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.