“Despite being one of the finest actors of his generation, Peter Finch will be remembered as much for his reputation as a hard-drinking, hell-raising womaniser as for his performances on the screen”, begins Finch’s biography details on his imdb page. Finch is perhaps now best remembered for his barnstorming turn as Howard Beale “the mad prophet of the airwaves” in Sidney Lumet’s NETWORK, for which he won the best actor Oscar in 1977, the only one to be awarded posthumously – though that may change if, as predicted, Heath Ledger wins this year.
Finch was actually born in London in 1912 but moved to Australia where he gradually got into acting. Discovered by the Oliviers during their tour of Australia in 1948 he returned to London with them, under contract to Olivier. One of the pleasures of watching English movies of the '50s is seeing him working his way up to becoming one of the most interesting leading men around.
Early roles included the Sheriff in ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN (’52) and the arch-villain in FATHER BROWN in 1954, Alec Guinness being the detective priest of the title. ELEPHANT WALK (left) teamed him with Elizabeth Taylor, a replacement for Vivien Leigh who had began the film but had suffered a breakdown. Finch had inevitably become involved with Leigh, as he did with Kay Kendall [before she met Rex Harrison] with whom he appeared in the 1955 comedy SIMON AND LAURA, a still funny satire on a famous theatrical couple (shades of the Oliviers perhaps) venturing into a tv sit-com. Its so perfectly mid-50s Rank Organisation fare with those great supporting players of the time.
A TOWN LIKE ALICE in 1956 cemented his reputation, as did war films like BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE, and films set in Australia like THE SHIRALEE (about an itinerant drover and his child). A childhood memory is being taken to see ROBBERY UNDER ARMS in 1958, almost a western about outlaws in the early days of Australia – exciting stuff.
THE NUN’S STORY in 1959 remains a timeless classic well-crafted by Zinnemann and was an enormous hit at the time, his role as Dr Fortunati being a perfect foil for Audrey Hepburn’s Sister Luke, as they work in the Congo hospital. Like Edith Evans’s mother superior it is a small but pivotal role.
This was followed by perhaps his most important role at the time: Oscar in THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE, a fascinating and intelligent working of the Wilde story and for a movie made in 1960 about as frank as it could be. Finch was a magnificent Wilde capturing the facets of the writer knowingly facing his destiny, and winning a BAFTA award. Yvonne Mitchell was the perfect Constance, and John Fraser as petulant a Bosie as Jude Law in the 90s Stephen Fry film. There was another version of the Wilde story made at the same time in 1960 with Robert Morley (playing Wilde as Robert Morley), but the Finch version directed by Ken Hughes won hands down, with handsome period detail. James Mason and Nigel Patrick shone as opposing barristers and Lionel Jeffries was a malevolent Marquis of Queensbury. The film still holds up perfectly today.
This was followed by another one set in Africa THE SINS OF RACHEL CADE in 1961 where Angie Dickinson is the missionary with a mission. Having seen this for the first time this week it was quite engrossing with Finch as ever providing solid support as the French Colonel. There was also an Alan Breck in a Disney KIDNAPPED, and a gritty English political film NO LOVE FOR JOHNNIE directed by Ralph Thomas with Finch as the labour politician compromising his values, the excellent cast included Billie Whitelaw and Stanley Holloway.
Some solid leading roles followed as Finch was breaking into American films, mostly set in Europe: I have not seen IN THE COOL OF THE DAY with Angela Lansbury and a young Jane Fonda, but I THANK A FOOL with Susan Hayward set partly in Liverpool and in Ireland is certainly an oddity where Hayward is a doctor convicted of a mercy killing by judge Finch who then hires her when she comes out of prison to look after his mentally disturbed wife, with inevitable results…
Two good ones followed: Jack Clayton’s THE PUMPKIN EATER in 1964 where he is Anne Bancroft’s husband growing exasperated with her constant child-bearing and involved with a young Maggie Smith. It was played intensely by all concerned, including James Mason as a very annoyed husband. Bancroft does a harrowing breakdown in Harrods store, and there is that delicious scene with her and Maggie Smith as Philpot, script by Harold Pinter and Penelope Mortimer, from her novel.
