I was profoundly moved by this film (currently streaming on MUBI) for many reasons. It’s a film about a mother, a wife and a lover as much as it is about a strong independent woman determined to pursue her art. The two can’t be separated. There is one line in the film spoken by Isabella Rossellini with genuine feeling, when she gives ‘charm’ as the one word to sum up her mother and that struck me quite forcibly. It’s perhaps a strange word to choose about your mother and in other contexts we are often suspicious about celebrities described as ‘having charm’, as if we know this masks other possible less acceptable sides to their personalities. But each of Ingrid Bergman’s four children agree that their mother was always fun to be with and they remember that fondly even though she was absent from their childhood homes for much of the time. When she was there she made it up to them. Her ‘absences’ were mainly to do with work but she was clearly so determined to pursue what she wanted that needing to be close to her children was not something that would stop her.
Bergman’s was a remarkable career, arguably not matched by any other actor. She began, as many Swedish actors of her generation, in drama school and then moved quickly into films with her first credited role in 1935 aged 20. She also got married for the first time in 1936. Her Swedish film career lasted until 1940 by which time she had already repeated one of her roles in Hollywood and from 1941 she quickly became a Hollywood star contracted to David O. Selznick. In a few short years Bergman became a beloved figure in the US before she ‘scandalised’ America in 1949 by moving to Italy to work for and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini, leaving behind her husband and her daughter. Her Rossellini years ended in the mid 1950s by which time she had moved to Paris, making a film for Jean Renoir and eventually re-connecting with Hollywood, mainly on European productions. The last part of her career was spent working out of London.
Ingrid Bergman was a different kind of ‘global film star’. All the stars (and the filmmakers) of classical Hollywood were ‘global’ in the sense that their films were seen everywhere. Several stars had travelled from Europe to America and possibly back – but usually to the same country they had left several years before. But few had made films (and sometimes appeared on stage) in productions in five different languages (Swedish, German, English, Italian and French). It was an extraordinary career. I offer all this as context since this documentary focuses more on Bergman herself and less on the films she appeared in. IMDb lists 55 credits for film and television (around full 40 feature films). I feel slightly distanced from the discussion of Bergman as an actor and star simply because I don’t approach her as a Hollywood star primarily. She herself in the documentary says that the films she made with Rossellini did not appeal to audiences and there is an implication that she herself didn’t like them or value them that much. This is disappointing since it was watching Stromboli (1949) in a BFI preview theatre which first caused me to become interested in Bergman and I’ve come to like the other films with Rossellini as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily like the American films – I think her playing in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) remains one of the great viewing pleasures. I’ve also enjoyed Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (1956) and the Swedish June Night (1940).
In formal terms, this ‘bio doc’ might be grouped with the trilogy of similar films by Asif Kapadia which present the stories of Ayrton Senna (2010), Amy Winehouse (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). As in those stories, the director, Stig Björkman (a celebrated veteran film writer, critic and journalist), has been able to ‘present’ the story of his subject entirely through either Bergman’s own words (recorded in diaries and letters) and images (captured on 16mm) plus archive film and television and the stories of her immediate family and friends. Alicia Vikander, in many ways a contemporary star with a similar career path, reads Bergman’s words from her diaries. The major difference between Björkman’s film and those of Kapadia is that Bergman’s is a much longer story and although it includes ‘media moments’ when she scandalised America, this is only part of the story and not a defining element of the whole. There are other lesser differences as well but overall this quartet represent a popular form of biopic, able to draw upon archive material with seeming authenticity – though of course each film is still written and edited and the choices made still determine how the narrative is likely to be read by the audience.
