English critics regularly cite Albert Finney as one of the great actors of his generation, but American audiences have not had many opportunities to judge for themselves. We may have read about his stage triumphs in London, but only a couple of them have ever made it across the Atlantic. And his movie roles have been few and far between. In the 20 years since his electrifying debut in ''Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,'' he has made only a handful of films, including ''Tom Jones,'' ''Two for the Road,'' ''Scrooge'' and ''Gumshoe.'' His last screen appearance was in ''Murder on the Orient Express,'' almost seven years ago.

Now, at the age of 45, Mr. Finney is about to be re-introduced to American audiences. He has five films due for release within the next year - more than his entire output during the 70's. Opening this week is ''Wolfen,'' a horror film about a pack of super-intelligent wolves that terrorize New York; Mr. Finney plays an American cop who discovers the lupine menace. In October he is scheduled to be seen in Michael Crichton's ''Looker'' as a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who gets caught up in a somewhat more conventional murder plot. Later this year audiences will see ''Loophole,'' a bank caper film in which he co-stars with Martin Sheen; and ''Shoot the Moon,'' a domestic drama written by Academy Award-winner Bo Goldman and co-starring Diane Keaton. Then in May he will share the screen with a curlyhaired moppet and a dog; he sings and dances as Daddy Warbucks in the expensive movie version of ''Annie.'' By next year at this time the mysterious Albert Finney should be known to just about every man, woman and child in America.

Why was Mr. Finney absent from the screen for such a long time?''After 'Orient Express,' '' he explains, ''I decided that I was going to do the classics at the National Theater in London. And I felt that it needed commitment. When you're making movies all the time, you stop breathing. You literally don't breathe in the same way that you do when you're playing the classics. When you have to deliver those long, complex speeches on stage, you can't heave your shoulders after every sentence. The set of muscles required for that kind of acting need to be trained. I really wanted to try and do justice to my own potential in the parts. I didn't want to be a movie actor just dropping in, doing Hamlet and taking off again. I wanted to feel part of the company.''

Then two years ago he decided that he needed another change of pace. ''I'd been at the National for three and a half years. I'd played Hamlet, Macbeth, Tamerlane, Chekhov. I'd done some terrific plays, and I felt stretched by the work. But I also like the cinema, and I wanted to do movies again. Now the last two films I'd done which had been seen by the American public to any extent were 'Scrooge' and 'Orient Express,' in both of which I was heavily disguised. Most Americans probably think I weigh 300 pounds, have black hair and talk with a French accent like Hercule Poirot. So I thought they should have a look at me while I was still almost a juvenile and kind of cute. I also felt it would be only right to do a batch of movies so that I could relax and get back into it again. In order to feel really assured and comfortable in front of a camera, you've got to do it for a while.''

In choosing the roles for his marathon film comeback, Mr. Finney sought a variety of challenges. He wanted to tackle a full range of roles, from expansive to introspective, in several movie genres. '' 'Wolfen' and 'Looker' are both thrillers,'' he explains, ''but they're very different. I used to describe 'Wolfen' as a surrealist thriller, until the studio people got a bit worried about the word 'surrealist.' They didn't think it smacked of box office. Nevertheless, that's what I felt it was. I certainly hoped it would be scary, but I also hoped there would be something rather haunting about it. 'Looker' is much more fun; it should have a stronger vein of comedy to it. Instead of playing a slouchy, boozy, burnt-out cop as I do in 'Wolfen,' I'm playing a very chic and successful California plastic surgeon, almost a Cary Grant role. So that was a nice contrast.

''Then doing 'Annie' after 'Shoot the Moon' is another complete change of pace. 'Shoot the Moon' is very intense, about a marriage that's disintegrating after 15 years. It required personal acting; I had to dig into myself. When you have to expose yourself and use your own vulnerability, you can get a little near the edge. Scenes where Diane Keaton and I really have to go at each other reminded me of times when my own behavior has been monstrous. Some mornings I'd wake up depressed because I knew I had to spend that day with a lot of memories which weren't very pleasant. To go from that experience to 'Annie' was marvelous. I use a completely different side of myself as Warbucks. 'Annie' is show biz; it's open, simple and direct. It needs bold, primary colors. I don't have to reveal the inner workings of the character, and that's a relief.''

