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Birthday Tribute: Albert Finney's Finest

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This piece is aimed not only at buffs who already recognize the genius of Albert Finney in the full context of a fifty-plus year career (!), but also at those (likely younger) movie fans who know him best as the father in Sidney Lumet's final film, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) or the ultimate insider bad guy in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007).

For this latter audience in particular, a rich and rewarding voyage of discovery awaits.

This month, the British-born Finney turned seventy-five. Little fanfare attended the milestone, but don't believe for a minute he didn't want it this way. You see, Finney cares a great deal about his work, but very little about publicity. Nominated five times for an Oscar, he has never once attended the ceremony. Given a knighthood over a decade ago, he would probably grimace if addressed as "Sir Albert." He has never forgotten his Manchester working-class roots as the son of a bookie.

A graduate of RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), the young actor cut his teeth in the fifties performing at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (later the Royal Shakespeare Company). Finney's prodigious raw talent was quickly noted, and no less a light than Charles Laughton took the fiery, charismatic young actor under his wing.

Fame seemed assured -- and was.

The movie public's first prolonged exposure to the Finney phenomenon took place just a few years later in Karel Reisz's gritty Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Another top entry in a series of British working-class dramas then in vogue, Reisz's film launched Finney to prominence (after a promising debut the same year in Tony Richardson's The Entertainer). Here Finney portrays Arthur Seaton, a small-town factory worker whose dreary job makes him live for wild, debauched weekends. He regularly beds his co-worker's wife, Brenda (Rachel Roberts), but then falls for Doreen (Shirley Ann Field), a proud young woman who demands a commitment Arthur can't bring himself to make. Drowning five days of stagnation in one night's revelry, Arthur is the quintessential angry young man, going nowhere but not letting himself care. Finney is magnetic in the lead, and both Roberts and Field make compelling love interests.

After turning down the starring role in Lawrence Of Arabia (the role would have required him to sign a long-term contract), Finney would cement his stardom in Tony Richardson's Oscar-winning Tom Jones (1963). Based on Henry Fielding's book, Tom (Finney) is an orphan adopted by a wealthy squire in eighteenth century Britain. In young adulthood, Tom's good looks and lusty nature fuel an irresistible attraction to the opposite sex. With various parties set against him due to his humble birth and shaky morals, Tom can't win the approval of Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) to marry daughter Sophie (Susannah York). Soon Tom leaves home to seek his fortune, and a host of bawdy adventures ensue. But will our hero ever be found worthy of Sophie? Tom Jones boasts a fast-paced screenplay by John Osborne, fueled by a zippy harpsichord score, and game performances from Griffith, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, and a young David Warner. York (who sadly passed away earlier this year) is the picture of fair English beauty here, and Finney carries off the central role with gusto.

In Stanley Donen's chic, scenic romance Two For The Road (1967), the ups and downs of matrimony are deftly explored via vacations past and present in the lives of affluent couple Mark and Joanna Wallace (Finney and Audrey Hepburn). We see the bloom of early romance recede as the two adjust to new life priorities, and struggle to maintain their intimacy and affection. This smart, knowing film showcases Hepburn as the epitome of sixties chic (check out those Givenchy styles), with Finney an ideal counterpoint as the salty, rugged Mark. Swank European locales and a memorable Henry Mancini score add requisite zing to this mature, nuanced love story. William Daniels (Dustin Hoffman's dad in The Graduate) and Eleanor Bron are also memorable as another married couple with a child from hell, who unwittingly cause Joanna and Mark to examine their own union.

Next, in Sidney Lumet's flavorful rendering of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express (1974), an unrecognizable Finney is transformed into renowned Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. When a much despised financier (Richard Widmark) is murdered on the famous train-line, every passenger is a suspect in the eyes of the punctilious Poirot. With the train stalled between Istanbul and Paris, he begins to question the motley group, and gradually uncovers the most unlikely of culprits. Beyond Finney's astonishing portrayal, the fun of this whodunit comes from the colorful assortment of characters he interrogates, played by the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Wendy Hiller, and John Gielgud (among others). Packed with period charm, Murder should be nirvana for any mystery lover.

In the early 80s, the actor would latch on to another juicy character role opposite fellow Brit Tom Courtenay in Peter Yates's The Dresser (1983). Finney plays an aging Shakespearean actor performing King Lear with his troupe in the English provinces as German bombs drop during the Blitz. The wartime buffeting of Britain mirrors the physical and mental collapse of this weary thespian, who has performed Lear over two hundred times but now can't remember the opening lines. Courtenay is every bit Finney's equal as Norman, the actor's intensely loyal, long-suffering "dresser," and the only person who can get "Sir" on-stage for each performance. The torturous preparation process is indeed an act of love, as Norman still basks in the reflected glow of this distinguished player, even as the man himself crumbles from within. Anchored by two unforgettable lead performances, the gifted Eileen Atkins also resonates as Madge, the company's spinsterish stage manager whose quiet love for "Sir" has always competed with Norman's, and like his, entailed enormous sacrifice.

The following year, Finney would team with legendary director John Huston for one of his darkest, meatiest roles in Under The Volcano. Set in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a hopelessly alcoholic diplomat (Finney) is willfully drinking himself to death, rebuffing the efforts of his younger brother (Anthony Andrews) and his estranged wife (Jacqueline Bisset) to rescue him from the abyss. Huston and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa imbue the film with a redolent sense of place and creeping destiny, and Finney radiates unspeakable pain and torment in a difficult but unforgettable role. (Volcano also boasts a first-rate release and rendering by the prestigious Criterion Collection.)

Next comes the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990), a worthy tribute to the gangster genre perfected by the brothers Warner in the 1930s. Leo O'Bannion (Finney) is a crime boss with a big problem: his girlfriend's brother Bernie (a slimy John Turturro) has cheated the head of the rival Italian gang, who wants Bernie dead. Leo lets his love for Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) interfere with his business sense, and resolves to protect Bernie, even if it means starting a war. This decision, along with other complications, puts Leo's trusted lieutenant Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) on the outs with his mentor, but Tom steadily works to put things right behind the scenes. Evocative, clever and beautifully played, Crossing is an under-rated gem, with a nicely mellowing Finney setting the standard which the younger performers are inspired to follow.

In 2002, with Albert Finney at retirement age, he would do anything but retire, much like Winston Churchill, the outsize, inexhaustible statesman he so expertly portrays in HBO's The Gathering Storm. Richard Loncraine's sterling film focuses on Churchill's time in the wilderness between the two World Wars, when his warnings of Nazi intentions were dismissed as the rantings of a war mongering has-been. Storm deftly blends the drama of a brilliant but isolated figure whose prescience will usher in a glorious second act, with a tender portrayal of Winston's child-like love for wife Clementine (Vanessa Redgrave). Notwithstanding solid support from Jim Broadbent, Linus Roache, and Sir Derek Jacobi (as Churchill's nemesis Stanley Baldwin), ultimately the film is elevated by the chemistry generated between its two evergreen stars. With Finney, we witness a truly great actor stepping into the shoes of a truly great man-and no surprise, the fit is perfect.

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