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The British New WaveA Certain Tendency?$

B. F. Taylor

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780719069086

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719069086.001.0001

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Straight lines and rigid readings: Arthur Seaton and the arc of flight

Straight lines and rigid readings: Arthur Seaton and the arc of flight

(p.124) 6 Straight lines and rigid readings: Arthur Seaton and the arc of flight
The British New Wave

B. F. Taylor

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter deals with Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Saturday Night and Sunday Morning ends with Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) and his fiancée Doreen (Shirley Ann Field) sitting on a hill overlooking a new estate that is being built. The film actually closes with him and Doreen walking down the hill leaving audiences with a question that what happens to them in the future. John Hill reaches a conclusion, what he calls the ‘new wave’ narrative. Hill reaches this conclusion by drawing on Tzvetan Todorov's concept of the passage in a narrative ‘from one equilibrium to another’. This passage begins with a stable situation that is disturbed and thus becomes ‘a state of disequilibrium’. Eventually, the original equilibrium is restored but now it is somehow different from the original situation. For Hill, the narrative of a film such as Reisz's loosely adheres to this model, with the film's central disturbance ‘usually a socially or sexually transgressive desire’. Moreover, as Hill continues, this movement from disequilibrium to a new equilibrium is not random but patterned in terms of a linear chain of events.

Keywords:   Karel Reisz, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Anthony Aldgate, British film, practitioners of cinema history

There is a passage of D.H Lawrence (it occurs in Lady Chatterley's Lover) that [F.R] Leavis was fond of quoting: ‘It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the importance of the novel properly handled: it can lead the sympathetic consciousness into new places, and away in recoil from things gone dead.’ One can make the same claim for criticism ‘properly handled’: its function should equally be to ‘lead the sympathetic consciousness into new places,’ and that involves a constant readiness to change and modify one's own position as one's perception of human needs changes. (Robin Wood)1

Our judgements concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other. (William James)2

A radio is not a louder voice, an aeroplane not a better car, and the motion picture (an invention of the same period of history) should not be thought of as a faster painting or a more real play.

All of these forms are qualitatively different from those which preceded them. They must not be understood as unrelated developments, bound merely by coincidence, but as diverse aspects of a new way of thought and a new way of life – one in which an appreciation of time, movement, energy, and dynamics is more immediately meaningful than the familiar concept of matter as a static solid anchored to a stable cosmos. (Maya Deren)3


Saturday Night and Sunday Morning ends with Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) and his fiancée Doreen (Shirley Ann Field) sitting on a hill over-looking a new estate that is being built. Arthur's behaviour throughout the unfolding film has been characterised by a certain irresponsibility but, following an unwanted pregnancy and a beating from two soldiers, (p.125) the implication is that Arthur will now submit to a more responsible future by marrying Doreen and living in one of these new houses. The film actually closes with him and Doreen walking down the hill and we never find out what happens to them in the future. Nevertheless, the connection between this character's behaviour and the events that befall him is seductive enough to make us want to speculate on the type of future he faces. Speculation of this kind is further fuelled by the idea that Arthur's rebelliousness has somehow been contained. This is the conclusion that John Hill reaches in his discussion of what he calls the ‘new wave’ narrative.

Hill reaches this conclusion by drawing on Tzvetan Todorov's concept of the passage in a narrative ‘from one equilibrium to another’. This passage begins with a stable situation that is disturbed and thus becomes ‘a state of disequilibrium’. Eventually, the original equilibrium is restored but now it is somehow different from the original situation. For Hill, the narrative of a film such as Reisz's loosely adheres to this model, with the film's central disturbance ‘usually a socially or sexually transgressive desire’. Moreover, as Hill continues, this movement from disequilibrium to a new equilibrium is not random but patterned in terms of a linear chain of events. Typically, it is individual characters who become the agents of this causality. For Hill, this link between the film's causal chain and its central characters is essential when it comes to considering the ending of a film in question. As he explains:

Implicit in the structure of the narrative, its movement from one equilibrium to another, its relations of cause and effect, is a requirement for change. But, in so far as the narrative is based upon individual agency, it is characteristic that the endings of such films should rely on individual, rather than social and political change. As a result, the resolutions characteristic of the working-class films tend to conform to one or other of two main types: the central character either opts out of society or else adapts and adjusts to its demands.4

Following Hill's logic, the question we should be asking is whether the film's ending signals Arthur's opting-out of society or his adjusting to its demands. If we were to view the film's causal logic as the best source for an answer then we would have to say that Arthur is adjusting to society's demands. But I wonder if it is really as simple as this. How can we reach a definitive conclusion about the film on the basis of such a general approach? The problem is the line of argument that Hill is choosing to follow.

