Albert Finney’s Quiet Desperation

Albert Finney’s first lead of note dates all the way back to 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Directed by Karel Reisz, Saturday Night was part of the working class cinematic revolution in Britain commonly called “kitchen sink drama.” Look Back In Anger, This Sporting Life, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner are other fine examples.

None knocked me out quite like Finney’s though. I saw Saturday Night well after I was aware of who Albert Finney was. Let’s face it, if you’ve watched movies to any great degree over the last 50 plus years, he was hard to miss. Five Oscar nominations – his first for 1964’s Tom Jones and his last for 2001’s Erin Brockovich – and a long resume stacked with quality films, speak to the extraordinary width and breadth of his career. It’s just that I got to know him as an older man. I had missed out on the younger, virile, pugnaciously handsome version. This made Saturday Night a revelation to me.

As the factory worker Arthur, committed to two women – one married but pregnant with his child, the other his girlfriend – Finney is a charming rake. Working in a dead end job in a dead end town. You get the feeling he takes up with these two women not simply for reasons of  attraction, but out of desperation. A desire to avoid the drudgery of a basic blue collar life. To avoid becoming his parents, described by Arthur as “dead from the neck up.”

This restlessness, this desire to break free, leads Arthur to a succession of poor decisions. His affair with the married woman is discovered, and a terrible beating by her brother-in-law follows. What you see in Arthur is a man building a cage around himself. He is too impulsive. Too eager. Too everything. He is trapped not only by his upbringing and surroundings, but by his own lack of imagination. Arthur wants something more. It’s just his mind can’t grasp what that thing is, or even if it could, how he would get it.

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Finney’s work stands shoulder to shoulder with Brando in On The Waterfront. Or is it that Brando’s work stands eye to eye with Finney’s? Either way, it’s a high compliment to both actors.

Of course, Finney went on to do great work in films that are better remembered than Saturday Night. The list is remarkable. The Best Picture winning Tom Jones, the lovely Two For The Road, Charlie Bubbles (his only feature director credit), Scrooge, Murder On The Orient Express, The Duellists, the super-weird werewolf drama Wolfen (which deserves cult status), the heartbreaking Shoot The Moon, The Dresser, Under The Volcano, Orphans, Miller’s Crossing, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Big Fish, two Bourne films, a Bond movie, and his final great role as Charles, the tragic patriarch of Sidney Lumet’s grim, commanding Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

In some ways, Finney came full circle in Before The Devil. You see, in Saturday Night, Finney plays a character doomed to an ordinary life. A bitter end. Death from the neck up. It’s not hard to imagine Arthur growing up to be Charles. A man so disappointed in his own son that he smothers him with a pillow in his hospital bed.

Albert Finney was a fearless and near peerless actor. He could play anything. But at his best, he portrayed stubborn rogues and stranded survivors, the living embodiment of Henry David Thoreau’s quote about the average male.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

For those men, Albert Finney was their avatar. He made sure they were seen, in all their pain and suffering. That’s not nothing.

Albert Finney died today. He was 82.

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