He was soon cast in his first British movie, playing a murderous actor in Train of Events (1949). Critic C. A. Lejeune praised his work in the London Observer commenting that he "adds good cheekbones to a quick intelligence and is likely to become a cult, I fear." The Scotsman said "he should be regarded as one of the most hopeful recruits to the British screen."
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However, he was then cast as an Australian soldier in A Town Like Alice (1956), which became the third most popular film at the British box office in 1956 and won Finch a BAFTA for Best Actor. He followed it with The Battle of the River Plate (1956), playing Captain Hans Langsdorff. This was also successful financially and British exhibitors voted Finch the seventh most popular British star at the box office for 1956.
In 1953 he appeared in his first Hollywood movie, Elephant Walk (1954), shot in Ceylon and Los Angeles. The circumstances of production were turbulent; filming started with Vivien Leigh in the lead but she had a nervous breakdown during production and had to be replaced by Elizabeth Taylor. The experience helped sour Finch on a Hollywood career and he would only work occasionally there for the rest of his career.
During this time, Finch continued to appear on stage in various productions while under contract to Olivier. Finch's closeness to the Olivier family led to an affair with Olivier's beautiful but increasingly unstable wife, Vivien Leigh, which began in 1948, and continued on and off for several years, ultimately falling apart due to her deteriorating mental condition.