Who is the Macbeth-est of them all?


© A24 / IAC Films / Apple TV+


I recently watched The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), directed by Joel Cohen (without, for the first time ever, his brother Ethan co-directing) and starring Denzel Washington as William Shakespeare’s king-stabbing, crown-grabbing Scotsman.  Meanwhile, in the role of Macbeth’s spouse, the ruthless Lady Macbeth, is Cohen’s real-life spouse Frances McDormand.  It’s difficult to sum up my reaction to the film. I suppose you could say: liked it… stopped liking it… started liking it again.


The opening sequence, the aftermath of the battle between Scotland and the combined armies of Ireland and Norway, takes place on a beach.  Thanks to Bruno Delbonnel’s monochrome cinematography, it’s palely, clammily and impressively atmospheric.  Mind you, within a couple of minutes of hearing the performers’ accents – Ralph Ineson speaking broad Yorkshire, Harry Melling speaking broad RP and Brendan Gleason speaking broad Irish – you realise this isn’t going to be a particularly Scottish take on the Scottish play.


Enter Washington’s Macbeth, speaking broad American, and Bertie Carvel’s Banquo. They encounter the Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter) and hear their fateful prophecies.  Soon after, the prophecies start coming true as Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor thanks to his valour during the battle.  And the plot – literally a plot, with Washington and McDormand conspiring to kill Gleason’s King Duncan and seize the Scottish throne – is underway.


So, for me, the film gets off to a strong start.  I went off it, however, when the action relocates to Macbeth’s castle, where Duncan spends the night as a guest, and we get the build-up, execution and aftermath of his murder.  Ironically, this was because of something many critics have praised the film for, its stylised sets and lighting, which give the castle’s interior the look of a perspective-bending M.C. Escher illustration, shot in the manner of a German expressionist silent movie or a 1940s American film noir.


My problem was that the shafts of stark white light (necessary to produce the black shadows elsewhere) and the sense of silence, stillness and solidity evoked by the sets make a nonsense of Shakespeare’s theme that, by murdering Duncan and violating the human social order, Macbeth sparks a chain reaction with violent effects in the natural world too: “Where we lay / Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say / Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death / And prophesying, with accents terrible / Of dire combustion and confused events… / …Some say the earth / Was feverous and did shake.” Well, you don’t get any impression of falling-down chimneys, lamentings, dire combustion, confused events and feverous earthquakes in an environment as still and sombre as this.  In fact, there’s little suggestion that night-time occurred at all – the castle windows seem to blaze permanently with light.


I actually didn’t respond well to the overall, stylised, sometimes artificial look of the film, though I suspect that’s just me.  I spent some of my formative years in Scotland, so to me the places mentioned in the play – Glamis, Cawdor, Fife – aren’t just names but real geographical locations.  I prefer Macbeth movies with proper Scottish landscapes, with primordial mountains, moors, glens and lochs that to my mind create an appropriate backdrop for the dark and bloody goings-on.


© A24 / IAC Films / Apple TV+


However, The Tragedy of Macbeth regained my interest later on.  The sequence where Macbeth has his second meeting with the Weird Sisters is staged with wonderful inventiveness and thereafter the movie gets its second wind.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family is impressively done too, conveying the cruelty of the deed without descending into a bloodbath.  (As the first murderer assaults one of the young Macduff-lings, he utters the memorable Shakespearean cry, “What, you egg!”, although the punning follow-up line, “Young fry of treachery!” is excised here.  Also removed is the doomed youngster’s exclamation, “He has kill’d me, mother!”  At school, while my classmates and I studied Macbeth for the Scottish O-Grade, we found this really funny for some reason.)


One thing many critics have remarked upon is the age of the two leads. Washington and McDormand are both in their late middle-age, no longer able to have children.  This makes their murder of Duncan and the seizing of the throne more egotistical – they aren’t doing it for their line, which doesn’t and won’t exist, but purely for themselves.  Their childlessness, of course, contrasts with the fecundity of the two thorns in their sides.  Banquo has a son, Fleance, and Macduff has a whole brood of kids.  It also underlines Macbeth’s wariness of Banquo, for whom the Weird Sisters prophesise: “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.”


Elsewhere, my impression of The Tragedy of Macbeth was that some things worked well and other things less well.  Kathryn Hunter is splendid as the Weird Sisters.  There’s only one of them who’s flesh and blood, though that twisted, contorted body of hers seems to be inhabited by the spirits of all three.  The figures of the other two only materialise in the physical world as reflections – Macbeth’s and Banquo’s first sighting of them, at the edge of a pool, is memorably creepy. Perhaps Hunter’s performance gets slightly too Andy Serkis at times, but it’s still very effective.