Doubts and hesitations

Using words such as ‘loosely’, ‘typically’, ‘should’, and ‘tend’, Hill draws on the understanding of narration in the fiction film developed by David (p.126) Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. They, like Hill, place a particular emphasis upon the idea of causality. However, the template proposed by Bordwell and Thompson is not without its own conceptual problems. For example, here is Bordwell writing in Film Art:

The number of possible narratives is unlimited. Historically, however, the cinema has tended to be dominated by a single mode of narrative form. In the course of this book we shall refer to this dominant mode as the ‘classical Hollywood cinema’ – ‘classical’ because of its wide and long history, ‘Hollywood’ because the mode assumed its definitive shape in American studio films. The same mode, however, governs many narrative films made in other countries … This conception of narrative depends on the assumption that the action will spring primarily from individual characters as causal agents.5

Straight away we need to be clear here. There is no denying the importance of causes and effects to the unfolding of a film, but the generalising tendency that stems from Bordwell's insistence on the idea that ‘causality is the prime unifying principle’ is problematic. Note, in particular, the use of ‘tended’ and ‘assumption’. As he continues:

The classical Hollywood film presents psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or attain specific goals. In the course of this struggle, the characters enter into conflict with others or with external circumstances. The story ends with a decisive victory or defeat, a resolution of the problem and a clear achievement or non-achievement of the goals. The principal causal agency is thus the character, a discriminated individual endowed with a consistent batch of evident traits, qualities, and behaviours.6

Bordwell's template lacks a suitable precision to make anything other than extremely general claims about individual films. Is it enough to say that the end of a fiction film can be characterised by victory or defeat, achievement or non-achievement? Or, like Hill, that a character opts-out or conforms? The vagueness troubles me here. An approach of this kind only takes us as far as classifying the ending of all ‘New Wave’ narratives in one of two ways. This is not enough when it comes to accounting for the differences between one film and another. The problem is in the methodology. As Douglas Pye explains in his discussion of the Bordwell model:

The phrase ‘Classical Hollywood Cinema’ has itself achieved widespread currency among film critics and theorists. In effect, it has become a shorthand carrying the illusion of shared assumptions – we all know what that is. Whether we do is clearly another matter, but Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson's codification – by far the most detailed we have – shows every sign of becoming what it clearly intends to be: the standard reference point. It is therefore of particular importance to register doubts and hesitations.7

(p.127) My hesitation, like Pye’s, is derived from the fear that an insistence on causality is too general to be practical. This would not be a problem if we were content to categorise films as types, emphasising the features they have in common, as Hill does with the endings here. Yet, when it comes to being more specific, an approach of this kind is extremely limited. This is especially true when it comes to developing a better idea of a film's manner and meaning, for example. As Pye continues:

in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, style is delineated as a matrix of formal conventions which govern articulation of time and space around a narrative dominated by coherent causality and consistent, goal-orientated characters. Beyond reference to story events and characters, the relationship between style and meaning is set aside.8

The result of this is that such a tendency will result in a complete underestimation of a particular film's complexities.9 Elizabeth Cowie reaches the same conclusion in her discussion of Bordwell's model. With all possible deviations included within the definition itself, and every exception proving the rule, the church, for her, is ‘so broad that heresy is impossible’.10

Hill's project differs greatly from my own, concerned as Hill is with providing an analysis of these films ‘in relation to the social and economic context of their production’.11 Nevertheless, to demonstrate the differences of detail that distinguish this film from others it is necessary to formulate a more specific understanding of the film's ending. One possible solution is to consider the approach outlined by Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate.

Context and history

Writing in 1983, Jeffrey Richards calls for an approach to British cinema based upon a ‘contextual cinematic history’ and an approach of this kind, Richards suggests,

deals not in pure speculation but in solid research, the assembling, evaluation and interpretation of facts, the relating of films to the world, the search for an understanding through the medium of popular films of the changing social and sexual roles of men and women, the concepts of work and leisure, class and race, peace and war, the real determinants of change and continuity in the real world.12

Particular emphasis is placed ‘on the exploration of the context within which a film was produced’ and for Richards this involves three main lines of enquiry. We need to analyse a film's mise-en-scène to discover what the film is saying. The film must also be placed within the context of its production. This enquiry is ended by a consideration of reaction (p.128) and reception. As Richards explains: ‘To some extent, all three strands are interwoven, for popular cinema has an organic relationship with the rest of popular culture, and popular culture as a whole plays a part in the social and political history of its time.’13

It is critically counterproductive to consider any aspect of a film in isolation, and the idea of interwoven strands seems to concur with this. As Richards concludes: ‘When all this evidence has been taken into account, we hope to show how feature films can be used to illuminate the history of this century at various key points.’14 However, this approach demonstrates a degree of incompleteness when it comes to ‘looking at the structure and the meaning of the film, as conveyed by the script, visuals, acting, direction, photography and music’. This is because the emphasis on the strands is not evenly distributed and returns us to the sense of asymmetry that Movie's histogram originally created. To understand this we need to consider this approach in greater detail.

