Pollyanna (1960) ***

This Walt Disney version discarded much of Eleanor H. Porter’s original best seller not to mention a great deal of the tear-jerking section that played to superstar Mary Pickford’s strengths in the silent 1920 adaptation. Pickford was in her late 20s at the time and a movie mogul to boot (having launched United Artists) so had a depth of emotion Hayley Mills (aged 13 during filming) could not hope to match.

The screenplay is a good lesson in how to retain the essential element of a story – a positive-thinking orphan alleviates the gloom in an embittered town – while providing more for adult audiences. Disney assembled an awesome cast with three Oscar-winners – Jane Wyman (Best Actress, Johnny Belinda, 1948),  Karl Malden (Best Supporting Actor, A Streetcar Named Desire, 1952) and Donald Crisp (Best Supporting Actor, How Green Was My Valley, 1942) – plus four-time nominee Agnes Moorehead and Adolph Menjou.

Despite no Oscar recognition Nancy Olsen had been leading lady to the likes of Bing Crosby, John Wayne and William Holden. In effect, parents would be very familiar with the stellar supporting cast. Unusually for a kid’s picture, Wyman, Malden and Crisp each are given a reflective moment to prove they are doing more than taking an easy salary cheque. 

At least in Hollywood terms (Mills made her debut the year before in the British Tiger Bay, 1959) Pollyanna falls into the a-star-is-born category. The actress acquits herself well, with her expressive face, while hearing the emotion she packs into the word “gorgeous” is word admission alone. With a healthy subplot about a town in thrall to matriarch Wyman, the weight of the movie does not fall on Mills’ shoulders alone and fire-and-brimstone preacher Malden and faded spinster Wyman are particularly good; Malden especially allocated more screen time than would be normal in a movie aimed at kids.

I have never read the book nor (to my shame) seen the Pickford version, so I came to the movie with low expectations, anticipating a lazy, maudlin effort. So I was quite surprised to discover how much I enjoyed it and was shocked by the final piece of action which turned the movie on its head. Sure, it relies on the feelgood factor but there is some decent stuff here – Pollyanna’s determination to find goodness in every event and every person takes her into some strange avenues – the rainbow playing on the walls, the “good parts” of the Bible – that these days makes for an entertaining matinee.  

What the Exhibitor Said

The only view the public in the 1960s ever heard was that of the movie critics. Generally more concerned with the bottom line than plaudits (unless those translated into box office), studios could harvest their own opinion about a movie’s worth through reported box office figures. Exhibitors were caught in the middle – being told by critics how good a movie was and by reports in Variety and other trade magazines how well it was doing on initial release.

But how a movie performed in first run often bore no resemblance to receipts in fifth or sixth or tenth or eleventh run, in small towns or places where the population barely topped the thousand-mark. So weekly trade paper Box Office magazine gave exhibitors a voice, allowing them to sound off about an under-performing picture or praise one that still had some juice left by the time it reached their location.

You will see from the titles mentioned below just how long it took for some movies to complete their runs. You can also see the conditions under which theater owners worked – some films only played two days or had their box office nullified by weather.

Reports below are from the March 30, 1964, issue of Box Office and I would assume exhibitors had played the films a few weeks prior to this date.

Hud (released May 1963), drama starring Paul Newman. “Business above average but no one seemed pleased in what they paid for.” – Ken Christianson, Roxy Theatre, Washburn (pop 913), North Dakota. Played Sunday and Monday. He also screened historical epic Taras Bulba (December 1962) starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis on a Sunday and Monday and commented: “Excellent, entertaining, interesting story but below average at box office. Just too many of this type.”

Bye, Bye Birdie (June 1963), musical starring Janet Leigh and Dick Van Dyke. “If you want a small town natural, play Birdie…Bad weather killed the box office.” – W. S. Funk, Kingstree Drive-In Theatre, Kingstree (pop 2,500), South Carolina.

The Haunting (August 1963), horror starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. “It is doing all right. The advertising material is so good for a change that I’m not worried about this one.” – Jim Fraser, Auditorium Theatre, Red Wing (pop 12,500), Minnesota. Played Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Nine Hours to Rama (April 1963), drama starring Horst Buchholz. “This picture was definitely a dud in my town. Might have been better as part of a double bill had it had less running time.” – Joseph Machetta, Emerson Theatre, Brush (pop 3,621 in 1960 Census), Colorado. Played Tuesday and Wednesday. The theater also showed the double bill of war drama The Young and the Brave (August 1963) starring Rory Calhoun and William Bendix with the older George Pal sci-fi Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961) and Machetta commented: “The combination was rewarding at the box office. I would suggest trying it as the combination provides interest to most ages.” Played this duo Thursday and Friday.