What emerges from Bergman’s story is a narrative that exposes her difficult childhood and teenage years when she lost her mother at a very early age and then her beloved father. This is then contrasted with her happiness in bearing four beautiful children in the difficult circumstances outlined above (i.e. the divorces and the absences). The film is full of insights and we learn that Ingrid’s remarkable poise and calmness for the camera comes from her early experience of being photographed by her father and this in turn led to her own adoption of a film camera (16mm and colour) to record her own children (she came from a middle-class family and was used to a life with the privileges of travel and nice homes). I’ve seen comments by viewers who claim to be easily bored by ‘home movies’ but I think that Bergman’s camera captures something lively and emotionally powerful. There are more ‘talking head’ ‘witness statements’ in this film than in those of Kapadia, I think (i.e. more statements recorded later). This wasn’t a problem for me and as an aside it seemed to me that more women spoke about working with her. It was interesting to hear Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. I hadn’t realised that there was so much discussion about Bergman’s height (references vary but 5′ 8” to 5′ 9” seems most common) in Hollywood, but Sigourney Weaver explains that it was a relief to meet a female actor who had never been bothered by her height – which in the 1940s was tall for women. Out of all the Hollywood footage the most compelling is the first screen test Bergman had in Hollywood for Selznick, for which the clapperboard says “No Make-Up, No lip gloss”. Ingrid looks young, fresh, vital and very lovely with an immediate warm response to the camera. (See the last shot of the trailer below and the still above.) No wonder they wanted her.
I watched Ava Gardner on screen a few days ago and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Ingrid Bergman was also beautiful but she had something else as well. I’m still not quite sure what it was and it’s interesting that I have appreciated it more as I’ve got older. I’m going to look at her films again. As far as this documentary is concerned I should also report that Michael Nyman’s music is used throughout. Personally I like Nyman’s music but I know he is ‘Marmite’ – with great fans and also those who can’t stand the music. My only gripe about the film is that sometimes Alicia Vikander’s modern American-tinged accent grates. I like Ms Vikander as an actor ver much and I place the blame on the director. I’m sure she could have read the diaries and letters in a style closer to Bergman’s in the 1930s/40s. I’ve emphasised that the documentary doesn’t cover all the films, but even so I was disappointed that there is very little reference to her time in London in the final part of her career and the three pictures she made in the UK.
[Once last point for Keith. This film is listed as 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so the pre-1953 film footage should be Academy and it is, being placed inside the 16:9 frame. But having watched it on both my computer and on the TV screen and then on a recording I made when it was shown on the BBC Imagine . . . series in 2017-18, I noted that sometimes captions which had slid outside the Academy frame were clipped off by masking within the 16:9 frame. I’m not sure how that happened.]
Kirk Douglas died in February this year. Recently terrestrial television screened the video of his Hollywood break-through film Champion (1949). Douglas played the title role of Midge, a boxing champ driven by ambition. Throughout the film Midge is ruthless in the way that he uses people to climb to the top. But it is not just ambition, Midge is riven with class envy. In the dramatic finale Douglas plays a boxing bout with the intensity that marked his whole career. The film’s script came from Ring Lardner and Carl Foreman and was directed by Mark Robson. There is excellent cinematography from Franz Planer and fine supporting acting from [among others] Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman. Douglas received a nomination at the Academy in the Best Actor category.
Intensity was what marked out a whole series of Douglas performances over the years. In his debut film in 1946, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, he is one of a pair with a guilty secret; fortunate to play opposite Barbara Stanwyck at this stage of his career. As Whit in Out of the Past (1947) he is the jealous crime boss in what is the seminal entry into classic film noir. In 1950 he played Jim in one of my favourite Tennessee Williams plays The Glass Menagerie. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) saw Douglas as Chuck, the most ruthless and ambition reporter ever in a Hollywood film and one that subverted the genre to real effect.
“George Stevens, who presented Douglas with the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1991, said of him: “No other leading actor was ever more ready to tap the dark, desperate side of the soul and thus to reveal the complexity of human nature.” [quoted on Wikipedia]
Then there was the fine Vincente Minnelli film, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) where his Jonathan was a producer as ruthless and ambitious in a film studio as Midge was in the boxing ring. And with Minnelli again in Lust for Life (1956) his Vincent Van Gogh was less accurate than in European biopics but where he made the agonies of this famous painter all too real. He received nomination as Best Actor at the Academy for the last two roles.
His intense physicality meant that Douglas regularly played in westerns. His first film in the genre was Along the Great Divide (1951), which featured a lynching. The Big Trees (1952) saw Douglas as Jim Fallon, exploiting the California forests and the Quaker homesteaders’. In Man Without a Star (1955) , working with King Vidor, Douglas plays drifter Dempsey. A past experience has given the drifter a hatred of barbed wire, which he treats with a savagery equal to his treatment of people. The Indian Fighter (1955) sees Douglas’s Johnny leading a wagon train and romancing a daughter of the Native-American Chief.