Aldgate's discussion of Reisz's film is based upon his asking: what is there to gain ‘by seeking to place Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in its “proper” historical context’. Aldgate aims to do this by considering the film's ending. For him, the conclusion gives the whole narrative an attractive ambiguity and this does seem like an extremely good place to start. However, Aldgate's discussion falls some way short of actually considering this ambiguity in greater detail. He immediately downplays any interest that it might have in relation to the film's structure and meaning and thus unwittingly demonstrates the limits of this approach. As he writes:

In certain circumstances, of course, this [ambiguity] can be said to indicate a rich and dense artistic text, in short, a ‘classic’, which is precisely the status that some have accorded to the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in the British cinema. And it cannot be denied that the film has many admirable and enduring qualities. But in this case the ambiguities were hardly the result of any creative input; they arose from the contingencies of its production.15

To illuminate his argument, Aldgate chronicles the difference of opinion between scriptwriter and director. Aldgate cites a difference of opinion over the final fate of Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney), the film's central character. Alan Sillitoe's purpose ‘was to show that Arthur had indeed changed since the beginning of the film and that he was in many ways the same person’. By contrast, Reisz ‘is reported to have viewed the ending of the film as a surrender.’16

However, as Aldgate acknowledges, Reisz later felt that he wasn’t ‘too keen’ on the stone-throwing ending and for Aldgate this imbues the ending with an ambiguity. My interest in following what appears to be a well-trodden path is to take a closer look at Aldgate's conclusions and (p.129) question whether they properly satisfy the criteria of the contextual-cinematic approach advocated here.17

Context and reception

Does an approach of this kind really ‘analyse what the film is saying’? Aldgate acknowledges that the film displays an ambiguity which might be interesting but he is more interested in the possibility that this ambiguity is derived from the interaction between the intentions of the scriptwriter, the director and the British Board of Film Classification. For Aldgate this means that the film's richness in other areas, certainly in the structure and the meaning of the film – a central tenet of the approach he and Richards espouse – becomes overlooked by recounting the story behind the making of the film. Here, context undermines or, in fact, nullifies the importance of the film's specific detail. There is a clear inequality of emphasis here. The problem is that all ‘this evidence’ has not been taken into account. If an approach is based upon three central and seemingly equal tenets then why should one of them suffer disproportionately in terms of attention? Would not it be far simpler just to remove the first of these tenets from the approach? The end result – Aldgate's discussion of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – would certainly lose its imbalance. My criticism of this approach is completely arbitrary but, as Aldgate acknowledges in the revised version of Best of British, this is not a problem. As he explains:

To better understand the precise points at issue in dealing with mainstream British cinema down the years, it is probably useful to adopt a chronological approach to its historiography. However arbitrary it may sometimes appear to divide a broad expanse of time into shorter discrete periods, this at least offers a twofold advantage in allowing for detailed comparison between differing methodologies and interpretations as applied to specific filmic examples, while also retaining a broad overview of contrasting reactions to the major sea changes affecting British cinema generally (not to mention social changes at large).18

Even here Aldgate is not completely certain. The best he can suggest is that it is ‘probably useful’ to adopt such an approach but when presented with the chance to apply an interpretation to a specific film example – in this case the ending of Reisz's film – his desire to maintain ‘a broad overview’ prevents him from doing so. The specific details of a film's manner and construction appear less important than the detailed establishment of the context that surrounds it.

This surprises me because the contextual-historical approach is keen to remove the distance between film studies and cinema history. As Richards suggests in ‘Rethinking British Cinema’:

(p.130) Neither camp has an exclusive monopoly of wisdom. Both are needed. Both are valuable. Recently there has been a rewarding convergence between the two approaches, as cinema historians have taken on board some of the more useful and illuminating of the theoretical developments, such as gender theory, and the Film Studies scholars have been grounding their film analysis more securely in historical context.19

The problem is that the balance between these two camps has never been properly reconsidered. Scholars of film (studies) such as Perkins can aggressively deride the British cinema for not containing sufficiently interesting detail to make a study of its mise-en-scène worthwhile. Proponents of (cinema) history such as Richards and Aldgate over-rely upon context to ensure that British films are suitably cocooned in a historical discussion so as to be preserved from sustained stylistic investigation. The time is right for us to be more radical here and less defensive. Consider, for example, the rest of Richards's discussion. As he continues:

Criticism is of course inevitable and desirable, but it is best delivered in a spirit of gentleness and good humour. For we are, when all is said and done, all colleagues in the wider struggle against the enormous condescension of the likes of François Truffaut who famously declared the terms British and cinema to be incompatible.20


A regular criticism of Cinema History is that it is devoid of theory. As an empiricist of many years standing, I feel that it is worth pointing out to the proponents of that argument that empiricism is a theory and one that is longer established and more thoroughly tried and tested than some of the more fashionable but short-lived theories of recent years.21

This defensiveness raises two interesting points. Firstly, it is not clear from this declaration whether we are all involved in the struggle against the same critical condescension. A critic like Perkins would happily agree with Truffaut and be more inclined to condescension than he or she would be to defending British films from claims of incompatibility with the medium itself. Neither is it clear whether the struggle Richards claims we are involved in is even against the same opponents. I am not convinced that ‘French linguistic theories’ have done the kind of critical damage to British films as have those assertions that a British film lacks a mise-en-scène suitable for sustained discussions of style and meaning. This defensiveness surprises me because Richards takes the opportunity to rephrase and re-emphasise the three concerns of his approach. As he reiterates:

The empirical cinema historian deals for the most part not in mere speculation but in solid archival research, the assembling, evaluation and interpretation of the facts about the production and reception of films. Particular emphasis (p.131) is placed on establishing and exploring the context, social, cultural, political and economic, within which the film was produced. The empirical cinema historian has three main concerns. The first is to analyse the content of the individual film and ascertain how its themes and ideas are conveyed by script, mise-en-scène, acting, direction, editing, photography and music.22

I have repeated only the first concern here because what is of more interest is this continued insistence upon examining the mise-en-scène of the film in question. This is the second time that Richards has called for an analysis of a film that ‘ascertains how its themes and ideas are conveyed’ but it is obvious that questions of context and reception have a higher priority. This is disappointing because, despite acknowledging the influence that Movie has had upon British film criticism, Richards is unwilling to go any further. An empirical approach of this kind would certainly be suited to re-evaluating ‘The British Cinema’s’ prominence in the chronological history of British film criticism. This would be as much a study of context as it would be of reception and would further define the opponents against whom scholars of British film are struggling. But Richards chooses not to do this directly. The best he can manage is the hope that this might happen one day. As he writes:

It is perhaps a measure of the way in which Cinema History and Film Studies have evolved in the last thirty years that it now would be perfectly possible to read a journal article or hear a conference paper entitled ‘Issues of gender and genre: the cases of An Alligator Named Daisy, Above Us the Waves and Ramsbottom Rides Again’.23

Richards's use of the word ‘possible’ here alarms me. Like Aldgate's earlier use of ‘probably’, the reticence is there for all to see and becomes indicative of a disavowal. Despite calling for the discussion of a film's mise-en-scène to be included, it appears that such a discussion has no real place in the contextual-historical approach. To address this imbalance properly it is necessary to return to the film's ending.

The qualities of framing

As Arthur and Doreen sit on the hill, the camera is positioned behind the couple and the estate stretches out in the distance behind them. When we first see Arthur and Doreen together they are positioned very close to the camera. Doreen fills the foreground of the frame and leans back over her shoulder to talk to Arthur. He is positioned on the edge of the frame, half-in and half-out of the shot. The estate is partially obscured by the couple but a construction sign is visible and reveals that these are new houses that have not quite been finished. The initial composition here is cramped and slightly awkward. Knowing the narrative events that have led to this point – including Brenda's unwanted pregnancy with Arthur (p.132) and the beating he receives as a result of this affair being discovered – it is tempting to conclude that Arthur is being forced to settle down in order to avoid getting into further trouble. Following the causal route espoused by Bordwell and Hill makes this conclusion almost inevitable. This conclusion is ostensibly endorsed by the film's construction here.

Arthur tells Doreen that he would be happy to live in an old house but she wants a new one, ‘with a bathroom and everything’. Doreen's desire for a new house combines with her central position within the frame to create the impression that she is perfectly happy to have her future outlined in this way. Arthur's initial position, however – half-in and half-out of the frame – does not necessarily give the same impression. Before this consideration threatens to interrupt the causal line Arthur stands up and the camera rises with him. Arthur is now clearly contained within the straight edges of the frame and the composition appears to support the theory that the film's causal trajectory has forced Arthur into this position. Arthur, for Hill, at least, is finally adjusting to society's demands. His position, like Doreen’s, is defined by the boundaries of the frame. This idea is further aided by the view of the new houses behind him. Character and landscape appear fused at this point. Arthur then turns to throw a stone in the direction of the houses. Doreen asks him why he threw a stone and he tells her that he does not know. He also tells her that it will not be the last one he throws.

This new exchange between them is revealed in a series of alternating close shots, and the tightness of the framing seems to contradict this final expression of personal freedom. (In fact, this brief series of close shots can be used as further evidence of Arthur's ‘adjusting’ by appearing like a succession of photographs. You can almost picture them framed and sitting on the mantelpiece of the new house they will move into.) With all the evidence in place, the causal chain that has led Arthur to this point is completed when he takes Doreen by the hand and the couple walk down the hill towards – you would imagine – their future life.

Straight lines and rigid readings

Using a causal template to account for the passage between Arthur's initial irresponsibility to the ‘conformity’ that closes the film is very attractive. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning appears to fit perfectly within the Bordwell/Hill causal model. After all, the film is concerned with a man who works in a factory and spends his working hours operating a lathe on the production-line. As we can see from the film's opening sequence, the repetitive nature of the many jobs on the shopfloor of the bicycle factory leaves very little room for self-expression of any kind. Arthur makes a point of comparing himself with other older (p.133) workers who, he says, have been ground down in a way that he means to avoid. As we watch it becomes apparent that Arthur is being paid per item he produces, and the process of counting the finished items, as well as counting down the amount left until he can finish for the day, makes his job as repetitive as any other. There is further evidence of this when the factory siren finally sounds for the end of the day.