On the other hand, the promotion of the character of Ross (Alex Hassell) from being one of the original play’s interchangeable Scottish thanes to, here, being a Machiavellian, possibly even supernatural, manipulator who’s playing both sides – he delivers the warning to Lady Macduff about Macbeth’s evil intentions, but also turns up as the mysterious third murderer who does for Banquo, and there’s even a suggestion that he has a hand in Lady Macbeth’s suicide – is intriguing but doesn’t really come off.  With the Weird Sisters, the play already has Machiavellian manipulators.  It doesn’t need any more.


© StudioCanal / Film4


It’s interesting to compare this Macbeth with the cinematic adaptations that have come before.  I preferred it to the Justin Kurzel-directed version, released in 2015, which despite a great cast – Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as Macduff – seems rather subdued, thanks to the amount of low-volume muttering and mumbling going on that takes the fire out of Shakespeare’s lines.  It also chops out parts of the play that, while admittedly hammy, I’ve always enjoyed, for example, the post-regicide comedy relief with the porter, and most of the “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” hijinks with the Weird Sisters.  At least in The Tragedy of Macbeth these are reinstated.  Stephen Root gives a funny turn as the porter and Joel Cohen seems to relish the macabre incantations of the Weird Sisters: “Finger of birth-strangled babe / Ditch-deliver’d by a drab / Liver of blaspheming Jew / Gall of goat and slips of yew…”  Well, he did start his movie career as an assistant editor on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981).


Still, the 2015 Macbeth looks lovely and it satisfies my craving for proper Scottish landscapes in a Macbeth movie.  Many of its outdoor scenes were shot on the Isle of Skye, although admittedly parts of it were also filmed in England, at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.  Also visually striking is the sequence where Macbeth squares up to Macduff.  Their swordfight takes place against an infernal, almost hallucinogenic orange-red backdrop while Birnam Wood burns off-screen.  For yes, the scriptwriters cooked up – and ‘cook’ is the operative word – a novel way of bringing Birnam Wood to the castle on Dunsinane Hill.


For me, though, the best movie Macbeth is Roman Polanski’s version of it back in 1971, which had Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in the lead roles.  This made a big impression on me.  I was 15 when I saw it, so no doubt one reason why I took to it was because the film’s qualities – its simultaneous bleakness, bloodiness, bawdiness, gothic-ness, gorgeousness, rebelliousness and artiness – mirrored the mix of emotions and hormones seething at the time in my teenaged self.  And no doubt I felt a connection with the film too because Finch and Annis were both so young when they made it.  In fact, their youthfulness suggests they have little power to control their destinies.  They’re swept along with events, propelled by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.


© Playboy Productions / Columbia Pictures


Polanski’s Macbeth was disliked by many critics, upset by its violence and disturbed by the fact that Polanski’s recent past had been pretty violent too.  In August 1969, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were butchered at his home in Beverly Hills by followers of the hippie-cult lunatic Charles Manson.  Pauline Kael, the film critic for the New Yorker, even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to replicate the carnage that Manson had authored in his own life.  Famously, the film’s screenwriter, Kenneth Tynan, challenged Polanski about the amount of blood shown in this scene – to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”


Incidentally, the exteriors in Polanski’s Macbeth look rugged enough to be Scottish, but the film was actually shot elsewhere, in Wales (including Snowdonia) and north-eastern England.  And, yes, Northumberland’s Bamburgh Castle makes an appearance in this version too.


One other cinematic Macbeth I’ve seen is the 1948 production directed by, and starring, Orson Welles.  I watched this on TV a long time ago and wasn’t impressed by its apparent staginess and melodramatics – by then I was in thrall to the Polanski version.  However, lately, I’ve watched a few parts of it on Youtube and revised my opinion of it somewhat.  Yes, it’s cheap.  Welles made it for Republic Pictures, a studio that normally specialised in low-budget westerns, had to shoot it on some of Republic’s leftover western sets, and had only a 23-day shooting schedule.  But scenes like Act 3 Scene 4, where Banquo’s ghost shows up at the feast with ‘no speculation’ in its eyes and shaking its ‘gory locks’ at his killer, are surprisingly well-staged.  Though I suppose you’d expect that from Welles.