In 1955, like a number of major stars as the studio system declined, Douglas moved into film producing with Bryna Productions. Accounts by fellow artists suggests that he was as intense in his production role as when acting. This led to two classic titles directed by Stanley Kubrick. In Paths of Glory (1957) he played Colonel Drax, the liberal officer confronted by the ambitious and ruthless higher command. The trench warfare scenes are excellent. The court martial and execution of ordinary soldiers is brutal; the film was banned in France for several years. Liberal values also informed Spartacus (1960) with a script about a slave revolt against the Roman Empire by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. The film has one of the most famous lines in Hollywood productions;
“I am Spartacus” repeated a number of times.
The film helped Trumbo emerge for his work under pseudonyms and the arguments with Douglas led Kubrick to become obsessively auteurist. The same year saw Douglas producer and star, working with Richard Fleischer, as a rather different protagonist; the one-eyed ferocious Viking leader Einar.
Douglas remained active in the following decades. One outstanding title was an elegiac western, Lonely are the Brave (1962), produced by Douglas also with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo as “Jack” Burns (Douglas) is man, and his horse, out of time in a west with fencing, helicopters and large fast-moving trucks.
Unfortunately Douglas, clearly with Zionist sympathies, produced, two films misrepresenting the occupation of Palestine. In Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) he is a US officer working with the Hagannah to drive Arabs from their lands, though the film does not play it this way. And in 1976 there was a TV version, among many, of Victory at Entebbe. He had already appeared in 1953’s The Juggler. A film producer by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk [with a rather different shadow on his career] actually made in the occupied territories.
From the 1960s Douglas worked extensively on television productions and in international co-productions. The Heroes of Telemark (1962) was a world war II action drama directed by Anthony Mann. Catch Me a Spy (1971) was made in Britain and France an involved, predictably for the period, Russian espionage. Whilst The Fury (1978) was directed by Brian de Palma and involved Douglas an ex-CIA agent dabbling in psychics and telekinesis.
In the 1970s Kirk Douglas’s son Michael started a career in film acting and producing. It was Kirk who acquired the rights to ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. The film won five major Academy Awards, a rare feat. Douglas himself won many awards including several nominations at the Academy; but he did not win an Acting Oscar, only a Honorary Award in 1996. He is in good company there; it often seems that more of the Hollywood greats’ failed to win Academy Awards than did actually walk off with one. His son Michael has won two, but that probably says more about the modern Academy than Kirk’s acting output.
He worked with many of the modern really fine writing and directing talents: apart from those mentioned this included Anthony Mann, Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Aldrich. Surprisingly, given his western output, he never worked with John Ford; [currently being re-examined by Roy]. He did work quite few times with Burt Lancaster, including Doc Holiday opposite his Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at OK Corral, 1957) and scapegrace Richard opposite Lancaster’s Reverend Anderson in The Devil’s Disciple (1959). He never played opposite Olivia de Havilland though both were of the Studio generation, of similar ages and both passing on this year, 2020.
I have seen more of Douglas’ work in the 1950s and 1960s. He was always memorable and, like Lancaster, he appeared to have been a good judge of scripts; not that many bloomers in his career. Whether he was snarling at the excited and baying audience (The Champion): smoothly charming the unwary (The Bad and the Beautiful): or agonizing over life and work (Lust for Life): Douglas always bared the soul of his character to the moviegoer.
Michel Piccoli was one of the most familiar faces in French cinema over the second half of the 20th century. He is listed as having made over 200 screen appearances; on film, on television and in short films/documentaries. This is greater than that of Max von Sydow, who was himself an incredibly active actor. Piccoli played a variety of characters but one common type was the bourgeois faced with economic, social or sexual problems. Some of these characters featured in films by major European talents including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel.
He started in films immediately after the war in 1945. His early roles were mainly small supporting ones, often uncredited. He had a speaking part in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955), a vibrant film in Technicolor, recreating Montmartre in the 1890s. He also appeared in a film produced in the German Democratic Republic / Deutsche Demokratische Republik [GDR], Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse (1955). This probably reflected his relative left-wing views. Then he had an uncredited role in Rene Clair’s Les grandes manoeuvres (1955). And he obtained roles on television, both in TV films and TV series.
