Like many British films in its day, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) features an angry young man – but this one doesn’t know where to throw his kitchen sink.
Bored of his job as a factory worker, Arthur (Albert Finney) tries to own the streets of Nottingham through heavy drinking and love affairs. And as you might imagine, he becomes tied up in all sorts of un-unravelable knots. If you know of the two realist heavyweights (Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson) behind the film, you’ll know to expect plenty of gritty drama.
This film has a keen eye and a hardened core. It examines the difficulties faced by non-conformists like Arthur, building him up as our working-class hero. Arthur and his mates mess around and get themselves into trouble to show a middle finger to the oppressive system of their elders. They’re defiant colourful sparks, trying to clear the grimy atmosphere and mood of working-class despair in England at the time.
But the film refuses to provide them with an easy escape from society’s oppressive thumb. In fact, their rebellious actions expose their own tragic inability to escape their circumstances. They fish, drink and get thrown out of bars because it’s all they can do, and they’re the ones who lose at the end of it all. This heightens the anger levels of Arthur and his mates even more, completing the vicious cycle of the non-conformist youth – performed to perfection by Albert Finney.
It captures perfectly the distinction between the ‘World War II-generation’ and their children, as well as the mood of the times. The younger generation is obsessed with themselves, wanting to leave their role as ‘slaves to society’ behind. But they shoot themselves in the foot: they don’t consider that, in order to move on, they must understand what lies behind the way of life that they strive to avoid. As Arthur proclaims, he ‘doesn’t want to be taught’ the difference between right and wrong.
The film presents the anger of the youth as the cause of their entrapment: for as long as they refuse to cooperate with others, they will remain bound to the role in which they were born. It directs a blunt message to the youthful viewers of the 1960s, struggling to carve and maintain their own identity: while their ‘rebellion’ may be sincerely felt, it won’t necessarily have traction to change their lives for the better. While they shouldn’t do what Arthur does, they should listen to what he says: ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’.
This film’s intelligence is seldom matched. Its examination of working-class society still appears as sharp as it did in 1960s when few films even attempted such things. And, unlike Tony Richardson’s subsequent films, none of the film’s messages feel forced, allowing fans of classic British cinema to enjoy the defined characters and authentic details that bring this film to life, without having to care one bit about its social critique.