John Schlesinger, Sunday Bloody Sunday, 1971, color, 35 mm, 110 minutes. Alex Greville and Bob Elkin (Glenda Jackson and Murray Head).

RELEASED IN 1971, John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, a London-set story of a love triangle involving a gay physician, a straight female recruitment officer, and the bisexual artist who is sleeping with them both, endures not only as a breakthrough in on-screen same-sexing but also as one of the finest films about adult relationships of any Kinsey-scale matchup. Sunday Bloody Sunday opened one year after the self-loathing nelly histrionics of William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band, and two after Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Featuring scenes of pathetic closet cases begging to orally service Jon Voight’s Joe Buck along the Deuce, Midnight Cowboy surely won no prizes from the Mattachine Society. It did, however, win three Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director, accolades that allowed Schlesinger the freedom to make a much more personal follow-up.

“Now tell me if you feel anything at all,” says Dr. Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch) as he palpates a doughy belly in Sunday Bloody Sunday’s opening scene. Hirsh, like Schlesinger, is gay and Jewish. His query to his patient points to one of the film’s major themes: the toll of emotional surfeit—whether expressed as jealousy, dissatisfaction, or despair—when in the throes of romantic deficit. Daniel suffers, though perhaps not as acutely as Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), from not having enough of Bob Elkin (the felicitously named Murray Head), the younger free spirit with keys to both their flats, who pops in whenever he wishes. Daniel and Alex are aware of the other’s existence; the latter especially can’t help but refer to her rival—often only as him—during her precious time with the Prince Valiant–haired, turtlenecked kinetic sculptor. Bob reassures each of his love, greeting Daniel with a long, passionate kiss, and spending a weekend house-sitting with Alex.

Man-on-man love is never presented as a “problem” to be cured or apologized for in SBS, nor is unconventional coupling. More anxiety-provoking is a transitory trait: youth. Schlesinger and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt—a film critic and fiction writer whose first novel, One by One (1965), concerned a ménage ā trois—were born in London before World War II; significantly, both Daniel and Alex have flashbacks to life during wartime—an era of fear and deprivation that never touched Bob, an Age of Aquarian. (Head, in fact, left the cast of Hair in London to start work on SBS.) Throughout the film, newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts alarmingly note “the most serious economic crisis since the war”; the collapse just might have something to do with the fact that the English capital seems to be filled with strung-out longhairs waiting for methadone at the chemist’s, gangs of menacing teens on quad skates, and pubescent hooligans (including an uncredited Daniel Day-Lewis) keying cars parked next to a cemetery. Bob is a vandal of another kind, damaging his lovers further with talk of going to New York with no specific return date in mind.

Accustomed to sacrifice, both as children and adults, Daniel and Alex will nonetheless arrive at vastly different conclusions about compromise. “Always fitting in and making do and shutting up,” Alex hisses, her vitriol directed at herself as much as the culture she was raised in. Daniel prefers a different kind of address, one at a gentler register delivered straight to the camera. She vows that “nothing has to be better than anything”; he’s okay making do with “something.” Whether proclamations or concessions, they are spoken by characters in a movie that gives us everything.

Melissa Anderson

Sunday Bloody Sunday is available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning October 23 from the Criterion Collection.