He had a supporting role as a night club owner in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Doulos (1962). Then in 1963 he played Paul Javal in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris. The action takes place during a film production; we actually hear Fritz Lang’s famous put-down of CinemaScope, suitable only for ‘snakes and funerals’. Paul is married to Camille (Brigitte Bardot); how we envied him. But she is the target of producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The latter is an extreme caricature of the overbearing over-sexed Hollywood producer; an early role model for Harvey Weinstein. But the film is equally memorable for the way Godard uses Raoul Courtard’s cinematography and Agnès Guillemot’s editing.
The following year saw his first outing with Luis Buñuel who was making his first collaboration with the writer Jean-Claude Carrière on Diary of a Chambermaid / Le journal d’une femme de chambre (1963). The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Octave Mirbeau (1900) and followed an English language version directed by Jean Renoir for a Hollywood independent production in 1946. This French version enjoys the advantage of the casting of Jeanne Moreau as the chambermaid, Célestine. Piccoli plays Monsieur Monteil, the head of the decadent household at the château where Celestial works. Piccoli’s character is an obsessed and exploitative bourgeois; both animals and women are his prey. Piccoli went on to appear in several more films directed by Buñuel. Belle de Jour (1967) stars Catherine Deneuve as a wife who seeks sexual variety by working in a brothel. Michel Piccoli as Henri Husson is a friend of her husband and but also a client at the brothel. He attempts to us his knowledge to pressurize Séverine (Deneuve) into providing sexual favours. This is Piccoli in his most familiar role; cool, aloof and predatory. His role in The Milky Way / La Voie lactée (1969) is a cameo as the Marquis de Sade. The film is a picaresque. story following the pilgrim’s way to Santiago de Compestelo with a variety of characters and theological issues; all presented in sardonic manner. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972) finds Piccoli in a supporting role as a government minister. The film has one of Buñuel’s favourite plot devices, recurring dinner parties or similar events that never actually complete.
Piccoli appeared along with a host of French, German and US stars in Is Paris Burning? (Paris brûle-t-il ?), a 1966 French-American epic historical war film about the liberation of Paris in August 1944 by the French Resistance and the Free French Forces during World War II.
In The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort) is a 1967 musical and romantic comedy directed by Jacques Demy, Piccoli is part of a cast which includes Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorleac, Danielle Darrieux and the non-French Gene Kelly. Piccoli plays the owner of a music store which is an important site in the key romance between Deneuve and Kelly. He and Danielle Darrieux provide supporting older generation romance.
Themroc (1973) saw Piccoli in the lead role in a film that gave two fingers to censors and became a cult classic. The actors had to manage without dialogue as the sound track was grunts, howls and similar. The plot included cannibalism and incest among other taboo activities. I, like many, enjoyed it immensely.
With his next film, La grande bouffe (Blow-out, 1973) Piccoli seemed in danger of becoming typed cast. The film celebrated suicide by over eating; with Michel one of a quartet dedicated to gross indulgence. The film also became a cult title; as funny as Themroc but not quite as subversive. The film also offered a plethora of canine characters but not in any way suitable for English susceptibilities.
French actors like Michel Piccoli appear to have a longer career that is the case in mainstream US and British industry; and Piccoli worked almost exclusively in French/European productions. In 1990 he had the title part in a fine Louis Malle film, Milou en mai / Milou in May. Set in an atypical 1968 setting, rural South-western France; family life and a funeral are disrupted in a minor way but mirroring the wider conflicts of this memorable year. French film titles suffer in English translation but the US release was especially maladroit, May Fools.
In La belle noiseuse (1991) Piccoli played the almost retired painter who revisits his art. The film is loosely adapted from the short story ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu’ (‘The Unknown Masterpiece’) by Honoré de Balzac, with important additions by the director Jacques Rivette. The painter’s professional and personal interaction with his young model raises issues both about art and personal relationships.