There are problems, however.  Though he was only 33 at the time, Welles was already getting portly and resembled Falstaff more than Macbeth.  It doesn’t help that he appears in an eccentric costume that, he grumbled later, made him look like the Statue of Liberty.


And then there are the accents – dear God.  Welles’s American cast dial the fake twee Scottish-ness up to 11 and roll their ‘r’s for minutes at a time.  Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth is shrill and hard to listen to and even Welles himself, during his more excitable moments, sounds like Scotty in the original series of Star Trek (1966-69).  Meanwhile, the Weird Sisters’ accents are so piercing they remind me of those advertisements that Scottish children’s entertainer and showbiz personality Molly Weir used to make for Flash, the household cleaning agent, back in the 1970s: “Flash cleans baths without scr-r-r-r-ratching!”


And on that topic…  While one of the play’s strengths is that it can be adapted to countless different settings and styles, I would one day like to see a truly Scottish film version of Macbeth, with authentic Scottish actors and accents as well as those brooding Scottish landscapes I’ve talked about.  You can’t claim, as you might have been able to in the past, that there aren’t enough bankable Scottish actors to draw audiences to it.  Not with the likes of Peter Capaldi, Robert Carlyle, Robbie Coltrane, Martin Compston, James Cosmo, Brian Cox, Kate Dickie, Lindsay Duncan, Karen Gillan, Shirley Henderson, Jack Lowden, James McAvoy, Kelly Macdonald, Ewan McGregor, Kevin McKidd, Bill Paterson, Dougray Scott, Ken Stott, David Tennant, etc., on the go nowadays.


Hell, I’d even pay money to see Gerald Butler as Macbeth.  Cawdor Has Fallen, anyone?


© Mercury Productions / Republic Pictures

Seriously Sean – ‘The Offence’


© Tantallon / United Artists


A warning – the following entry contains a lot of spoilers.


1973’s The Offence was the result of its star, Sean Connery, believing he could make a deal with the devil and get away with it.  The devil in question was Hollywood, always hungry for money-spinning escapist entertainment.  The deal was that he would, reluctantly, reprise his role as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  In return, the distributor, United Artists, would support two film projects of his own choosing, budgeted at less than two million dollars.


What could go wrong?  Connery starring in the lazy, by-the-numbers Bondage that was Diamonds are Forever and being rewarded with two modestly budgeted but hopefully classy movies in which he could demonstrate his acting chops?  Well, the problem was that The Offence, the first film to emerge from of the deal, was a commercial flop.  Filmgoers evidently preferred to pay money to see Connery as Bond, even if by 1971 he was visibly middle-aged, wearing a toupee and merely going through the motions, rather than see him give the disturbing performance that he gave in The Offence. 


Connery’s second project was to have been an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which he planned to direct himself.  This became problematic when the Roman Polanski-directed Macbeth was released in 1971.  With The Offence a failure and Connery’s Macbeth looking unviable because Polanski had got to the material first, United Artists pulled the plug on the deal.  Connery’s second film didn’t see the light of day and, indeed, he never got to direct a film.  (His sole directing credit was the 1967 TV documentary The Bowler and the Bunnet.)


But at least we got The Offence, which features Connery in perhaps his most unsettling and least sympathetic role ever.  Viewed in 2021, it also provides a grim snapshot of life in Britain in the early 1970s.  Its story unfolds against a backdrop of brutalist architecture, anonymous municipal housing and concrete bunker-like interiors, an environment where toxic masculinity, blinkered prejudice and instinctive misogyny seem to flourish.


The Offence’s opening sequence takes place inside a police station.   A uniformed copper realises something is amiss in one of the interrogation rooms, raises the alarm and rushes inside with several colleagues.  Director Sidney Lumet, with whom Connery had previously made The Hill (1965) and The Anderson Tapes (1971), stages the sequence with memorable weirdness, having the characters move in slow motion, muting the dialogue, and making the soundtrack a collage of exaggerated, juddering noises and needling instrumental music courtesy of composer Harrison Birtwhistle.  At the sequence’s end, the distorted noises and music give way to the ringing of an alarm bell and we see Connery standing in the middle of the room.  He’s surrounded by the bodies of people, including policemen, whom he’s just clobbered.  What’s happened is a mystery, but Connery’s character is clearly giving off a bad vibe.


Then the narrative shifts back in time.  The police are shown to be out in force, keeping a close watch on a school at the edge of a non-descript English housing estate.  They are there because the area has recently seen a series of sexual assaults on young girls.  In the midst of the activity is Connery’s character, Detective Sergeant Johnson.  He struts around in a sheepskin jacket, drop-brim tweed hat and big 1970s moustache and sideburns, whilst being boorish, opinionated and self-consciously macho.