If Mr. Finney's decisions in the last few years sound carefully considered, that methodical planning has always been typical of his approach to his career. Since he began acting 25 years ago, he's been obsessed with the idea of controlling his own destiny. Early in his career he was offered an enticing film contract by the Rank Organization, but he turned it down to act with the Birmingham Repertory Company instead.

In 1963 Mr. Finney had his biggest popular successes: he was starring in John Osborne's ''Luther'' on Broadway, and the bawdy, ebullient ''Tom Jones'' was drawing big movie audiences at the same time. ''People told me to cash in on my success while I was hot,'' he recalls. ''But what I wanted to do then was go around the world. I'd been acting for about eight years and had only had one vacation. So I decided to take a year off after my contract in 'Luther' ended. I'd always wanted to travel. Captain Cook had been a hero of mine when I was a kid, and I thought it would be exciting to go to some of the places in the Pacific where he'd been. That's what I did. I have no regrets about the choices I've made. What I've done is what I should have done.''

Also, while many American actors talk about switching back and forth between theater and films, very few have actually returned to the theater as regularly as Mr. Finney. ''It's much easier in England than America,'' Mr. Finney admits. ''London is the center for theater, film, television and radio. In America the theater and the movie industry have two different centers. An actor has to make a decision where to live. If he wants principally to be a stage actor, he stays in New York. But then if he wants to try movies, he has to move his family 3,000 miles. We don't have that problem in England.''

Mr. Finney also sees the American actor as more enslaved by success than his English counterpart. ''In America there's pressure to stay on the treadmill and follow up a movie with a more successful movie. That's impossible of course. Nobody's career has ever continued to go upward and onward without a few backward steps. The graph of any life fluctuates. All graphs go up and down. Look at the great acting careers in England - Olivier and Gielgud and Richardson. They're working actors. They don't worry that they shouldn't do theater or television because they're movie stars. Picasso didn't paint a masterpiece every time he stepped up to the easel; sometimes he just did little sketches, but he kept working. That's how Richardson, Olivier and Gielgud feel. If they're not doing a movie or play they'll do a television play or radio play, just to practice their craft. It's tougher to do that in America.''

Nevertheless, American actors who feel powerless to manage their own careers might take a few lessons from Mr. Finney. His varied achievements prove that it is possible for an actor to create a meaningful life for himself in theater and film. Mr. Finney is unlike many American stars in that he refuses to allow agents to make decisions for him. ''I've had the same agent for 16 or 17 years,'' he says, ''and he's a friend as well as an agent. But I don't look to him for advice in creative matters. I'm not saying he's not allowed to speak. But his function is to take care of business. My function is to decide which way I'm going and choose the script I want to do. I've never been 'handled' in that way. I've been making my own decisions for 25 years.''

In addition, Mr. Finney doesn't choose his film projects on the basis of the personalities involved. The quality of the script is always his primary criterion. ''If somebody wants me to do a project, I don't think there's any point in having a long meeting with the director, even if he's one of my heroes,'' he says. ''I'd rather read the script, and if there's something in it that intrigues me, that's the time to meet the director. Everybody can talk a great script. But it has to be on the page.''

On ''Wolfen,'' for example, he was tantalized by the story and did not worry that Michael Wadleigh (the director of ''Woodstock'' and other documentaries) had never directed a dramatic feature. '' 'Wolfen' hinted that there are more things in heaven and earth than we understand in our philosophy,'' Mr. Finney says. ''Certain animals have a fascination for us. Wolves are very powerful in European mythology. And there's all this research being done now with sea mammals. What drew me to 'Wolfen' was the sense of mystery surrounding those creatures. If I respond to the script, and if I then talk to the director and feel sympathy with him, I don't worry about his track record or lack of track record. I've done other films with first-time directors if I trusted them.''

