Samson Shillitoe (Sean Connery) is a struggling poet who has had one book of his work published but is finding writer's block blighting his attempts to come up with a follow up. He lives in a pokey New York City apartment with his second wife Rhoda (Joanne Woodward), and they are often to be heard arguing, as this is what Samson spends most of his time doing with anyone who will speak with him: no matter what the time of day, he will be aggressive with somebody. However, he really needs that new poem to be written, especially as he faces a heavy alimony bill...
While most people in 1966 were keen to see Sean Connery in a new James Bond movie, when he wasn't doing those he often had a yearning to flex his acting muscles in smaller films, and A Fine Madness was one of those. Here he tested audiences' tolerance for unlikeable characters by playing someone who was a bit of a rogue, but not a charming one (though he does exploit women throughout the plot who cannot resist him). More than once he threatens to beat up his wife, a sticking point for more and more viewers as time has gone on, though whether we were supposed to find that behaviour amusing was ambiguous.
For a start, Samson never actually means to hit Rhoda, we get the impression he's letting off steam in the most top of his voice manner possible, though there is a scene in the middle where he smashes up their home which leaves the fleeing wife tumbling down the stairs to sprain her ankle; that's not the purpose of his ranting, but then again what did he expect to happen if he continued to rage against her? The film didn't have as many qualms about having him beat up men, mainly the officials who try to serve him with a subpoena, but it was not often the movies concentrated on a lead who expressed himself with violence.
Aside from all those action flicks, of course, where the protagonists did little but, yet for a drama where we were invited to understand a character who was way out of control you had to look to the likes of Raging Bull for the most highly regarded work in that vein. In this case, Samson was no boxer (though he does hang around at a boxer's gym), but he might as well have been given throwing things around and hitting people was his prime area of communication, so much so that the poetry would seem secondary were it not for him banging on about it all the time. Director Irvin Kershner will always be known now as the man who helmed The Empire Strikes Back, but it was his knack with actors which got him that job.
You can well see that talent here, as everyone was well cast, including Connery no matter the grumbles that might have followed this film since. He convinces as an artist who doesn't so much go in for hellraising even if he does drink a lot, as it's his dedication to his work which fuels his temper; he has day jobs like the carpet cleaning one at the beginning, though that ends with him seducing a secretary (Sue Ane Langdon), a pattern repeated when we begin to wonder when he will cross paths with psychiatrist's wife Lydia West (Jean Seberg, herself sadly no stranger to mental illness). They briefly meet when she walks out of a reading he's giving to easily-shocked genteel ladies, but we can tell there will be a more significant encounter later when Rhoda persuades her husband, Dr Oliver West (Patrick O'Neal), to take Samson as a patient and the threat of lobotomy looms. As a quasi-comic yet serious-minded look at how far we tolerate the artistic impulse, A Fine Madness was cantankerous but challenging. Music by John Addison.