But the police mess up.  When the school-day ends and the kids leave, a girl goes missing.  A desperate search for her is launched in the fields and woods beyond the estate.  Lumet films this atmospherically – the daylight fading from a leaden sky, the lights of torches bobbing through the gloaming, the barking of tracker dogs and crackle of police walkie talkies pervading the air.  The girl is eventually found, brutalised and traumatised but still alive.  Johnson is the one who finds her.  As we’re aware of his bad karma from the opening sequence, there’s something disturbing in how he croons platitudes and struggles with the girl as he attempts to calm her.


© Tantallon / United Artists


Later that evening, a suspect is picked up.  This is Baxter (Ian Bannen), whom the police first spy tottering drunkenly across a serpentine pedestrian bridge in the local town centre.  Unable to give an account of what he was doing that day, he’s taken into custody.  Something about Baxter seems to push all of Johnson’s buttons and Johnson becomes convinced of his guilt.  Baxter is seedy and louche, but also well-spoken and well-educated, and he’s obviously come down in the world for some reason.  Though the script doesn’t make anything of it, there’s a hint that he’s gay, which no doubt enflames Johnson’s alpha maleness too.  This part of The Offence culminates with Johnson sneaking into the interrogation room to speak to Baxter in private.  Lumet shows a little, not all, of the emotional and physical violence that follows.  Johnson beats Baxter to a pulp, presumably the first act in the mayhem that was glimpsed in the film’s prologue.


Thereafter, The Offence shifts gears and three long, dialogue-heavy scenes ensue.  These scenes reveal the film’s origins on the stage, for it’s based on a theatrical play called This Story of Yours, which was first performed in 1968 and written by John Hopkins.  The playwright also wrote the film’s script.  Intriguingly, when This Story of Yours was revived in 1987, the role of Johnson went to the actor who was the screen’s finest Hercule Poirot, David Suchet.


First comes a scene where, after the violence, a chastened Johnson returns home.  Unsurprisingly, from what we’ve seen of the neighbourhood so far, he lives in an identikit block of flats where for a moment he tries to enter the wrong apartment by mistake.  He talks bitterly with his wife (Vivien Merchant) until two of his colleagues show up to inform him that Baxter has died of his injuries in hospital and he needs to accompany them back to the station.  The second scene takes place the next day and sees Johnson interrogated by a Detective Superintendent (Trevor Howard) who’s been sent to the town to find out what the hell is going on.  The third scene is a flashback to Johnson’s confrontation with Baxter and this time it’s shown in full.


The scene between Johnson and his wife, whose relationship has so deteriorated that they torment each other, intentionally and unintentionally, just by being in each other’s presence, is painful enough.  “Why aren’t you beautiful?” he growls at her. “You’re not even pretty.”  It’s made worse by the knowledge that both performers were in ugly domestic situations in real life at the time.  Connery’s marriage to actress Diane Cilento ended the year that The Offence was released and Cilento later alleged that he’d subjected her to physical and emotional abuse. Merchant, meanwhile, died of alcoholism and depression in 1982, aged only 53, following the slow and traumatic breakup of her marriage to the playwright Harold Pinter.


© Tantallon / United Artists


The scene with Trevor Howard’s Detective Superintendent, rattled by what’s happened but trying to extend some sympathy to Johnson as a fellow copper, is merely tense.  But it’s the flashback to the events in the interrogation room that gives The Offence its devastating punch.  Johnson might be Baxter’s physical superior but, despite his attempts to intimidate him, it’s Baxter who gains the upper hand.  He’s smart enough to realise how screwed up Johnson is and taunts him about his obsession with this case.  Is it because of a deep-rooted fascination with the crimes?  Is he secretly turned on by these sexual assaults on children?  “Nothing I have done,” Baxter tells him, “can be one half as bad as the thoughts in your head.”


It’s comes as no surprise that there is bad stuff festering inside Johnson’s head.  During the film, we’ve seen him suffer brief but harrowing recollections of the grisly crimes he’s had to deal with as a policeman – hanging corpses, murdered women tied to beds, people throwing themselves off rooftops, bloodstained children’s toys.  He’s also been haunted by images of the abused schoolgirl he found the previous day, not hysterical, but smiling at him enticingly.