A Gathering of Eagles (June 1963), drama starring Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor. “A good picture but one of Rock Hudson’s poorest grosses. Airplane pictures don’t set the world on fire for me anymore.” – Terry Axley, New Theatre, England (pop 2,136), Arkansas. Played Sunday and Monday.

Donovans’s Reef (June 1963) with John Wayne and Lee Marvin. “A wonderful family comedy in color and drew a big turnout. John Wayne did a wonderful job and is a big favorite here.” – Leonard J. Leise. Roxy Theatre, Randolph (pop 1,029), Nebraska. Played Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

If you ever attended any of these theaters or know of them or were even in the audience for the pictures mentioned, please get in touch.

The Woman Who Beat Hollywood

Outside of her brace of Oscars, Olivia de Havilland’s biggest achievement was in forcing studios to pay actors who did not want to work. She wasn’t the first person to take on the studios as I discovered when researching my book When Women Ruled Hollywood. Bette Davis, Myrna Loy and Hedy Lamarr preceded her.

De Havilland owed the studio several months on her contract since she had failed to fulfill its terms by refusing to work and was put on suspension. She took the view that the suspension should form part of her contract. The law agreed.

De Havilland was without doubt a great actress – her Oscars for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949) plus nominations for Gone with the Wind (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and my favorite The Snake Pit (1948) attest to that.

But without Errol Flynn at her side she was never a big star. Her only big hit once she left the Warner Brothers comfort zone was medical drama Not as a Stranger (1955) which had strong co-stars in Frank Sinatra and Robert Mitchum. Once she won her freedom she was only seen 15 pictures in 20 years. Both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis made 50 per cent more.

She enjoyed one of the great screen partnerships with Errol Flynn in swashbucklers like Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and westerns Dodge City (1939) and They Died with their Boots On (1941). Despite her protestations to the contrary, Warner Brothers looked after their ingenue and developed her talent. Versatility was key to remaining a star – the public soon grew tired of a star confined to single genre – and she appeared in westerns, drama, comedies.

Her main problem was her age. She was only 19 when Captain Blood appeared. She was competing with the more mature Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, eight and twelve years older, respectively, for the best parts the studio had to offer. Warner Brothers was also willing to let her go out on loan, her first two nominations were for work at other studios, MGM and Paramount. Since most of the top male actors were much older, it would be hard for her to be accepted by audiences as their equal in a romance or drama.

That she won her case against the studio was as much to do with politics as anything else. The idea that an actor should enjoy more freedom in the workplace than a miner or a nurse was patently preposterous. However, the government was involved in aggressive action against Hollywood that would result in the break-up of the studio system and make hundreds of actors, who depended on contracts, freelancers whether they liked it or not.

However, she certainly made great use of her freedom, as the unwed mother in To Each His Own, confined to a mental asylum in The Snake Pit and forced to choose between money and happiness in William Wyler’s The Heiress.

After a three-year hiatus, she returned with another strong performance in the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (1952). But by the end of the decade she had lost her star status, demoted to leading lady, below Alan Ladd in the billing for in The Proud Rebel (1958) and Dirk Bogarde in Libel (1959). After the reissue of Gone with the Wind in 1961, her career briefly revived – with romantic drama Light in the Piazza (1962) and powerful performances as the woman terrorized by thugs in Lady in a Cage (1964) and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).   

Thereafter, there were occasional supporting roles and television parts. Her last movie was The Fifth Musketeer (1979).

Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) ****

There could not be a more contemporary picture. As an examination of the problems of assimilating different cultures it is hard to beat. As an assessment of the difficulties of the transition of power it is faultless.

In Gladiator Ridley Scott, taking a few liberties with the known facts, re-imagined the circumstances discussed here of the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the ascension to power of his son Commodus. Along the way, Scott stole a few of Anthony Mann’s visual ideas, snow falling on the battlefield, for example, and at the end the phalanx of guards, shields up, blocking in Commodus and the dethroned military chieftain (Stephen Boyd here, Russell Crowe in Gladiator) for their gladiatorial climax.

The title does not refer to an invasion of Rome by vast armies of barbarians but the internal corruption which signals the end of the empire. Audiences, taught Latin and Roman history as a matter of course at school around the time the film was released, would be more familiar with the subject matter, but hardly prepared for the spectacle.

Every extra in the known world must have been employed for several scenes, cities bursting with inhabitants, armies sprawling over vast tracts of land. One standout is the extraordinary chariot clash between the two protagonists, not in the confines of an amphitheatre a la Ben Hur, but on wild terrain, along narrow cliff roads, wheels tipping over the edge, down ravines and forest. The other is the soundless gladiatorial fight, not a whisper of music until there is a victor.

And there should be mention of the torture of James Mason, very well done. There is political intrigue, quite a clever way of poisoning an enemy, and plenty argument over the issue of accommodating different cultures, traditional punishment versus the novel notion of extending the hand of friendship and granting automatic citizenship.