THE GIRL WITH GREEN EYES is a lyrical Woodfall film, also 1964, from Edna O’Brien’s novel where he is the mature man getting involved with young Rita Tushingham. For anyone Irish the early 60s Irish background is perfectly captured, Lynn Redgrave is her more out-going friend Baba and its all perfectly realised including that bittersweet ending when the girls leave on the ferry for a new life in England (as I did myself at that time).
THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX was a solid Robert Aldrich film in 1965, then two more European ones: with Melina Mercouri and Romy Schneider in Dassin’s 10.30 PM SUMMER, trying to put Marguerite Duras’s world of the indolent rich travelling around Spain on screen (Pauline Kael was particularly rich on it..) and JUDITH (above) with Sophia Loren which should have been good but was so forgettable I cannot remember anything about it despite liking the 3 leads (Jack Hawkins was also involved).
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD was another popular and critical success in 1967 as Schlesinger captured Thomas Hardy with Julie Christie as Bathsheba (perhaps too modern to be a convincing Victorian), Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak and Terence Stamp as the dashing Captain Troy. Finch is Farmer Boldwood and the pastoral scene is idealised in Nicholas Roeg’s photography. It’s an enduring great version of a great book. THE RED TENT in 1969 is another polyglot effort I have not seen, with Connery and Cardinale leading the international cast, and another Robert Aldrich – the little seen THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE with Kim Novak – is an interesting oddity. I have not seen it but have just got a copy, so it should be fascinating viewing.
Then came SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY in 1971, Schlesinger’s enduring film about a particular slice of London society, the intelligentsia and how they spend their Sundays, as devised by writer Penelope Gilliatt. Finch excels himself as Dr Daniel Hirsch, the Jewish doctor in love with young artist Murray Head, as is Glenda Jackson in one of her most sympathetic roles as the career woman realising her romance is not going anywhere. Their backgrounds are carefully shown while we do not learn much about the young artist – in fact the puzzle is why would two such well rounded people bother with someone so shallow. Finch has a great scene at the all night chemist watching the addicts waiting for their fixes after meeting a previous pickup of his, Jon Finch, while Glenda grimaces as she drinks instant coffee made from the hot water tap and grinds cigarette ash into the carpet as she is left with the toucan. Finch who replaced Ian Bannen in the role should really have won every award going [as should have Bogarde the previous year for DEATH IN VENICE] if only for that speech to the camera at the end, but it was Gene Hackman’s year. IMDB has quite a lot on its making and that famous gay kiss in its material about the film. Like Losey's THE GO-BETWEEN it was one of the year's must-sees.
Some routine films followed: with Shelley Winters in the forgettable SOMETHING TO HIDE, with Glenda again in BEQUEST TO THE NATION (he is Nelson to her Lady Hamilton), Graham Greene’s ENGLAND MADE ME, and with Liv Ullmann in the little seen THE ABDICATION continuing the story of Queen Christina. He was with Ullmann again in the widely derided musical remake of LOST HORIZON in 1973 – again Pauline Kael was particularly amusing writing about it, and as Bette Midler said “I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical”. Filmed in Burbank for Ross Hunter it gave bland a whole new dimension.
Then came NETWORK in 1976 with Finch as Howard Beale holding his own with William Holden and Faye Dunaway in this satire on television ratings by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Lumet. An enduring key 70s film which Finch followed with a tv film RAID ON ENTEBBE. 1976 was really Robert De Niro’s breakthrough year with TAXI DRIVER, so the award nominations were particularly interesting that year. Finch of course was nominated but died suddenly in January 1977 - he was 65 and happily married for the third time - and was the best actor winner that year. His widow accepted the award on his behalf.
It’s a great career of highs and not many lows by one of the most charismatic leading men of his time. Like Dirk Bogarde and James Mason he certainly took risks others wouldn’t have and remains a fascinating figure. I would say THE NUN'S STORY, THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE, SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY and NETWORK are his best work which will certainly endure. Finchie too got to work with a lot of ladies we like from Kay and Liz to Julie and Romy and Susan and Faye, Audrey, Sophia, Melina, and Dames Glenda and Bancroft ....