Karel Reisz (1926–2002) was a Czech Jewish child rescued from the Nazis before World War II. Although his parents died in Auschwitz, Reisz (who spoke no English when he was brought to Britain) wound up serving in the Royal Air Force before the war ended. He, along with Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, and Gavin Lambert (all of whom we will be featuring in upcoming months), became a film critic and director; among the results of their labors were Sequence magazine and the Free Cinema movement. There was a kinship between their early work and the “kitchen sink” stage dramas of John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Shelagh Delaney, Keith Waterhouse, and others, many of which these directors adapted to film. These works reflected a realism appropriate to an England that had lost its empire, was struggling to recover from a depression sandwiched between two devastating world wars, and was in the midst of slowly restructuring of its ancient class system. Before Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Reisz directed three documentaries: Momma Don’t Allow (co-directed with Richardson), We Are the Lambeth Boys, and March to Aldermaston. His later work (Night Must Fall, Morgan!, Isadora, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) was more diverse and provided major roles for superstars like Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep (both of whom came to a memorial for Reisz at MoMA a decade ago).
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning retains a documentary quality, but Reisz was extraordinarily fortunate to have Albert Finney in his first major role, and just prior to his signature performance in Richardson’s Oscar-winning Tom Jones. (Finney had had a small part in Richardson’s The Entertainer, written by Osborne and starring Laurence Olivier. In some sense, Finney wound up replacing Olivier as the most durable British actor of his time). Finney brings an earthiness and naturalness to the role. In spite of his Shakespearean training, he retained enough provincial simplicity and rustic charm from his boyhood Manchester days to make him credible as the angry young man of Alan Sillitoe’s script. The other performances in the film are uniformly good for a first-time director, especially Shirley Anne Field and Rachel Roberts, who was shortly to appear in Lindsay Anderson’s debut feature, This Sporting Life.
The British Realist school of the early 1960s, starting with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, paralleled to some degree the New Wave in France. Both movements were led by young critics-turned-filmmakers trying to be different. Although Jean-Luc Godard was ostensibly critical of bourgeois politics, he, like his fellows, seemed even more concerned with disowning the French cinematic traditions, venerating Hollywood, and shattering the rules of filmmaking. The Brits seemed to take a more academic approach, calculated to depict a troubled society in rather drab black-and-white actuality. The movement was relatively brief, mostly replaced by the mid-1960s with upbeat and inventive directors estranged from their native America: Joseph Losey, Stanley Kubrick, and Richard Lester. Reisz, like most of his compatriots, eventually became more Hollywood-ized with romantic star vehicles like Isadora and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Andrew Sarris, who classified Reisz’s style as “strained seriousness,” comments on the director’s film Morgan! thusly: “Karel Reisz’s academically metaphorical montage tends to detach him from any emotional involvement with his characters, whom he exploits more than he expands.” There is, indeed, a sense in his films, individually good as they may be on some levels, that Reisz seems to have no compelling reason to make them, no great theme or intrinsic style. Perhaps indicatively, he only made two films in the last 20 years of his life.