton cast Laurence Harvey in the Yorkshire set Room at the Top, an actor born in Lithuania and raised in South Africa. It just about worked because Harvey brings to the role a stiffness and ambition that indicates he has no interest in the place where he is from; yet he would likely have ruined Saturday Night and Sunday Morning if cast in Finney's role. Reisz's film's purpose isn't to show the reality of people's lives, but reveal an aspect of their existence. What the film wants from Finney is a northern belligerence, a feeling that his life is going nowhere because there is nowhere for it to go. There may be condescension evident in these northern films that occasionally hold London as an ideal escape (Billy Liar), but better to see them as feeling that life is elsewhere: that money and opportunities will rarely be allowed to flourish in the north. The Tory politician Norman Tebbit famously suggested people get on their bike and look for work, but Seaton has a bike, works in the Raleigh factory in Nottingham, but feels he could be going round on that bike in circles. What the film explores is that frustration which indicates no matter what one does, the future looks bleak either materially or at least spiritually. It wouldn't be that an actor like Michael Caine would come from too far afield to play the role of Seaton, it is more especially that Caine contains within his body language an ambition and purpose that Finney does not. There is a self-assured streak in Caine; a self-destructive one in Finney. In revealing rather than showing, a director casts an actor who can fathom the film's deepest impulse, even if he or she happens geographically to come from further away than authenticity might desire.
It is this self-destructive streak we find so interesting within the context of the Marxist masochism we have invoked. Lampton in Room at the Top is selfish: he possesses a purpose and ambition that emphasizes the gap he wants to put between himself and where he is from. There is no sense this is what Arthur wants to do. Speaking with Bert and Bert's mum at the bar, they discuss another son who has gone to Australia. She says he seems a lot better off out there: "he never did well in this country, did he?" She goes on to say that Johnny had it hard when he was young; that they were rotten days. This would be the pre-war, pre-welfare state Britain that a selfish bugger like Arthur wouldn't seem to care much about changing. But he replies, "it won't happen again, though, I can tell you that." This is a man of the people speaking even if we see most of the time Arthur looking after himself. But partly what makes the film interesting is his ambivalent relationship with himself and others: that he wants the pleasures of hedonism but isn't averse to the consideration of the people around him. When his aunt speaks about Johnny she invokes Arthur's name, as if speaking to someone with whom she can express her sadness, aware that this man whom she has known since he was born might be cynical, but this doesn't mean he is insincere.
During this discussion, the aunt notes that his eye has been wondering: he's been looking at a woman in the back room of the bar, namely Doreen. Initially, we see her sitting there with her coat on as if perhaps she has only popped in to say hello to her mum despite supping on a drink. Afterwards she takes off her coat and goes over to order some crisps at the bar and falls into conversation with Arthur. What he likes in Doreen is not at all her airs and graces that would help him get up and on; these are the characteristics he is likely to most despise. He thinks she is a good looking woman whose sensitive side he begins to glimmer and whose bluntness he admires. As they initially chat he wonders what she is celebrating; she tells him the fifteenth anniversary of her dad leaving her mum. She possesses a poised pointedness that contrasts but isn't inconsistent with Arthur's caustic mien. She is a match for his ego even if she may lack the gravity of Brenda, but anyone who sees her as the brittle shell who represents for Arthur a life without feeling would be forgetting the scene that we, if not Arthur, happens to be privy too. She is standing alone in her house shortly after Arthur has been turfed out by her mum and she muses aloud to herself "...well I like him." Later after Arthur's been a bit off-hand he tries to make amends and says "I like you telling me off. I like you a lot in fact." Should we take this as an expression of lukewarm feeling on both sides or an emotional hesitancy that suggests strong feelings aren't conducive with the environment but that doesn't mean they are anathema to the individual.
In that brief sequence in the pub we see one woman sensitively commenting on her son's immigration to Australia, another's direct announcement that the father has long since gone. The film explores a social class that has never been able to expect much from life: Arthur is a working-class figure beginning to demand more and refusing to accept less. This isn't the misanthropy of taking advantage of others; just making sure that no one takes advantage of you. Falling into the past, into the humility, false consciousness and despondency of earlier generations is what Arthur insistently wants to avoid. We notice this in his comment about the broken men who fought in the war, and in the exchange in the bar when Bert says he was talking to someone at the pit who was going on about the good old days. Bert will have none of it, telling the bloke that if he keeps going on about the good old days he will split his head open with a pick. There isn't much to suggest Bert is a violent man, nor even much of rebel - but there is a belief that times are changing for the better and he wants, like Arthur, to make sure that the gains made are not going to disappear. What makes Arthur different is that he doesn't want to accept the gains quietly: he might even be asking for a few more. But what those gains might be Arthur cannot easily articulate but perhaps links to what John Osborne referred to, in his autobiography, A Better Class of Person, as the "macro-biotic food of the day", existentialism. Osborne offers the remark facetiously, adding, "uncomprehended concepts of freedom, will and choice floundered to act in the face of concrete possibilities like two-up and two down in Stoneleigh with Renee and Mrs Shepherd." But abstract choice and concrete reality are often rubbing up against each other in our lives - it is how well we can deal with the two forces that might define partly what constitutes well-being. Just because Arthur may see himself as without a clear political focus, that doesn't mean we cannot see underpinning his irritation, aggression and above all frustration a need for a fairer world, one where he needn't allow his worst instincts to get the better of his best ones. In Sillitoe's fictionalized memoir, Raw Material, written in the early seventies, the writer notes: "five per cent of the population own ninety per cent of the wealth - a more wicked proportion than in any other European country", and adds "the working men of today do not trust these middle class and no doubt sincere socialists to give them justice, for they see socialism of that sort as perhaps the last defence of the ruling class against the working class." Arthur looks like a man who wouldn't disagree with these sentiments, even if he might turn suddenly wary, take a gulp from his pint and tell anyone who would listen that he is "out for a good time and all the rest is propaganda." But is that not propaganda itself: the idea the relatively poor might have in believing their good time is the equal of others having a decidedly better one in better housing, education, and health?
© Tony McKibbin