Finally, like a penitent sinner before his priest, Johnson confesses to Baxter that what he’s said is true – just before, unhinged, he subjects him to that fatal beating.  Also, in his blind rage, he floors several of his colleagues who burst in and try to intervene.


I don’t think Ian Bannen ever gave a better performance than as the perceptive and manipulative Baxter, who gets the last laugh even though it costs him his life.  There are good turns too from Howard, Merchant, future sitcom-star Peter Bowles as the police station’s token posh detective, and Durham-born Ronald Radd as its token gruff, northern one.  Also in the cast is strapping character actor John Hallam, who appeared in two more British crime movies on either side of The Offence, Villain (1971) and Hennessy (1975).


But Connery ultimately takes the acting honours, for daring to subvert the macho-ness of Bond and the other heroic roles he’d been associated with.  Here he explores the severely damaged psyche of someone who uses a macho exterior as something to hide behind.  I’ve read speculation that The Offence’s box-office failure persuaded Connery not to play more characters like Johnson, but I wonder if that’s really the case.  Even if the film had made money, having inhabited Johnson’s skin once, did he feel any need to do it again?


Though after The Offence he’d stick to more sympathetic and heroic roles, there were, thankfully, several more Connery movies to come that were serious in intent and tried to engage the intellect.  Highlander (1986) and The Rock (1996) were still some way off…


© Tantallon / United Artists

Cinematic heroes 1: Jon Finch


© Goodtimes Enterprises / Anglo-EMI Film Distributors


The film and TV actor Jon Finch died seven-and-a-half years ago.  At the time of his passing, late on in 2012, he hadn’t worked for several years and had lived quietly in the English town of Hastings and his death had apparently gone undiscovered for some time.  Word of his funeral wasn’t announced until January 2013.  For that reason, obituaries for him in the British media were intermittent and patchy.  I decided to pen a few words of tribute on this blog and the resulting post seemed to rank high on Google searches about Finch – as I’d said, obituaries for him were intermittent and patchy.  Gratifyingly, a number of people who’d known Finch over the years came across my post and left comments on it.  In fact it was one of this blog’s most commented-on entries.  (And I’m kicking myself that, because this blog had to recently get a post-hacking reboot, those comments from Finch’s friends have now been lost.)


Anyway, I thought I’d revisit, rewrite and update what I originally wrote about Finch in 2013 and repost it.  Annoyingly, though, I still haven’t managed to see 1973’s The Final Programme


Jon Finch began his career in television, went into films and ended up back in television.  For a couple of years in the early 1970s, while he was doing film-work, he had the opportunity to become massive, but that didn’t happen.  Finch, who valued his privacy and had a low opinion of the celebrity circus, may well have preferred it that way.


He began acting on television in 1964, appearing in ITV’s notoriously dire soap opera Crossroads.  In 1970, like many a British TV actor at the time, he got his break in movies thanks to Hammer Films – who were always looking for cheap acting talent to appear in their low-budget but cheerfully sensationalist horror movies.  He duly provided vampire-hunting support to Peter Cushing in Roy Ward Baker’s okay The Vampire Lovers and appeared in Jimmy Sangster’s dreadful Horror of Frankenstein.  Then Roman Polanski hired him to play the title role in his version of Macbeth, released in 1971, and suddenly Finch’s career trajectory had become exponentially steep.


Polanski’s take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play was bloody, dark and bleak – everything that a good production of Macbeth should be, in my opinion.  In this film, what works in favour of Finch as Macbeth, and of his co-star Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, is the fact that they’re both so young.  The audience therefore feels they have little power over their destiny.  Rather, they’re swept to their tragic ends by dark forces both political and supernatural.


Polanski’s Macbeth got an unsympathetic appraisal from many critics, who couldn’t see beyond the film’s high level of violence and who linked it with what Polanski had gone through in August 1969 – when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered at his house in Beverly Hills by acolytes of hippie-cult nutcase Charles Manson.  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had orchestrated.  In fact, the film’s screenwriter, celebrated theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, is reputed to have challenged Polanski about the amount of blood displayed in this scene, to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”


From Roman Polanski, Finch moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and landed the lead role in 1972’s Frenzy.  Although Frenzy hardly represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistry, it’s by far and away the best of the director’s last clutch of films, which include Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969) and Family Plot (1976).  It also shows Hitchcock at his most disturbing.  The murder sequence involving Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who plays Finch’s ex-wife, is the most brutal thing he ever did, and the potato-truck ride (where serial strangler Barry Foster tries to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse he’d concealed earlier inside a huge sack of potatoes) is gruelling too.