In 1994 he played in The Emigrant / Al-mohager, a film by Youssef Chahine, the Egyptian film-maker. This biblical-based story, like his earlier foray in the GDR would seem to reflect his personal politics and principles; in this case working with a major film-maker whose films are rarely seen in the trans-Atlantic territories.
Piccoli continued appearing in films regularly up until 2015. Most years he appeared in several films, active until the age of ninety. Many of these, as was the case throughout his career, did not receive a British release. So I have only seen a small part of his output. But his best films were memorable, both for his screen presence and for the film being the product of really fine film-making. One would expect his work with the likes of Buñuel, Demy, Godard, Melville and Rivette to lead to new generations enjoying his skill and distinctive persona.
The sad death of Irrfan Khan means a look back to some of his most significant films. The Warrior marks the point in Irrfan’s career when he had reached an impasse. Although he had already spent 14 years working in TV and film in India, he was thinking of giving it up since he was getting bored with jobs that didn’t stretch him or interest him. Fortunately he heard about Asif Kapadia’s project to make The Warrior and when the two men met they got on very well and became firm friends. When Irrfan’s death was announced at the end of April, Kapadia released a moving tribute to his friend.
Asif Kapadia is Indian-British. Born in London and taking a route through UK higher education he eventually emerged on the international scene with a short film The Sheep Thief (1997) which caused a stir at various festivals. Shot in Rajasthan this is available on the DVD of The Warrior and it clearly set up the possibility of a feature set in India. The Warrior was fortunate to emerge at a time when there was more support for British film with the development of a funding and support infrastructure through the British Film Council set up by the new Labour government elected in 1997. This co-production was no doubt underway before The Film Council took over British Screen, but the new structure was always likely to try to highlight this release. It was given a spread in Sight and Sound in 2002 and won various awards around Europe. It didn’t make any direct impact in the film market in India but it did introduce both Asif Kapadia and Irrfan Khan to the European and North American segment of the festival circuit and this in turn would strengthen his position in India.
Film 4, one of the UK partners involved has long been a supporter of Indian cinema in the UK, albeit in the early hours of the morning. Still, it has links to Indian film industries and film culture and in 1994 had funded a controversial diaspora film by Shekhar Kapur, Bandit Queen. The Warrior is a very different kind of story with Kapadia and co-writer Tim Miller turning to Japanese folk-tales (presumably the reason why ‘the warrior’ is known as ‘Lafcadia’ in some listings, a possible reference to Lafcadia Hearn the Greek-Irish writer famous for his books on Japanese ghost stories). If the story is Japanese, the film also draws on Japanese cinema as well as Chinese cinemas (Taiwan/HK?) and spaghetti Westerns (which also derive from Kurosawa et al). The film narrative is very simple. ‘The Warrior’ (he isn’t named in the film) becomes disgusted with his feudal lord’s commands which mean executing tenants who can’t pay annual rents and raising villages to the ground, killing everyone. When he rebels, The Warrior becomes an outlaw pursued by the lord’s other warrior retainers. After his son is executed by his enemies he escapes to the desert, but he is finally saved by his companionship to a boy and to a girl and her family. The plot involves some ‘magic realism’ in terms of the girl. The desert scenes were shot in Rajasthan and the mountain scenes in Himachal Pradesh. I was struck by the several shots of lone trees in the desert and the use of extreme long shots covering the journeys taken. Some of these made me think of traditional East Asian visual art rather than the style of contemporary Indian cinema. I’ve included several images of the ‘long shot style’ here.
At around 86 minutes, the film is short but it is packed with some stunning cinematography by Roman Dosin on his first film as DoP. The music by Dario Marianelli works well with the ‘Scope photography. I think both Osin and Marianelli must have met Asif Kapadia in London. They worked on his next few films. The star of the show, however, is Irrfan khan. He has relatively little dialogue, but he says a great deal with his eyes, one of his strengths. Kapadia does well to organise a cast which includes only a few other professional actors amid a much larger group of local non-professionals, some of them in significant roles.
Since his critical success with this film, Asif Kapadia has had no luck with three further features, none of which made much money, but he has become a hot name in documentary with his trio of biography pics, Senna (UK-Brazil 2010), Amy (UK 2015) and Diego Maradona (UK 2019). I hope he doesn’t give up on features and if I can find time, I might look at the earlier ‘flops’. Irrfan Khan’s career took off from this point. He got more prestigious roles in Hindi cinema and was recruited by diaspora and American/European directors shooting in India.