Loyalty is also tested – is treason a form of loyalty? And how much does loyalty depend solely on payment? Proof is given of how integrating cultures can work, an idea that seems alien to Romans accustomed to beating subjects into submission. In some respects the drama takes second place to the discussion.

Christopher Plummer is the deranged Commodus who embraces and disdains in turn his friend Livius (Stephen Boyd). Sophia Loren, as Commodus’ sister (no incestuous suggestions here), is in love with Boyd and though married off to Armenian king Omar Sharif she manages to spend little time with her husband.

If approached as a political film rather than a traditional epic it has a lot to offer. If you want just battles and thwarted romance then a lot less. The mixture of both strikes a good balance. While there are arguments that it is too long, it could actually do with another twenty minutes or so to iron out narrative inconsistencies.  

In the News: July 1960

ADVANCE BOOKING REACHES NEW HEIGHTS

When these days you casually book your movie tickets online for a screening a week or a month ahead, you might not be aware it was not always so easy to book in advance. Sixty years ago it was a rarity. You had to wait in line outside the theater like everybody else.

The emergence of the roadshow at the tail end of the 1950s changed all that. Then you could book by mail (snail mail not email), filling out a booking form with your choice of seating and date and send it off with a check or money order to the theater and wait for tickets to come back a week later. Advance bookings quickly become a measure of how well a roadshow would perform.

So in summer 1960 United Artists were cock-a-hoop in reporting that Exodus, not due out for another six months, had racked up a record $700,000 advance. At first this cash just rolled around in the bank accounts of the designated theater, but in the 1970s studios realized that it was in large part their money and that was when they started demanding upfront guarantees.

STILLS GO UPMARKET

A new trend in stills photography took root. Studios began hiring world-famous snappers. Heading up the trend, United Artists sent nine photographers from international agency Magnum Photos to Reno, Nevada, to provide atmospheric pictures during the shooting of John Huston’s The Misfits. The big names included Eve Arnold, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Inge Morath. They were paid substantial amounts, far more than regular stills photographers. The best known earned $5,000 a week. This was an investment in a name since the idea was that top-class magazines would be more likely to feature a photographic spread on a movie should the pictures come with the cachet of a recognised name. It proved a genius marketing idea. Top magazines took the bait. As an offshoot, and attracting another sizable slice of publicity, the work went on display at Loew’s Capitol movie house in New York as a prelude to presentation in other first run houses.

IN OTHER NEWS

Charlie Chaplin was omitted from the Hollywood Walk of Fame…The premature death at the age of 51 of Twentieth Century Fox head of production Buddy Adler opened the door for the return of Darryl F. Zanuck, thus paving the way a few years later for the legendary producer to save the studio when it almost went bust thanks to gigantic overruns on Cleopatra… Studios considered pulling back on newspaper advertising when they discovered not only were some newspapers censoring movie  ads but around 35 per cent of them refused to run reviews…In the first push in what would turn out to be a long-term marketing campaign for The Greatest Story Ever Told director George Stevens hired an international head of public relations and shortly after issued an advertisement that will forever be a blot on the copybook of John Wayne, who was the first star to be signed.   

Sources: Variety – Jul 6, July 13, Jul 20, Jul 27, 1960; “Photographic Exhibition for The Misfits,” Box Office Showmandiser section, Jan 16, 1961, 10.

Day of the Triffids (1963)****

Pandemic means pandemonium and these are by far the best scenes in the adaptation of John Wyndham’s famed sci-fi novel. Virtually everyone in the world is struck blind by the fierce  brightness emitted from a bombardment of meteorites.

When passengers on a plane realize their pilot is blind, the panic is breathtaking. Ditto a train crashing into a station. While those with sight intact such as a busload of convicts can terrorize the blind, forcing them to submit to sexual overtures. On top of that are terrific scenes of deserted cities – very familiar to us all during the current pandemic – and of those unable to see trying to walk hands outstretched or attach themselves to anyone still blessed with sight.

One of the standouts is patient Howard Keel, saved from seeing the dazzling light display because his eyes were bandaged, walking through a deserted and trashed hospital. And perhaps Jurassic Park found useful the scene where the plants test an electrified fence.

And on top of that, of course, are the unstoppable monstrous man-eating plants whose growth has been triggered by the comets. Steven Spielberg over a decade later showed how to maintain tension by showing a terrifying predator in small doses and indicating its presence through musical cues and especially, when your monster ain’t quite up to scratch, keeping it hidden for as long as possible.

Interestingly, this film uses sound cues, specific noises attributable to the creatures, though the plants are shown too soon and too often but, in terms of special effects, not at all bad for their time and the low budget. And the sheer normality of the locations works very well – a caretaker having his sandwich, hard-boiled egg and flask of coffee the first victim. Some deft humor undercuts the terror. “Once you’ve tasted this coffee of mine,” remarks a character, ”you’ll know nothing worse can happen.”