The film cuts to a view of the factory from outside. The camera is positioned high above the ground and this position allows us to watch the workers leave. Men and women enter the frame from various points and slowly the frame begins to fill. The interest in this moment can be found in the direction taken by the workers, all moving in the same direction at the same time. This journey from work to home, like the one they make in reverse, from home to work, becomes a metaphor for the rigidity and repetition that governs their lives. In addition, this daily routine is characterised by a uniformity of direction, a linearity that is specific to a life structured in this way. This is certainly the case for Arthur. Our introduction to Arthur is accompanied by a voice-over in which he asserts his rebellious nature but, as we soon discover, Arthur enjoys the money too much to make a proper stand against the bastards trying to grind him down. Arthur's rebellion is limited to working well within himself so as not to be further exploited than he already is, getting as drunk as he possibly can on a Saturday night, sleeping with the wife of a colleague and shooting his nosy neighbour with an air-rifle. Seen this way, it is little wonder that the character's path across the narrative seems as linear as the production-line he works upon. As the film ends, the trajectory of Arthur's life can easily be defined in this way, with a straight line from work to marriage to buying a house to having children and watching television. Ultimately, then, the film's ending might easily be understood as Arthur being unable to break free from the straight lines of the rigid routine that have come to frame his life. This is the simplest way in which we might come to understand the film. As always, however, rigid readings are prone to problems.

In a separate discussion of film style, Bordwell and Thompson turn to the subject of framing. As they write:

Sometimes we are tempted to assign absolute meanings to angles, distances, and other qualities of framing. It is tempting to believe that framing from a low angle automatically ‘says’ that a character is powerful and that framing from a high angle presents him or her as dwarfed or defeated. Verbal analogies are especially seductive: A canted frame seems to mean that ‘the world is out of kilter.’24

If this was the case every time, they argue, ‘individual films would thereby lose much of their uniqueness and richness. The fact is that framings have no absolute or general meanings.’ As they continue:

(p.134) In some films, angles and distances carry such meanings as mentioned above, but in other films – probably most films – they do not. To rely on such formulas is to forget that meaning and effect always stem from the total film, from its operation as a system. The context of the film will determine the function of the framings, just as it determines the function of mise-en-scène, photographic qualities, and other techniques.25

Applying this discussion to the film's ending helps to cast considerable doubt upon the conclusions reached. Admittedly, the context of the film will determine the function of the framings but if the discussion of this film is to successfully emphasise its difference from the other New Wave films then the need is to avoid assigning absolute meanings to the qualities of framing here. This also means that following the causal line taken by Bordwell and Hill is not the best way to achieve this. However tempting it may be, the conclusions reached by such an approach are just too rigid and lack the flexibility to include the possibility that the film ends with an element of ambiguity.

Returning to the contextual-historical approach is one way in which we can start to break free from the rigid causal interpretation of the film. Aldgate's discussion of the film makes the claim for the film being open-ended. However, because Aldgate is unwilling to develop his investigation of the film by examining its mise-en-scène the strength of the claim for the film's ambiguity is significantly weakened. The principal reason for this is the lack of a personal engagement with the details of the film itself. Aldgate's discussion of the film's ending involves his considering the views of both the script writer and the director but it does fall short of engaging with the film's mise-en-scène. This would not matter apart from the fact that an engagement of this kind is supposed to be central to his approach. The contextual-historical approach appears to be as limited as the straight lines followed by Bordwell and Hill. The ‘containment’ of Arthur Seaton stands as a useful metaphor for certain tendencies in the history of British film criticism. Whether bound by an adherence to linearity, tightly framed by a discussion of context alone or, in the case of ‘The British Cinema’, simply rejected out of hand, the distance that exists between British film studies and the history of its cinema is still far wider than Richards believes. This is not to say that all is lost. Indeed, it is the very ambiguity that Aldgate's discussion touches on but does not explore that will reduce this distance.

Throwing stones

This sequence begins with the camera placed on the side of a hill overlooking a new housing estate. In the distance, on the right side of the frame, we can see a man and a woman walking down the hill. Though they are too far away for their faces to be visible it is their direction (p.135) which is the most interesting. The camera begins to move slowly to the left and as it does so the broad expanse of the estate is revealed. Following a minor positional adjustment, the camera comes to rest on Arthur and Doreen. Arthur's position within this initial composition places him half-in and half-out of the frame and hints at an uncertainty but this uncertainty is immediately dispelled by the subsequent tighter framings of Arthur. Now, however, I want to consider the range of Arthur's positions within the frame more carefully.

Doreen is keen to live in a house like the ones being built because she says so. Arthur is not so keen and his initial position can be used to strengthen this claim. However, this position is not maintained for the rest of the sequence. As Arthur stands up it is immediately followed by a much more conventional framing of the character, one that places him within its straight edges. This is where the sense of Arthur's containment comes from. This sense is heightened by the closer tighter shots that characterise their conversation and is apparently completed when Arthur takes Doreen's hand and they head off down the hill. Yet there is the possibility that the film's ending is not as tightly framed as we might think. The relationship between the characters’ positions in the frame and the unfolding of the narrative that has led us to this point is, in fact, coloured by a variety of subtle possibilities that prevents us from making any kind of absolute claims about this crucial part of the film.