Not all of Mr. Finney's gambles have paid off, but the occasional failures do not seem to have deterred him. Over the years he has ventured into many areas besides acting. In the 60's he formed a production company, Memorial Enterprises (named for the Albert Memorial), which has been responsible for such films as ''If ...'' and ''Oh Lucky Man.'' Recently his company produced a movie version of Doris Lessing's ''Memoirs of a Survivor,'' starring Julie Christie. Four years ago Mr. Finney even made a record album for Motown. (''It was called 'Albert Finney Sings,' without a question mark.'') He's directed in the theater, and in 1968 he directed a film, ''Charlie Bubbles,'' which was a box office disappointment but a memorable experiment in personal filmmaking.

''Directing 'Charlie Bubbles,' '' Mr. Finney says, ''I suppose I had the most intense sense of creation I've ever had - at least sustained over a period of time. One of the drawbacks about being an actor is that it's a very subjective profession. You go to the studio and look at yourself being made up. Then you look at yourself in costume. You rehearse and worry about your lines and your character. There's a lot of self in it. Me, me, me. Directing is wonderful because you worry about everything and everyone else. It's an objective position, and that makes for an extremely refreshing change.''

Having just completed an intense period of film acting after an equally intense period of stage acting, Mr. Finney has some sharp observations on the different challenges and satisfactions of the two media. ''The most elusive thing about film acting,'' he notes, ''is giving it the breath of life. The theater is a long-distance event. You're on stage for two and a half or three hours, and the whole evening won't be one fantastic flight into the unknown. But with luck, there'll be bits and passages during the evening where you really feel you've taken off. In screen acting you're doing shorter bits, so it's harder to take off. But it can happen. Working with Diane Keaton was stimulating in this respect. Diane has a wonderful sense of spontaneity. Since I've been theatrically trained, I tend to set a performance. Once we've agreed about how a theme should be played, I try and get as close to that on every take. With Diane, on the other hand, if something new drifted through her mind during the third or fourth take she would try it. I would tend to censor it out. But Diane would just include everything in. And that seems to me to be the correct approach to film acting, because you can always do it again. Diane's acting has a very strong sense of present tense. That's the most important thing in doing film.

''The great difference between stage and screen is that in the theater, if you're playing a demanding part, you can get a physical sense of repletion. At the end of the evening you really feel that you've been used and stretched physically, mentally, imaginatively, emotionally. Playing Hamlet is extraordinary that way. You go through the whole evening talking, talking, talking. And then you get to the duel with Laertes, and you feel you've got nothing left. But because the playwright asks you to do something physical, it's actually a very energizing moment in the play. You're using a different part of yourself for five or eight minutes after all this 'to be or not to be' stuff. Having been an actor, Shakespeare understood how it would work. In movies you don't get that physical fulfillment, because you spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for just a little burst of energy. You go home mentally tired, but you've not used your body. Some days are very frustrating, when you go in full of beans, and three-quarters of the day is lost in lighting the scene.''

This fall Mr. Finney will return once again to the stage. He will star in Peter Nichols's ''The Passion Play'' in London and possibly bring it to New York next year. Beyond that he has no definite plans, though he hopes to direct another movie written by Shelagh Delaney, who also wrote ''Charlie Bubbles.'' ''We worked on it for a long time,'' Mr. Finney reports, ''and we had the main thread of the story. But we were confused about the ending. Our hero is with a primitive tribe, and we couldn't decide how to resolve it. One day Shelagh came in and said, 'I've got the ending, Albert. It's perfectly simple. They eat him.' I said, 'Shelagh, in Anglo-Saxon film mythology, you do not eat the hero. It's unheard of for people to go to see a movie where Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds will be eaten.' So we've put that script on the shelf. We're waiting until the world comes round to her way of thinking.'' --------------------------------------------------------------------- Stephen Farber is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

Illustrations: Photo of Yoda (Page 16) Photo of Carrie Fisher and Chevy Chase (Page 17) 2 photo of Albert Finny