Leading the battle against the monsters are sailor Howard Keel, ironically recovering from an eye operation, hotel proprietor Nicole Maurey and in an isolated location alcoholic scientist Kieron Moore and his wife Janette Scott.  Keel and Maurey are initially intent on mere escape, but in the end have to fight.

But once again a film like this shows how much more powerful is imagination. We can imagine being blind and walking in a vacuum with the vulnerability and helplessness that fear  entails. As the present pandemic has shown, the unknown is terrifying and fear of the unknown even worse.

Pressbook: Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960)

Studios did not always trust movie theater managers to glance at the Pressbooks posted out to them, one of the initial functions of such marketing manuals being to tempt said managers into booking the film in the first place. So studios occasionally chose a more direct route of getting in a manager’s face and would lump the whole Pressbook into an American trade magazine. Sword of Sherwood Forest took this route.

The film was a very speedy attempt by British studio Hammer to cash in on the popularity of The Adventures of Robin Hood television series, especially by hiring its star Richard Greene. It was a bit of an uphill struggle, movie swashbucklers long out of fashion. In fact, it was only the British television industry that kept the genre alive, in the second half of the 1950s pumping out such series as The Buccaneeers, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, Sword of Freedom and The Adventures of William Tell. The 30-minute Robin Hood series ran in Britain on ITV in 1955-1959 and was picked up by CBS in 1958

This Presbook was a fold-out, the initial A4 sheets pulling out to form a giant A2 sheet. Hammer was relying on the fact that by the time the movie appeared in America, the series was being shown on various television stations. Some of the marketing ideas were straightforward enough such as utilizing toy stores that would likely have swords and archery sets among its inventory and it would be easy enough to sent a promotional girl or man down a main street decked out in tights and leather jerkin.

But it was a bit of a long shot to expect a theater manager in a small town to host a fencing tournament. The stars were little help – Richard Greene had virtually no marquee value not having made a picture in five years until  his television success prompted Cold War thriller Beyond the Curtain (1960) but that was British-made with little American penetration. The public might be more familiar with bad guy Peter Cushing after his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and horror pictures The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).

There might have been some mileage out of newcomer Sarah Branch as Maid Marian but she did not feature at all in the Pressbook. The marketeers appeared to be relying solely on the popularity of the Robin Hood legend and perhaps audience familiarity with old Errol Flynn pictures that popped up with regularity on television channels because, unusually for a piece of material that was meant to sell a picture to theater managers, this made remarkably little impact as a marketing tool beyond the fact that it was unavoidable in the middle of a weekly trade magazine.

Station Six Sahara (1963) ***

David Lean spent months in Jordan capturing his vision of the desert for Lawrence of Arabia. Seth Holt was granted no such luxury, a few weeks at Shepperton Studios in England to make this British-German co-production.  

It is a surprisingly tight and effective drama made on a low budget excepting whatever fee induced Hollywood star Carroll Baker to join. Five men trapped on an oil pipeline maintenance unit drive each other to distraction. Loud Scot Ian Bannen constantly needles stiff upper-class Denholm Elliott while overbearing German boss Peter Van Eyck cheats at poker. The arrival of steely-eyed German Hansjorg Felmy alters the status quo as he refuses in his own quiet way to knuckle down to authority.

There is a wonderful psychological battle going on between Bannen and Elliott. Extremely envious of the number of letters Elliott receives, Bannen offers a month’s pay for just one. When the offer is accepted, Elliott cannot stop fretting about what he might have given away and what secrets it revealed about himself.

The arrival of Carroll Baker upsets the equilibrium further as the men attempt to win her affections. While apparently promiscuous, she is steelier than the lot of them, and tensions climb high when she begins to spread around her favors. Interestingly, she does no wooing but waits for men to come to her.

Given the budget restraints, or possibly because of them, it is surprisingly well directed. Two scenes stand out in directorial terms. In one featuring Bannen and Elliott, the Scot is only partly visible behind a piece of furniture but his dialogue continues even when out of sight. In the other, one of Baker’s suitors finds her door locked and as she is about to reply a hand appears (not in aggressive fashion) to cover her mouth, indicating she already has chosen her bedmate. Naturally, this can only lead to a grim end.

