Stop that train: R.I.P. Albert Finney

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 9, 2019)

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Albert Finney died yesterday, and more people should have cared. I almost missed it myself, which is odd considering how much time I fritter and waste in an offhand way online these days. It didn’t even trend on Twitter, for fuck’s sake. No, I learned of his passing the old-fashioned way: a perfunctory mention on a nightly network TV newscast.

A file photo of Finney popped up (rarely a good sign), and the blow-dried anchor mustered all the teleprompter-fed solemnity extant in his soul to sadly inform me that “the actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the movie version of Annie has died” before moving on to “a video you have got to see”. The actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the film version of Annie? Really? That’s all you got? I wouldn’t call that his most memorable performance; I wouldn’t even consider Annie to be a particularly good movie.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre-trained Finney’s film career spanned over 50 years, and in the course of that time he proved over and over that he had chops to spare for both drama and comedy. Innately charismatic onscreen, he could effortlessly hold your attention as the dashing leading man, or just as easily embed himself into a character role.

Finney never strayed too far from his working-class roots in his off-screen demeanor. He shunned interviews and the trappings of stardom; he was all about the work. He declined the offer of a CBE (as well as a knighthood) and once compared an actor’s job to that of a bricklayer. So let’s get to work here, shall we? My picks for Finney’s top 10 film roles…

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The Dresser– Peter Yates directed this tale of a fiercely devoted “dresser” (Tom Courtenay) who tends to the mercurial lead player (Finney) of a traveling company’s production of King Lear. The story is set against the backdrop of London during the blitz, but it’s a tossup as to who is producing more Sturm and Drang…the German bombers, the raging king, or the backstage terror who portrays him and is to be addressed by all as “Sir”. Courtenay and Finney deliver brilliant performances. Ronald Harwood adapted the script from his own play. In the most memorable scene, Sir literally halts a locomotive in its tracks at a noisy railway station with his commanding bellow to “STOP. That. Train!”

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Gumshoe– This relatively obscure U.K. gem from 1971 was produced by Finney and marked the feature film directing debut for Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, High Fidelity, et. al.). Finney is wonderful as an emcee who works in a seedy Liverpool nightclub and models himself after Philip Marlowe. He decides to indulge his long-time fantasy of becoming a private detective by placing a newspaper ad offering his services-and gets more than he bargains for with his first case.

Screenwriter Neville Smith’s clever dialog is infused with just enough shadings of Chandler and Hammet to deflect suspicion of plagiarism (and Finney thankfully doesn’t overdo his Bogey impression-which isn’t half-bad). Nice supporting turn from Billie Whitelaw, and Frears’ use of the gritty Liverpool milieu lends an appropriate “noir” vibe.

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Miller’s Crossing– This 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen. Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (who is the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace by playing both sides against the middle. This form of diplomacy does carry a certain degree of personal risk (don’t try this at home).

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of twisty performances, stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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Orphans– There is sometimes a fine line between “intense drama” and “overcooked ham”, and while I will admit that this 1987 Alan J. Pakula adaptation of Lyle Kessler’s stage play toddles dangerously close to that line, it is still well worth your time.

Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson are two fringe-dwelling brothers who live on their own in a decrepit house. Finney is a low-rent Chicago gangster who gets blotto at a New Jersey bar, and upon waking up discovers he’s been “kidnapped” by Modine, who has a hold over his brother reminiscent of the dynamic between the sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The story becomes even stranger when Finney decides then and there to move in and impose himself as a father figure. It’s a bit ‘stagey’, but the acting is superb.

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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning– This 1960 Karel Reisz drama gave the 24-year-old Finney his first major starring role and is one of the seminal entries of the “British New Wave” film movement. Finney delivers an explosive Brando-esque performance as a womanizing young man stuck in a dreary factory job. Allen Sillitoe adapted the screenplay from his own novel. A gritty slice of life steeped in “kitchen sink” realism.

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Shoot the Moon– Be forewarned: Alan Parker’s 1982 drama about the deterioration of a marriage pulls no punches (it is right out as a “date night” movie). Finney co-stars with Diane Keaton as a couple with four kids whose marriage is about to go kaput. As in Kramer vs. Kramer, the film essentially opens with the split, and then focuses on the immediate emotional aftershocks and its profound impact on all family members.

Absolutely heartbreaking, but beautifully acted by a skilled cast that includes Karen Allen, Peter Weller, and Dana Hill. Bo Goldman scripted, and Michael Seresin’s cinematography is lovely (the Marin County environs almost becomes a character itself).

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Tom Jones– The film that made Finney an international star, Tony Richardson’s 1963 romantic comedy-drama is based on the Henry Fielding novel about the eponymous character’s amorous exploits in 18th-Century England.

Tom (Finney) is raised as the bastard son of a prosperous squire. He is a bit on the rakish side, but wholly lovable and possesses a good heart. It’s the “lovable” part that gets him in trouble time and again, and fate and circumstance put young Tom on the road, where various duplicitous parties await to prey upon his naivety. Will he triumph? Of course, he will…the entertainment lies in how he gets there.

John Osborne adapted the Oscar-winning script; the film also won for Best Picture, Director, and Music Score (Finney was nominated for Best Actor).

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Two For the Road– Director Stanley Donen’s 1967 romantic comedy is a cinematic soufflé; folding in a sophisticated script by Frederick Raphael, a generous helping of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, a dash of colorful European locales, and topping it with a cherry of a score by Henry Mancini.

Donen follows the travails of a married couple over the years of their relationship, by constructing a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards (a structural device that has been utilized since by other filmmakers, but rarely as effectively). While there are a lot of laughs, Two For the Road is, at its heart, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and true commitment. Finney and Hepburn (both at the peak of their sex appeal) exude an electric on-screen chemistry.

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Under the Volcano– John Huston’s masterful 1984 adaptation of Michael Lowry’s novel stars Finney as a self-destructive British consul stationed in Mexico on the eve of WW2. The story tracks the consul on the last day of his life, as it unfolds during Dia de los Muertas celebrations (the irony is strong in this tale). Very dark and steeped in dread. Superb performances all round from a cast that includes Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews and Katy Jurado. Guy Gallo wrote the script. My favorite Finney performance.

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Wolfen– This 1981 supernatural thriller from director Michael Wadleigh generated mixed reviews, but I think it has held up rather well. Sort of a thinking person’s horror film, it follows a NYPD homicide detective (Finney) and his partner (Gregory Hines) as they investigate a series of grisly murders. The victims’ wounds indicate something much akin to a wild animal attack. Add elements of ancient Native American legends regarding “shapeshifters” and things get…interesting. Granted, some of the early 80s visual effects haven’t aged well, but overall Wolfen is a smart, absorbing, and genuinely creepy chiller.

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