Looking for the early starring roles for Simone Signoret I found this 1948 film which was not released in the UK. It has an English language title , ‘Dilemma for Two Angels’ which doesn’t make that much sense to me. ‘Impasse’ means much the same in French and English – a ‘dead end’. It’s difficult to categorise the film but we are clearly in noir territory, both in visual style and theme. This is the last film directed by Maurice Tourneur, a prolific filmmaker from 1913 onwards in France and in the US during the silent era. He returned to France in the 1930s and made over 80 feature films in all. He was the father of Jacques Tourneur. This film was written by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, photographed by Claude Renoir and with a music score by Yves Baudrier (also composer on La bataille du rail (1946).
The story is slight. Anne-Marie, a girl from a poor background, has become ‘Marianne’, the star of theatre and variety in Paris (Simone Signoret). She has decided to marry into wealth and accepted the proposal of Marquis Antoine de Fontaines (Marcel Herrand). He has brought her a family heirloom, a valuable necklace, to wear for the wedding, and placed it in the safe in her house. She holds a pre-wedding party after her last stage performance at which she meets Antoine’s family and aristocratic friends. The necklace has attracted the interest of a criminal gang who hire a ‘specialist’ to steal it. This turns out to be Jean (Paul Meurisse) who was Anne-Marie’s lover seven years earlier when he suddenly disappeared from her life. He crashes the party, suitably dressed in evening wear. Recognising him, Anne-Marie slips out to join him and they go to a café. Will she leave her fiancé on the night before the wedding and stay with Jean? What about the criminal gang who are watching Jean? The answers to both questions make up most of the rest of the narrative. The film’s title refers to a dead-end street where there was once a small hotel, a rendezvous for Anne-Marie and Jean. It is now closed and the whole area is being re-developed.
Most of the action takes place at night using studio sets. An unusual element of these scenes for me was the use of double exposure so that when we see Marianne and Jean together in various locations, we also see the ghostly presence of their former selves, dressed as they would have been seven years earlier in the same location. I thought this was quite effective. The overall lighting and camerawork produces a familiar noir image and at 85 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. Meurisse was a leading man of equal status to Signoret at the time and they would appear together again in future features.
Having just acquired a copy of Susan Hayward’s book Simone Signoret: the star as cultural sign (Continuum 2004) it’s worth noting some of her analysis of Signoret’s developing star image. Hayward identifies different ways of dividing up Signoret’s life and in particular her film career. For convenience, here I’ll just refer to a couple of her observations. She notes that in the period 1946-51 Signoret appears three times as a prostitute, twice as a gold-digger and twice as a woman who has risen from a lower class (one of these films is Impasse des deux anges). This is seven roles out of ten films in which her role is leading or significant. Ironically in the film discussed here, her assumed name of ‘Marianne’ is linked to the national symbol of French womanhood (and is referenced as such in the dialogue). Hayward begins her chapter by comparing Signoret with Anna Magnani in Italy during the same period. She suggests that Magnani is symbolic of Italian recovery and “the moral and ethical strength of the people”. Hayward notes that although Signoret had all the same attributes of Magnani (intelligence, integrity and authenticity), French films didn’t attempt to showcase such a character and instead Signoret represented “France’s economic underbelly”. (p 64).
But Susan Hayward does recognise that Signoret presents a ‘strong and independent woman’, perhaps a woman of the 1970s rather than the 1940s. She suggests that this strength comes from three aspects of her performances. First is her sheer ‘corporeality’. She is aware of the strength of her body, the way she stands and how she walks and how she smokes – with “an insouciant vulgarity”. Second she has reduced her gestures to the minimum, aiming to convey more with less, the raising of an eyebrow, a momentary flash of the eyes etc. Finally, she stands out as part of the ‘real world’ not the artifice of cinema. We know she is going to be a great star. This film was released in 1948, the same year as Against the Wind, the British film in which Signoret stars as an SOE operative helping the Belgian resistance. It appears that French audiences just couldn’t accept the British script (which was based on real events) and the film flopped in France where the various ‘myths’ associated with the résistance in France were not dispelled for many years. I’ve also been reading Simone Signoret’s autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be (1976). It’s very good.