Following their brief exchange about the age of the house that they would prefer to live in, Arthur stands up, and this action is interesting for three reasons. Firstly, and rather obviously, as he stands, the camera moves up with him. Secondly, more importantly, this double movement, of camera and of performer, frees Arthur from the frame he shared with Doreen. Thirdly, and most significantly, this reconfiguration of positions places Arthur clearly within the straight edges of the frame. But what are we meant to make of this? At this point the emphasis is now on Arthur's position within his world but care is needed when articulating this emphasis. Earlier, I suggested that this new framing denotes the moment at which Arthur's containment is signalled once and for all within the film. Now, however, bearing in mind the warning about using the frame to make statements about the character, I do not want to be so definitive.

A closer inspection of the composition here reveals that Arthur occupies the right-hand side and the rest of the frame is filled with a view of the estate behind him. The frame is divided equally between these two elements and this is what makes this moment so interesting. One reading of this would consider this a compositional ploy to effectively merge Arthur with his life-to-come by placing an equal emphasis on the character's initial position and the new position he will eventually move into. Alternatively, the arrangement says something about the weighing-up of options. Arthur is faced with choosing the path of responsibility (p.136) that leads down the hill, the path of irresponsibility that is likely to lead to more beatings and more domestic dramas or a further direction that will involve both of these paths somehow running in parallel. Either way, and this list is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, the film's manner and construction here is sufficiently interesting to allow the equal suspension of several (potentially conflicting) ways of viewing the film's ending. We should not be concerned with the accusations of subjectivity that might be levelled at this list. As Raymond Durgnat asks us to consider:

Suppose a film ends with the camera tracking back from the lovers embracing alone on the beach. This may mean ‘how tiny and unprotected they are’ or ‘how frail and futile their love’ or ‘the whole wide world is theirs’ or ‘this is the moment of destiny’ (for plan views can suggest a ‘God’s-eye-view’) or ‘Good-bye, good-bye’, depending on which emotions are floating about in the spectator's mind as a result of the rest of the film. Hence style is essentially a matter of intuition. There is no possibility whatsoever of an ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ analysis of film style – or of ‘film’ content. It is worse than useless to attempt to watch a film with one's intellect alone, trying to explain its effect in terms of one or two points of style. Few films yield any worthwhile meaning unless watched with a genuine interest in the range of feelings and meanings it suggests.26

Now let's continue by considering what Arthur does when he stands up.

The arc of flight

Having told Doreen how he and Bert, his cousin, used to play here when they were kids, Arthur turns to face the estate and throws a stone into the distance. Following existing logic, Arthur's action could be seen as the final act of defiance from a man who realises that it is time for him to start behaving more responsibly. This is certainly possible when we consider the way in which the following exchange between Doreen and Arthur is constructed:

  1. [1] Close shot of Doreen. She asks Arthur why he threw the stone.

  2. [2] Close shot of Arthur. The camera is positioned as if from Doreen's point of view.

  3. [3] Same as [1]. Doreen looks off screen and suggests that one of those houses might be theirs.

  4. [4] Same as [2]. Arthur tells her that he is not sure why he threw the stone.

  5. [5] Same as [1]. Doreen tells him that he should not throw things.

  6. [6] Same as [2]. Arthur looks down and tells Doreen that it will not be the last one he throws.

  7. [7] Same as [1]. Doreen silent.

  8. [8] Same as [2]. Arthur silent as well.

(p.137) The editing strategy here does seem to imply containment. As they discuss the possible trajectory of their future life together, the exchanges between the couple are tightly framed. Despite Arthur telling Doreen that it will not be the last stone he throws, this sequence, and the film, ends with him reaching down to take Doreen's hand and walking down the hill presumably towards their new life. Once again, however, this moment, like before, is weighted with more than one possibility. Consider, for example, the shared silence which concludes their conversation in shots 7 and 8.

If we consider this moment to signal nothing more than Arthur's defiance and Doreen's resignation that her life with him may contain other episodes of ‘stone-throwing’ then this at least starts to free our reading from the earlier linearity. This shared silence implies an acknowledgement of the future struggle for (a kind of) independence within the confines of a highly structured life. It also signals a shared uncertainty about the way their lives will unfold. One further idea is that both Arthur and Doreen, for similar or different reasons, are lost for words. This moment indicates an equal split between the contradictory desires of settling down and remaining independent and this is because there is an interesting connection between the shared silence and Arthur's throwing a stone. This action can be seen as a simple act of defiance. As Arthur tells Doreen, it will not be the last one he throws. This is certainly in keeping with the way Arthur's character is presented, especially through the monologue that opens the film, when he talks about not letting anyone grind him down. We might see it as something less advanced than making a stand. It could just be an act of mindless vandalism, exactly the sort of thing that someone frustrated might do when they lack the opportunity for adequate personal expression. (This would connect Arthur's action here with his earlier shooting of Mrs Bullock.) Both indicate a willingness to lash out at the world without properly considering the consequences. Doreen sees it this way when she tells him that he should not do things like that, especially as one of the houses he aims at might be theirs one day. This view is also reinforced by Arthur's inability to say why he did it. As before, this act can be read in more than one way. Arthur's stone-throwing has a further connection with ideas of self-expression, of wishing for something or hoping that something might happen, even if it is not clear what this something might be. For a better understanding of this idea we need to consider another example of the same act from a different film.