The cast of male unknowns are uniformly good but Baker steals the show as you would expect. Given the times, there was no nudity, but the overt sexuality certainly skirted the bounds of what passed as decency and Baker is alluring however little or much she wears. But her sexuality takes second place to her individuality. Her independence will not be surrendered to a man. Despite the budget restrictions it stands up very well.  

it’s available on Blu-Ray on the first link and – for the moment at least – on Amazon Prime on the second link.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Station-Sahara-Blu-ray-Carroll-Baker/dp/B082BWZJBS/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1LW9ORGYKB9FT&dchild=1&keywords=station+six+sahara+blu-ray&qid=1594809012&s=dvd&sprefix=station+six+sahara%2Cdvd%2C153&sr=1-1

Interview: Albert Finney

Albert Finney notoriously gave very few interviews. This one dates back to November 1973 when, as a student at Glasgow University, I was the joint editor of Moving Review, a revamped monthly version of the university’s more traditional arts magazine.  At the time, Finney was appearing in David Storey’s play Cromwell directed by Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court in London.

By the early 1970s a more powerful British artistic triumvirate than Finney-Anderson-Storey would be hard to find.  Lindsay Anderson had directed This Sporting Life (1963) starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts (both of whom were Oscar-nominated) from a novel by Storey as well as the Cannes award-winner If…(1968) and the more recent O Lucky Man! (1973), both starring Malcolm McDowell. Storey had moved from award-winning novelist and screenwriter to award-winning playwright. Home (1970) starring theatrical giants Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud and directed by Anderson had taken Tony Awards for writing, acting and directing. Anderson had also directed the plays  In Celebration (1969) and The Changing Room (1971).  

Born in 1936, the son of a Salford bookmaker, Finney had rocketed to prominence on the back of Karel Reisz’s rebellious Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Tony Richardson’s ebullient Oscar-winning romp Tom Jones (1963) for which Finney, in the first of five Oscar nods,  lost out on the Best Actor statuette to Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field). Finney had turned down the title role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) because he did not wish to be tied to a long-term contract with Sam Spiegel. Freedom was a consideration which Finney appeared to value above all else including the financial security that would have come from cashing in on his fame and box office cachet post-Tom Jones. He turned down Hawaii (1966) and the opportunity of working with Brigitte Bardot in Don’t Go Away I Might Fall (never made).

In the decade after Tom Jones, he only made seven films, and not always good choices. After a small part in Carl Foreman’s directorial debut The Victors (1963) – a flop – and the leading role in Karel Reisz’s remake of Night Must Fall (1964) – another flop – he took a three-year sabbatical from the movies, returning in Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road co-starring Audrey Hepburn which made a $2 million loss on its $5 million budget.  The Picasso Summer (1969) was shelved and went straight to television in America, and if Ronald Neame’s musical Scrooge (1970) was an ill-advised choice, and no big box-office earner either, Finney did collect a Golden Globe for his performance.

That those years were not a career write-off, (“of the films I’ve made,” he told me, “ I’ve not made enough good ones, ones that are pertinent”) despite the financial failures of virtually all these picture, was primarily due to a pair of iconic performances – the title roles of Charlie Bubbles (1968), which he also directed, and the affectionate homage to the private eye picture Gumshoe (1971) which marked the directorial debut of Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, 1985; The Queen, 2006). Both pictures had been produced by Memorial Enterprises, in which Finney was a partner, at a time when the British film industry was in freefall.  

But far from being on the edge of oblivion as far as the movies were concerned, Finney was on the cusp of a major comeback. At that point in 1973, his next projects were intended to be the film adaptation of the Peter Nichols play Chez Nous and The Girl in Melanie Klein based on the 1969 novel by Ronnie Harwood (who later wrote The Dresser in which Finney starred). Instead, he transformed his career by essaying Hercule Poirot and headlining an all-star cast in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

(Here follows the original article, based on the  interview in 1973)

Albert Finney has class, maturity, as they say, when the wrinkles begin to show. He is not a superstar of the Sean Connery/Clint Eastwood mould, but he has certainly amassed a following in both the cinema and the theater. Not one to pursue the eternal round of chat-shows and interviews, Finney seems more at home in the comparatively intimate atmosphere of the Royal Court Theatre in London where I met him on the last night of his most recent performance in David Storey’s Cromwell. We arranged to meet again at the theatre during the day where we found an empty office. He is immediately relaxed, leaning back in a chair, making friendly chat while I fix up the tape recorder. His voice is mellow, not harsh, and he makes words work for him, rolling them in his mouth before letting them go.

I asked him first about the film which had established him with cinema audiences, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), based on Alan Sillitoe’s novel published earlier that year, in which he played factory worker Arthur Seaton. Along with Look Back in Anger (1959) and Room at the Top (1959), it helped established the British New Wave. Although many people regarded the film as a significant breakthrough in terms of British cinematic realism, Finney is not so sure, citing a north-south class divide that took different views of the film.

 “The book was a big success first,” he said. “It just so happened at that time that British Lion were able to do it. They had energy, especially with Tony Richardson and John Osborne having done Look Back and The Entertainer (1959). Saturday Night was Woodfall’s third film and it was made by that kind of new wave. The success of the book helped to get finance. The budget was something like £240,000 which is still a lot of money even now (1973). I kind of feel, though we shot in the spring of 1960, that the hero is a fifties boy.