Playing an innocent man accused of and hunted down for Foster’s murders, Finch bravely refrains from making his character sympathetic.  Indeed, he’s something of a shit and has a violent streak, and for a period at the start of the film we think he really is the strangler.   By the time it becomes clear that Foster is actually the culprit, Hitchcock – a master manipulator of his audience’s emotions – has presented him as a chirpy, likeable chap.  Thus, we find ourselves siding more with him than we do with Finch.


© Universal Pictures


Having worked with two of the world’s greatest directors, Finch seemed destined for international fame and indeed he was soon offered the chance to replace Sean Connery in the James Bond series.  Finch, however, declined and the role went instead to the somewhat less invigorating Roger Moore.  Around this time he also turned down the role of Aramis in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) which, tantalisingly, would have seen him acting alongside another actor with a low opinion of movie stars and movie stardom, Oliver Reed.


In fact, in 1973, Finch did play a vaguely James Bond-like character when he took the role of Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which was based on the first of the four Cornelius novels written by Michael Moorcock, set in a surreal, 1960s-esque and science-fiction-tinged world where the fabric of reality is beginning to fray.  I’ve never seen The Final Programme, though from all accounts Fuest did a pretty cack-handed job of it.  In stills, though, Finch at least looks the part of Moorcock’s enigmatic hipster-cum-secret-agent hero.  Moorcock himself disapproved of the film adaptation, although he liked Finch’s performance and paid tribute to him on his website / discussion forum Moorcock’s Miscellany when he heard of his passing: “I was very fond of Jon and was sorry we lost touch…  He was genuinely modest.”


Towards the end of the 1970s, Ridley Scott lined Finch up to appear in his ground-breaking sci-fi horror film Alien.  Finch was supposed to play Kane, a character who doesn’t last long in the movie’s script but is certainly pivotal to it.  He’s the unfortunate crewmember who goes exploring the mysterious crashed spaceship and ends up with an alien egg inside his chest.  Two days into filming, however, Finch became too ill to work – either from bronchitis or from complications caused by his recently-diagnosed diabetes, depending on which story you believe – and was replaced by John Hurt.  Thus, he missed appearing in the infamous ‘canteen’ scene where Kane expires and the alien makes its first appearance, one of the most (literally) explosive scenes in horror-movie history.


From there on, it was through his television work that Finch remained in the public consciousness.  In the late 1970s, he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare, a series of adaptations of all the Bard’s plays.  Though they were criticised for their staginess and the generally conservative manner in which they were brought to the screen, the adaptations certainly couldn’t be faulted for the top-notch acting they contained.  In Richard II (1978), Finch played Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi’s Richard and John Gielgud’s John of Gaunt.  With Bolingbroke elevated to monarch, he then played the title role in the sequels Henry IV Part One and Part Two (1979), with Anthony Quayle as a jovial, red-cheeked Falstaff and David Gwillim as Henry’s offspring, Prince Hal.  (In reality, Gwillim was only six years younger than Finch.)


Still picky about his roles, he passed on the opportunity to play Doyle in Brian Clements’ hugely popular espionage / action series The Professionals (1978-81).  Ironically, the role eventually went to Martin Shaw, who’d played Banquo to Finch’s Macbeth.  On the other hand, out of loyalty to Hammer, he starred in the first episode of the studio’s 1980 anthology series The Hammer House of Horror, in which he played a modern-day composer haunted by a witch who’s popped forward through time from the 17th century (a role performed with memorable relish by Patricia Quinn).  And for a quarter century he gave guest turns in popular shows like The New Avengers, The Bill, Maigret, New Tricks and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.


Frustratingly, Finch’s role in a 1994 episode of Sherlock Holmes, a combined adaptation of two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone and The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, didn’t see him appear alongside Jeremy Brett, the actor widely regarded as the screen’s best-ever Holmes – Brett had to be written out of most of the episode due to health problems.  However, as a villain, Finch did get to face up to the almost-as-good Charles Gray, playing Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.


Finch’s final appearance was a film one, in Ridley Scott’s 2005 crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, so at least he got to work with that director nearly three decades after his gig in Alien fell through.  Thereafter, he kept a low profile in Hastings, in declining health but seen now and again in some of the local public bars.  I wonder if the regulars in those Hastings pubs were aware that old ‘Finchy’, as he was known, had once headlined films directed by Hitchcock and Polanski and had come within a whisker of being 007.


© Playboy Productions / Columbia Productions