In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey finds himself in a similar position to Arthur. Caught between his girlfriend's desire to settle down and his own desire to remain independent, George stops outside a deserted house and throws a stone. This action, as he tells Mary (Donna Reed), also requires you to make a wish. We know by this point in the film that George is desperate not to follow the pre-ordained path that will see him (p.138) inherit his father's business and remain in his home town. Thus, his throwing a stone is accompanied by the wish that he will leave home and see the world. In this example, and unlike Doreen, Mary also throws a stone and makes her own wish.

The significance of Mary's action is that she keeps her silence when George asks her what she wished for. Despite this, it is made quite clear that she wishes for George to stay where he is so that the two of them can settle down together. The connection between these two films cannot be pursued too strenuously but I am interested in the idea that the narrative of Capra's film, like Reisz’s, appears to direct its central character through a series of events which culminate in his containment. Admittedly, the character of Arthur appears to have more control over events than George. Nevertheless, the limits of the life he leads, irrespective of brief acts of rebellion, ensure that, ultimately, Arthur's life has a similar feel to George Bailey’s. Further, and though the point is made more explicitly in Capra's film, George, like Arthur, appears caught between two conflicting desires. Though Arthur has never suggested that he wants to leave Nottingham in order to better himself, he is caught between the desire for an independent life, to whatever degree, and the kind of domestic life that would accompany settling down with Doreen. Though he does not actively make a wish when he throws his stone I still want to emphasise the ambiguity of this action. Even Arthur is not sure why he acts this way but it is this lack of clarity that allows us to give his action more than one interpretation. This ambiguity is the same one that Aldgate highlighted in his discussion but, rather than just agree with Aldgate, it is important to understand the way in which this ambiguity is related to the film's manner and meaning.

On each occasion, the moment in question defies a singular reading by allowing a variety of interpretations to circulate in place simultaneously. Rather than following the kind of singular linear route that charts the passage from Arthur's rebelliousness to his finally accepting responsibility, this is only one of several co-existing possibilities. The alleged linearity of Arthur's trajectory across the narrative might be better described as having a more circular sense, and this is derived from the various possibilities that happen to orbit each moment. Interestingly, as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, the life of a man ‘is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles’. Inherent in this idea is the possibility of different outcomes. As Emerson explains:

The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul. For, it is the inert effort of each thought having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance – as, for instance, an empire, rules of an art, a local usage, a religious rite, – to heap itself upon that ridge, and to solidify, and hem in the life.27

(p.139) The question here is one of perspective but I am happy to propose that the words of a nineteenth-century American Transcendentalist can help to shed light on two days in the life of a Nottingham factory worker.28 As Joel Porte explains:

Emerson, as he himself frequently insisted, is fundamentally a poet whose meaning lies in his manipulation of language and figure. The best guide to change, or growth, or consistency in Emerson's thought, is his poetic imagination and not his philosophic arguments or discursive logic. The alert reader can discover, and take much pleasure in discovering, remarkable verbal strategies, metaphoric repetitions and developments of sound, sense, and image throughout Emerson's writing.29

And Porte's words here, with his talk of developments and repetitions, are perfectly in keeping with the type of style-based criticism that should be applied to films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. This makes the act of stone-throwing a suggestion, whether conscious or not, that the straight edges of the frame need not be as rigid as they would appear. This reading stands in stark contrast to the tight framing of the character, and this contrast hints at a dramatic tension that sits at the heart of this film. This, in turn, following Robin Wood, suggests a broader tension that can be said to exist between matters of ideology, theories of genre and questions of authorship.

It is the interaction of these three things which, for Wood, determines a richness and density of meaning. Wood is concerned with what he calls ‘the great Hollywood masterpieces’ and the films he discusses are Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and It's a Wonderful Life. Nevertheless, he is keen to juxtapose films of ‘comparable stature but of very different authorial and generic determination’ in order ‘to raise other and wider issues’. Capra's film bears sufficient comparison with Reisz's to allow this idea of juxtaposition to be entertained. As Wood continues:

I want to stress here the desirability for the critic – whose aim should always be to see the work, as wholly as possible, as it is – to be able to draw on the discoveries and particular perceptions of each theory, each position, without committing himself exclusively to any one. The ideal will not be easy to attain, and even the attempt raises all kinds of problems, the chief of which is the validity of evaluative criteria that are not supported by a particular system.30

Certainly, the arc of flight of Arthur's stone ensures that it lands beyond the frame and this becomes a metaphor for the ongoing project of rethinking British cinema. As a correlation, close attention to the film's detail becomes one way in which we might break free from the rigidity of existing trends in British film criticism. It is only by relating pertinent moments of individual detail to broader questions of interpretation, (p.140) meaning and the process of criticism itself that we can begin to redefine the straight-lined frames and rigid templates of history, the cocoon of context and the limits of existing critical approaches to British films. This is essential if we are to narrow the gap between (British) film studies and (its) cinema history.