“There are still boys with the frustration of Arthur Seaton. I mean the way he’s looked at, the way he’s shown to you, is in the fifties style of rebellion and inarticulacy, in the time before someone in that position was able to mention causes like Vietnam. There was no tradition of looking at the working-class boy seriously. The so-called New Wave actors were always of our class. There were guys like these before, but they were never able to play leading parts. I saw the film in the North (of England) and they seemed to view Arthur Seaton very differently from what they did in the South – many people in the south could directly associate with Arthur in a factory, stuck there for forty years and getting a gold watch at the end of it.

“But Arthur, by and large – this is a generalisation – seemed more dangerous to a southern audience. In the north they thought he was a smashing character, they didn’t find him as dangerous as the more socially-conscious people in the Arts. They thought he was a bit of a lad, gets away with murder, you know, and rather enviable in that way. So I’m a bit sceptical about whether this revolutionary thing was actually revolutionary. In Manchester they still see it in film fantasy terms.”

This element of fantasy, taken up by Finney in theatre (he had the title role in the original stage production of Billy Liar in 1960 – Tom Courtenay who won the film role was his understudy) and cinema (Gumshoe) dates back to a Hollywood-influenced childhood in Salford during the period of futility after the Second World War.

“I would probably argue that Gumshoe, the Bogart fantasy,” he said, “is connected with the same part of me as the Billy Liar fantasies. I was very much a daydreamer as an adolescent. The movies encouraged us to fantasise to an extent and to think beyond and outside our own environment. When I read Billy Liar (the play was co-written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, based on Waterhouse’s novel) I identified clearly and strongly with the hopelessness of this dreamer.

“The reason I think Neville Smith wrote the screenplay for Gumshoe is that he wanted to tip his hat, as it were, to those movies of the forties which I suppose he saw as a young kid and which used to take him out of his reality living in Liverpool.”

The films of Hollywood in the forties influenced Finney because they seemed to taking place in an American society where money was obviously important but not your method of speech whereas British films of the period reminded him that he did not speak properly. New York seemed an exuberant placed to be when sailors disembarking could walk down Broadway singing as in Stanley Donen’s On the Town (1949) starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, a film that had such a resonance with the young Finney that he jumped at the chance to be in the director’s Two for the Road

Gumshoe is a thriller in its own right as well as being a Bogart fantasy.  Nightclub bingo caller Eddie Ginley plays out his private eye fantasy after putting an advert in the local paper. In due course he comes into contact with a fat man, drugs and weapon smuggling. Soon he finds being a private eye is more dangerous than acting as one. If, with a brilliant script, the film suffered from any flaw it was the attempts at Liverpudlian accents. Finney explained that attempting to appeal to an American audience limited verisimilitude in the accent department.

“I didn’t talk like dat, really down the nose and hair like dat, but he’s got a sort of Northern Lancashire sound with just occasionally a little extra hardness.”  Although he responded to the script and the opportunity to play a fantasy role, Finney felt Gumshoe was not a complete success since it fell between the two stools of being a homage and a thriller.

His most commercial project in decade following Tom Jones was the musical Scrooge. “I hadn’t done anything for a while. I was kind of fluffing about at home. The producer Bob Solo rented an office in the Memorial Enterprises premises and he was at the early stage of producing Scrooge. Richard Harris (Camelot, 1967) was going to do it. Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady, 1964) was going to do it. But one day Bob walked into my office and talked to me about it. I said I’d meet the director Ronnie Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) and I thought well why not, I’ll have a go. I knew it would turn out a kind of pantomime and that was all right. I saw it very much in those terms. I don’t think of it as my finest success.” 

In direct contrast to bigger-budgeted pictures like Scrooge, Two for the Road (1967) and The Victors, the average Finney vehicle had less financial backing, Night Must Fall (1964), a classic example.

“We were going to do a film about Ned Kelly for which David Storey had written a screenplay and then it fell through. So Karel Reisz and I were in a sort of vacuum. I went off to Glasgow to act in Pirandello’s Henry IV and planned to direct. While I was there Karel phoned and said what about the idea of a remake of the thriller Night Must Fall.” The original, based on the Emlyn Williams play, had been turned into a Hollywood film in 1937 starring an Oscar-nominated Robert Montgomery. but the new version did not gel on screen and failed to find an audience.

Outside of Gumshoe, Finney’s biggest artistic success was Charlie Bubbles. Produced by Memorial (also responsible for If…, O Lucky Man! and Mike Leigh’s 1971 debut Bleak Moments) with a screenplay by Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), it charted the disillusionment of a successful writer who wants to get closer to his son and wife, from whom he is separated. He fails but finds momentary uplift by taking a balloon flight at the end.

