While this British film may have been a technical achievement – and the performances are indeed empirically good – I personally may be too old or too jaded, or possibly too American, to have enjoyed it properly.
Based on a 1958 novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is the story of Arthur (Albert Finney), a working-class nobody with an assembly-line job at a British bicycle factory. Arthur is not the most intellectually aspirational of fellows; he works only to make money to pay his parents some rent, and lives for the partying he does on the weekends, hitting up pubs with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington) or fooling around with any woman willing to have him. Lately he’s been canoodling with his neighbor’s wife Brenda (Rachel Roberts) – although this is a little risky, since Brenda’s husband Jack (Bryan Pringle) is one of his superiors at the factory. But Arthur doesn’t care – he’s young and he’s clever, and fancies himself smart enough to stay out of trouble. After all, he’s already “smart” enough to avoid the trap of falling in love and getting married in the first place – in his opinion, opting for the conventional life of marriage-and-a-house-and-all-that leaves you “dead from the neck up”.
However, Arthur soon gets hit with two big curve balls. First is Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a pretty shopgirl he meets one weekend while stopping in at a different pub. Doreen is not a party girl, she’s holding out for a husband thankyouverymuch – but she’s feisty and sassy enough to intrigue Arthur, and pretty enough to make him start to re-think his attitude toward commitment. But not that fast – he still wants to sow his wild oats, and if Doreen isn’t willing he’ll just keep Brenda in the wings, going to chaste movies and dances with Doreen and then hitting up Brenda for some bedroom antics after. But then Brenda hits him with the second problem – she’s pregnant, and Arthur is definitely the father.
This film, and the Alan Stilltoe book which inspired it, were part of a growing literary and film movement in the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Instead of the conventional, escapist films and plays from the 1940s and 50s, these “Kitchen Sink Realism” works focused on more working-class folk and their issues – poverty, domestic abuse, unplanned pregnancies (and back-alley abortions), and the lack of any real kind of options in life aside from going to work, going drinking in pubs, and going home. The main characters were usually young men who saw the emptiness and pointlessness of such a life and chafed against society expecting them to comply; it became such a trope that this genre picked up the second nickname, “Angry Young Men,” which in turn was applied to the authors and playwrights as well.
It’s no surprise that the Angry Young Men were angry – British culture in the 1950s was heavily classist, repressive, and conformist. But then again, so was American culture, and so was much of the world’s culture. In 1960 the world was on the cusp of the Baby Boomer rebellion, which puts the Angry Young Men at the front of a wave which would soon sweep through and shake up society throughout most of the western world.
But the Angry Young Men weren’t alone, and England wasn’t the only place where this questioning was happening. And that was this American’s biggest hurdle – because I kept comparing Arthur and the other Angry Young Men to the Beats, the group of writers who were similarly critical of American’s conformist and repressive society. But instead of just pointing out the flaws of their society, like the Angry Young Men did, the Beats went on to try to carve out different paths for themselves – diving headlong into Eastern religion, jazz, environmental advocacy, racial equality, acceptance of non-heterosexuality, socialism, psychedelic drug use, and a plethora of other countercultural experiments. Not that their experimentation moved the needle much – in fact, many Beat writers ended up worse than they started. But at least they tried things – while the Angry Young Men, from the look of things, just pointed out the problems.
In fact, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning seems to punish Arthur’s philandering, in a sequence which I found one of the most eye-catching in the film. Arthur has taken Doreen to an amusement park one night, and is surprised to see Brenda also there, with her husband and son – and her brother-in-law in the RAF, there for a visit with one of the guys in his platoon. Arthur manages to slip away from Doreen to have a chat with Brenda, meeting her on one of the rides where they can discuss Brenda’s pregnancy in comparative privacy. Except Brenda wasn’t quite as clandestine as she thought – and as their ride is slowing to a stop, they notice that Brenda’s brother in law is standing just outside the ride and glaring at them, the car they’re in whirling them past his angry glare over and over again. It’s an eerie sequence which bodes ill for Arthur, and shortly after he meets up with them he finds himself willing to give up Brenda and think properly of marrying Doreen (if a bit reluctantly).
So ultimately, instead of coming across as the Humble Everyman Speaking Truth To Power which the film no doubt wanted him to be, to me Arthur just seems immature and spoiled and desperately like he needs to just Grow Up already, and then the film ends when he finally starts to do exactly that. It’s likely meant to be a sad ending – but the only alternatives Arthur explores would be even more disastrous, so it is what it is. Now, if the film was about Arthur heading up into the Lake District to take a job as a fire marshal so he could practice meditation on his downtime, and then coming back to woo Doreen, I might have at least given him some credit for the attempt at bucking convention, followed by the regret that Society wouldn’t leave him be. But this plot just sets Arthur up for being a little…whiny.