Albert Finney was one of the important actors for me in the 1960s when I branched out into art cinema and the new cinema of British realism. I vividly remember how I and friends marvelled at how his Arthur Seaton downed a pint of beer in a Nottingham public house.
Finney had studied at RADA and then worked at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Intriguingly one of his early appearances on the London stage was in the play ‘The Party’ which was directed by Charles Laughton, one of the great British actors of preceding decades.
Finney’s first film role was in The Entertainer (1960) as Archie Rice’s (Lawrence Olivier) son Mick. Mick is captured by the Egyptian forces during the Suez invasion and dies in captivity. The film was one of the early dramas to address (at least partially), the national disgrace of 1956. This was one of the film’s directed by Tony Richardson from the play by John Osborne. Both were important figures in the breakthroughs at that time in both theatre and on film.
Finney then took the starring role of Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s adaptation of his own fine novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Even before attending a screening I was agog with anticipation; partly because of publicity that claimed that “it makes Room at the Top look like a vicarage tea-party”. I had already seen Room at the Top and this promised, and delivered, something for more involving. If one had to pick ten British films for a desert island this would undoubtedly be one of the prints.
Finney played ‘Billy Liar’ on stage and on Television; however, I saw Tom Courtney in the part on both stage and on film. Courtney was excellent but I always regret not seeing Finney’s interpretation. Finney then played the lead in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963); a fine romp from Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel. Finney was excellent as the miscreant hero and Walter Lassally provided excellent colour cinematography whilst the film made use of a number of techniques seen in the nouvelle vague films. There was too the most erotic meal seen up until that date in a home-made film. The film led to Finney being voted by exhibitors as the most popular star of the year at the British Box office. I also had a tenuous connection with the film: a friend earned £5 wearing a smock and floppy hat as an extra in the execution scene.
Finney also performed on stage and television; later I caught his outstanding performance in ‘Luther’ when it appeared on BBC television. Finney then formed a production company, Memorial Films, with fellow actor Michael Medwin. The company was involved in some fine British independent films including Privilege (1967), Peter Watkins’ interesting but flawed entry into feature films. And there was If…, directed by Lindsay Anderson, the seminal British film of 1968.
Finney himself appeared in two productions by the company. He starred in but also directed the 1968 title Charlie Bubbles. This was an off-beat comedy written by Shelagh Delaney and co-starring the fine actor Billie Whitelaw who won a BAFTA for her performance. Finney plays a successful and now bored writer who returns to his roots in Manchester. It is thus emblematic of the films of the 1960s with an occasional surreal touch also found in these times.
The other film in which Finney starred was Gumshoe (1971), a private eye film set in Liverpool. Again it starred Billie Whitelaw alongside Finney and was directed by Stephen Frears. This was another oddball drama which played with genre conventions. The film had censorship problems because of an explicit scene involving heroin.
Finney’s career continued with both theatre work and films. But increasingly he took parts in international or US production. Some of these were fine. I liked both his performance and that his co-star, Audrey Hepburn, in Two for the Road, directed by Stanley Donen and scripted by Fredrick Rafael. And John Huston’s Under the Volcano, (1984) was an excellent film and lead performance. It was adapted from a partly autobiographical novel and was some way from mainstream conventions.
Even in commercial properties Finney was always good value. As the lawyer in Erin Brockovich (2000) he offered an interesting foil to the lead played by Julia Roberts. However, I have never been able to bring myself to view Annie (1999). I did watch the ‘Bourne Trilogy’; one and three are particularly effective. Finney as Doctor Albert Hirsch in the ‘Ultimatum’ gives a barn-storming performance but the part as written is pretty stereotypical.
Looking back Finney’s work in theatre, on film and on television is impressive. But I feel that his best work was in the earlier periods. I would suggest this has as much to do with the values of the periods as to the skills of the actor. His work on relatively independent film stands out. And one can make that point with regard to both British and US film productions. His key films, especially for the British ‘New Wave’ stand out and stand up today. I am always happy to revisit the best of these.