“I was told by a mutual friend that she was writing an outline for a film. She sent it over to me and I rather liked the feeling of it. We talked about it and began to work on it. I was just starting with the National Theatre in London where I spent about fifteen months then I planned to do Two for the Road which would take another four months.

“So we were working on it spending afternoons every week, with Shelagh going away and doing stuff on her own, and coming back with more stuff in a month and the same process would go on. When you make a film from an idea, not a book, you’re digging into yourself. It’s an emotional progression, rather than a narrative one. You start out with a feeling and it’s very difficult in the discussions to sort out what you really want. In order to end up with all the things that are right, you have to go through an awful lot of things that are wrong. It was a long, very enjoyable, but laborious job.

“It was possible to direct and act in that film because the movie is showing you the world from Charlie’s point of view. Charlie didn’t have to develop his personality, didn’t have any great dialogue. I usually had to fit in with a certain mood that went along with how the camera saw it. We got an actor, who was playing a minor role, to be my stand-in while I fixed up the camera shots with the director of photography. He was quite happy to do this because it meant he got a lot of experience in a relatively short period of time.

“Watching rushes was very peculiar. When I came on screen, it wasn’t me, it was just this man playing this part. I was totally objective about myself as an actor. If I’m just an actor in a film I watch rushes to see if what I’ve been trying to get over worked.”

In retrospect, the movie stands up very well, (and Finney repeated the experience of directing for the TV movie The Biko Inquest in 1984), but for the casual moviegoer it holds significance in that it heralded the debut of Liza Minnelli, Oscar-nominated the following year for The Sterile Cuckoo and Oscar-winner in 1972 for Cabaret.

“Stephen Frears, my assistant who later directed Gumshoe, met Liza in Paris and thought she was extraordinary. Originally, the part (of Eliza) was going to be English but we changed it to an American girl because we thought an English girl from the south would provoke class comment and what I wanted was romance and naivety rather than somebody snobby. We saw all the Canadian and American Equity members and none seemed quite right. I went over to Los Angeles for a day to hold auditions. But Liza was the best and that’s how she got the part. She was naturally very eccentric, very bright and a bit…coming from a funny angle without any effort.”

Finney had a different perspective on the movies than many other actors in the business.

“When I was a young actor, people said the theatre was where you worked seriously and the cinema was where you made money and it was always viewed very much in those terms. But the cinema has always seemed to me to be an opportunity for serious work.” 

Under the banner of Memorial Enterprises, which he formed with actor Michael Medwin, Finney made his contribution to serious cinema.

“We wanted to have the freedom to do what we liked. A production company like ours has six possibilities a year which boils down to one because in two of them the writer goes out of his mind and you go off the other three.” 

The company was involved in Peter Watkins pop star drama Privilege (1967) with Manfred Mann vocalist Paul Jones and model Jean Shrimpton, If…, Spring and Port Wine (1970), the Tom Stoppard-scripted The Engagement (1970), and gave directorial debuts to Tony Scott (Top Gun) and Mike Leigh. The Engagement, starring David Warner, was made for American television but actually made its money back because it also went out as a supporting feature.

Scott was backed to make the drama Loving Memory (1971) and Leigh’s initial foray was Bleak Moments (1971). Memorial put up £14,000 rising to £18,000 for Bleak Moments.

“I’ve always felt that when we’re in a position to finance a young film-maker, we should do so. At that time we happened to have some profits so we put some money into it and the British Film Institute put up some. You know with a film like that you’re going to get your money back unless it’s a freak.” The low-budget picture soon honed its artistic credentials with first prize at the Locarno Film Festival and made the rounds of the arthouses.

Despite working cinematically with two of the main driving forces behind the British New Wave in Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, somehow Finney had avoided onscreen work with Lindsay Anderson, though they had crossed swords in the theatre. He first met Anderson when he left Birmingham Rep after playing Macbeth there (“at the age of 21 – I only say that to excuse the performance,” said Finney, somewhat self-deprecatingly since the performance drew tremendous acclaim) to work in London in John Arden’s play The Party directed by Charles Laughton.

“During the run of this, Lindsay was asked to do The Long, The Short and the Tall by Willis Hall. I’d known Willis as a radio playwright and I’d done one or two of his works with the Rep on Birmingham radio. I met Lindsay and was ready to do the part and I rehearsed it but then my appendix burst and Peter O’Toole took over – the rest is history.

“So I had the experience of working with Lindsay because I was involved in the auditioning of the other actors and we got on very well. At that time I found him interesting, for he seemed to be always trying to find the honest answer, rather than the convenient one, and had a kind of directness about his approach. And the following year I did a play with him again, after I’d been to Stratford, a  musical called The Lily White Boys by Christopher Logue, which I’d kept being told was Brechtian and I didn’t quite know what that meant.