(1) Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited, London, Faber and Faber, 1989, p. 43.

(2) William James quoted in Stephen C. Rowe, The Vision of James, Rockport, MA, Element, 1996, p. 51.

(3) Maya Deren, ‘Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality’, in Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy (eds), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, fourth edition, New York, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 59–70, p. 69.

(4) John Hill, Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956–1963, London, BFI Publishing, 1986, pp. 54–57.

(5) David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, fourth edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993, p. 82.

(6) David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, London, Routledge, 1985, p. 157.

(7) Douglas Pye, ‘Bordwell and Hollywood’, Movie, 33 (Winter 1989), pp. 46– 52, p. 46. Janet Staiger was the third person involved in the writing of The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, London, Routledge, 1985.

(8) Pye, ‘Bordwell and Hollywood’, p. 47.

(9) Ibid., p. 52.

(10) Elizabeth Cowie, ‘Storytelling: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Classical Narrative’, in Steve Neale and Murray Smith (eds), Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, London and New York, Routledge, 1998, pp. 178–190, p. 178.

(11) Hill, Sex, Class and Realism, p. 177.

(12) Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate, Best of British: Cinema and Society 1930–1970, Oxford, Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited, 1983, p. 6.

(13) Ibid., p. 8.

(14) Ibid., p. 14.

(15) Ibid., p. 140.

(16) Ibid., p. 141.

(17) As Aldgate explains: ‘In fairness to Reisz it should be said that by [1985, when Alexander Walker's National Heroes was first published] he was no longer “too keen” on the stone-throwing ending to the film. But if it was a “feeling of frustration” he was looking for as he was directing the film's final scenes, then he had certainly created that and a lot more besides. He had invested them with ambiguity and confusion.’ Aldgate also highlights a further ambiguity over the film's handling of Brenda's abortion. As he continues: ‘As with the stone-throwing end of the film, the question of Brenda's pregnancy was left unresolved. Sillitoe's original intent was (p.141) changed, and considerable confusion was generated as a result. In production integrity gave way to expediency, and clarity of purpose was rendered obscure.’ (Brenda, played by Rachel Roberts, is the wife of one of Arthur's colleagues, Jack (Bryan Pringle), and falls pregnant while having an affair with Arthur.) Notwithstanding this potential obscurity, Aldgate is led to conclude: ‘Without doubt, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning presented a faithful and realistic picture of an industrial working-class environment in a way that had rarely been evident in the British cinema before. It fully acknowledged the presence of sexuality and violence in the world it depicted and carefully detailed some of the changes that new-found affluence had wrought among the working-class in this country … In many ways, then, the film was indeed a film of 1960, and it was imbued with much of the spirit and vision that permeated the cultural revolution of its day. The times had changed, and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning reflected a good many of the changes and developments. Yet its vision was by no means unbounded or untrammelled; it was appropriately compromised from the start – the traditional dictates of the film-making process saw to that. To place the film in its context is to appreciate that in some respects the revolution had only just begun’ (ibid., pp. 142–143). See also Alexander Walker, National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties, London, Harrap, 1985.

(18) Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate, Best of British: Cinema and Society 1930–1970, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999, p. 235.

(19) Jeffrey Richards, ‘Rethinking British Cinema’, in Justine Ashby and Andrew Higson (eds), British Cinema, Past and Present, London and New York, Routledge, 2000, pp. 21–34, p. 21.

(20) Ibid., pp. 21–22.

(21) Ibid., p. 22.

(22) Ibid., p. 22.

(23) Ibid., p. 25.

(24) Bordwell and Thompson, Film Art, p. 213.

(25) Ibid., pp. 213–214.

(26) Raymond Durgnat, Durgnat on Film, London, Faber and Faber, 1976, p. 27. This process is also aided by the film's manner which as Alan Lovell explains, almost constitutes an ‘anti-style’. For Lovell, ‘the camera does only enough work to tell the story as simply and directly as possible. Because of this the audience is encouraged to make judgements for itself’ (Alan Lovell, ‘Film Chronicle’, New Left Review, 7 (January–February 1961), pp. 52–53, p. 52).

(27) Emerson's Prose and Poetry, selected and edited by Joel Porte and Saundra Morris, London, W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 175.

(28) As Emerson famously wrote elsewhere: ‘We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them. Under the oldest moldiest conventions, a man of native force prospers just as well as in the newest world, and that by skill of handling and treatment. He can take hold anywhere. Life itself is a mixture of power and form, and will not bear the least excess of either. To finish the moment, to find the journey's end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom. It is not the part of men, (p.142) but of fanatics, or of mathematicians, if you will, to say, that, the shortness of life considered, it is not worth caring whether for so short a duration we were sprawling in want, or sitting high. Since our office is with moments, let us husband them’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Experience’, in Self-Reliance and Other Essays, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1993, p. 90).

(29) Joel Porte, ‘The Problem of Emerson’, in Porte and Morris, Emerson's Prose and Poetry, pp. 679–697, p. 685.

(30) Wood, pp. 288–289.