“Lindsay and I didn’t get on. I found him very, very charming and fascist. And we kind of rubbed each other up the wrong way a bit, but just as animals. I thought he’s too sort of tart for me. You know, the work’s difficult enough without these sorts of neuroses getting in the way. And then I didn’t work with him again until Billy Liar (in the theatre in 1960) which was eight months later.

“I liked the play very much so Lindsay and I had a long meeting to see if we would get on all right. Course we did do it, and it was quite right that we should, and we got on rather well. But he’s a very – I’ve not worked with him for a long time – demanding. He was in those days and I’m sure he still is very good to work with but demanding. But you’ve always felt there was good reason for it. He had a good sense of what’s going on under the text, interested in digging and not going for what may hit you on the page, turning it over and over. The proportion of directors who do that is very small.” 

Although technically he was directed once by Anderson for the screen, it was the small screen, in 1960, for the BBC series Theatre Night which consisted of 45-minute excerpts of current plays running in London, of which Billy Liar was one.

Even at this stage in his career, as the run of Cromwell came to a close in 1973, there was a wistfulness about Finney.

“In the last ten years I feel very much that I’ve meandered a lot and my work’s revealed this in the restless and lack of direction. When I was 27, I’d just finished a run of Luther by John Osborne in New York, which I did just after Tom Jones. When I left New York I travelled by myself for eleven months around the world. Since I’d left drama school, I’d had a degree of success, but I’d never been introspective, always been busy, and I wanted to get away. I still very much feel that it’s one’s life that it’s about and one’s got a lifetime to do it.”

Postscript 2019: When Albert Finney’s life came to an end, aged 82, in February 2019, he had carved out for himself a career of some distinction. He had been nominated for five Oscars, four for Leading Actor, in Tom Jones followed by Murder on the Orient Express, The Dresser (1983) and Under the Volcano (1984) plus a Supporting Actor nod for Erin Brockovich (2000). He won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in TV movie The Gathering Storm (2002). Apart from an Academy Fellowship in 2001, the top prize in the leading acting categories at the Baftas also eluded him despite being nominated six times. Even as he lost his box office cachet as a star who could pull in the audiences, he still delivered dynamic performances in supporting roles in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and in his final part as Kincade in Skyfall (2012).

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) ***

Minus an understanding of the context and setting aside the compelling charm of Albert Finney in his debut, it would be hard to find any sympathy for as unlikeable character as Arthur Seaton.

He belonged to what was called the “Angry Young Men” who sprang up as figments of the collective imagination of a new group of writers like Alan Sillitoe, who wrote this novel, David Storey (This Sporting Life), Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger).  They were angry at circumstance, at growing up in a time when the working classes knew their place, and were consistently reminded of it, and work was generally a hard, monotonous grind.

It is hard to see what Seaton is angry about. He has sex on tap with an older married woman, a girl his own age on the side, enough money to spend on his own pleasures which mostly consist of drinking and sex, gets his dinner put on the table the minute he comes through the door and even though the teapot is sitting next to his hand still will call on his mother to pour it out. He is an inveterate liar, a bully, injures one woman and frightens the life out of another, and refuses to face up to his responsibilities. He does not want promotion, despises those who do, and equally holds in contempt fellow workers organised into a union.

What he does actually want is never made clear. He just doesn’t want the life on which he is set.

One of the curiosities of the movies made out of these books and plays was that the writers came from that working-class background they described so well while the directors belonged to the privileged classes. Writers and directors alike subscribed to the notion that the working man was exploited by the bosses and that everyone who used their own money to invest in a company and provide employment was a rotter. This was a Britain on the verge of a cultural revolution that would explode a few years later in fashion, music and politics. 

That said, the film is an excellent portrayal of the period, the first time a proper working factory was depicted on screen, where employees were paid by piecemeal, i.e. remunerated for what they individually produced rather than whether they produced anything or not, rewarded for their own endeavors rather than as a collective. The bicycle was the chief means of locomotion and life consisted of meals in cramped kitchens, living with your parents, trying (mostly vainly) to get sex and drinking so hard you were apt to fall down the stairs.

In a star-making turn, Finney is superb, charisma oozing from the screen, a manly, brawny fellow, unlike the bulk of British actors, and speaking with his own accent, unlike the bulk of British actors.   Likewise, Rachel Roberts as his mistress, is equally good and Shirley Anne Field makes a strong impression as his girlfriend. The women are all particularly good in a world where no matter how forward-thinking they might be their role will inevitably be long-suffering to the males who inevitably get away with murder. It’s an assured debut from Czech director Karel Reisz.

A rare interview with Albert Finney will appear on July 19, 2020.