It’s my impression that retrospection hasn’t been overly kind to this streamlined adaptation of Henry Fielding’s substantial novel. Chief among its assumed sins are the quirky filmmaking ticks and devices employed by director Tony Richardson, many of which are now regarded as injudicious or undiscerning. Certainly, Tom Jones hasn’t remained on everyone’s lips as a go-to great Oscar winner (the picture was an instant hit in Britain despite iffy reviews; it was only when the French critics embraced it that its rep built across the pond).
In contrast to such a trend, I think Richardson’s jaunty irreverence (aided by a fine screenplay from John Osborne) captures Fielding’s tone perfectly, right down to the witty mock-prurience and moralism of the narrator (added during the editing process, according to Albert Finney).
Few Best Picture Oscar winners since have come close in terms of quality of writing, but Tom Jones also captures a new-wave-of-cinema cusp, in a rare zeitgeist moment for the awards. It’s a film that marks a new generation’s approach – here, the advent of the swinging part of the decade, laying to rest the angry young man movement Richardson had been at the vanguard of bringing to the screen – every bit as much as the inevitable repercussions of Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde towards its end. It’s uproariously funny, deliciously sly and immaculately performed.
Narrator: But a hero cannot be lost until his tale is told. For heaven be thanked, we live in such an age, where no man dies for love, except upon the stage.
The narration is magnificently delivered by a knowing Micheál Mac Liammóir, and while I don’t wish to suggest Kubrick was slumming it in copyist mode with Barry Lyndon, almost everything that picture does with austerely rigid wit is first achieved by Tom Jones. But here, with a sense of brio and near-abandon, revelling in its bawdiness and boasting a sense of Shakespeare in Love’s “Strangely enough, it all turns out well” even during Tom’s darkest moments.
Some have complained that Tom Jones seems ridiculously tame now, but I don’t believe it would have been nearly as effective had it been made in a few years further in to its progressively less censorious era (indeed, The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones proved the point thirteen years later, arriving in the wake of the Confessions of a… sex comedy boom). Many of its sleights – the food-as-sex scene – are a result of libidinous creativity on the makers’ parts, suggestiveness being more artistically fruitful than frankness (the picture nevertheless received an X certificate in the UK).
Richardson could only see the picture’s faults, however – he made seven minutes of cuts for its 1989 reissue, “all trims, the kind I would have done then if I’d been smart enough” – and cinematographer Walter Lassally suggested the picture had rather got away from him in the editing, that he was “endlessly fixing what was not really broken”.
It’s curious this one chagrined him so, since his subsequent career was far from acclaimed, even if there have been (deserved) reappraisals of various later pictures since. Indeed, one could see Jones as a pretty strong dividing line, the director having been on a roll in features for half a decade prior. Lassally suggested the chief problem was Richardson acting as his own producer; if he’d had a strong one on hand, he might have gently removed the director from the cutting room for a spell, in order that he got a little distance from his work.
I should stress that I’m a fan of the majority of Richardson’s choices, especially the energetic manner in which he grabs hold of the material in the edit and pitches straight into the meat of the thing (by way of a silent film parody, complete with subtitles). But Lassally expressed the view that “the first rough cut in my opinion was better than the final cut”, essentially because it was more straightforward, the cinematographer citing intercutting as causing the greatest damage (the first twenty to twenty-five minutes were severely cut down and broken up).
The Narrator: It is widely held that too much wine will dull a man’s desire. Indeed, it will… in a dull man.
There are definitely decisions here that seem hasty with hindsight – the sped-up scenes of bawdy pursuit (pixilation, as Lassally refers to it) can only ever evoke a passing sensation of the Benny Hills now – but far more succeed than don’t, particularly the fourth wall-breaking moments, applied even to incidental walk-on characters. As Finney noted, they’re equivalent to the author’s asides to his reader in the novel.
Perhaps the most legendary of these is Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman, Oscar nominated). Tom earlier, “like Orpheus leading Eurydice from hell” rescued her from gutless would-be rapist Northerton (Julian Glover, relishing malignancy as only Julian Glover can); there are quite a few would-be rapists here, and a few casual ones too, as one might expect. Tom and Mrs Waters then indulged the famous meal seduction scene. Later, upon being informed of her unknowing incest with “Your son, Tom Jones” she obliges a mischievous “Oops, ah well” look (this is, of course, revised a scene or so later).
The Narrator: With our usual good breeding, we will not follow this particular conversation further but attend results on the following day.
Trainspotting came to mind more than a couple of times during viewing, and not just because Ewan McGregor played a young Finney in Big Fish, although that helps. Jones is something of a stylistic antecedent to that much-acclaimed picture (albeit, not enough to get over its scurrilous subject matter and receive more than nominal Oscar attention). Both were manufactured in the edit, employing playful visual and soundtrack choices – John Allison furnished the Oscar-winning score, and was later nominated for the also-playful Sleuth – to render its impact.
Had Jones not been made in the early ‘60s, one might easily have conceived it as a McGregor-Boyle vehicle, perhaps instead of dodo A Life Less Ordinary (as it was, B-list McGregor Max Beesley starred in a five-part BBC version that same year). I suppose, less charitably, one might name check the colourful period messes of Baz Lurhmann, intent on throwing everything at the screen in terms of stylistic and editing quirks and seeing what sticks. Finney veered towards such an assessment when he commented “If there is any style in Tom Jones, it’s because of the mixture of styles”.
The Narrator: Heroes, whatever high ideas we may have of them, are mortal and not divine. We are all as God made us, and many of us much worse.
Finney’s Tom “… of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged” lands amusingly and irrepressibly, despite the actor’s disinclination towards the material; he didn’t think it was serious enough, no doubt due to his being a certified angry young man at the time and having a reputation to uphold (I expect his ten-percent profit share did something to quell his upset). What’s most striking on revisit – I think probably as result of having also watched The Wrong Box again a couple of months ago – is how the actor’s clearly basing his vocal performance on professional pisshead and co-star Wilfrid Lawson (who gets hardly any lines). Tom is, much like Barry Lyndon, something of a louche cypher, with the vibrancy and colour provided by the supporting types around him. But in Finney, he’s a highly personable one (Ryan O’Neal not so much).
Of those supporting types, there’s an embarrassment of riches. Lasally regrets so much of future Mrs Connery Diane Cilento ending up on the cutting-room floor, but she makes a strong impression in her scenes that remain (to the extent that she was Oscar nominated). Playing Tom’s eventual father-in-law Squire Western is Hugh Griffith, Oscar winner for Ben-Hur a few years prior; he received an Oscar nomination here too, for, reportedly, being pissed throughout the shoot, often in tandem with Lawson (and actually hitting Finney with his riding crop, and being punched in response). He’s a force of nature in the movie, so it’s quite believable, whether its casually taking a roll in the hay, falling of his horse (actually pissed) or throwing his protesting daughter over his shoulder.
Then there’s Edith Evans (also Oscar nominated) as Griffiths’ very proper and interfering sister, keen for David Warner’s oozing worm Blifil to marry her niece Sophie (a radiant Susannah York, albeit she’s mostly called on to offer rebukes and refusals). This was Warner’s movie debut, but he has the presence of an old hand. Peter Bull (the Russian ambassador in Dr Strangelove, amongst many others), his face an apocalyptic boil, is Tom (and Blifil’s) malignant tutor, and there are other notable roles for George A Cooper (Grange Hill) and Patsy Rowlands (Carry On).
Lady Bellaston: He’s a pretty fellow.
There’s also, in the later stages, Joan Greenwood, she of the most fabulously seductive voice ever, as Lady Bellaston, the older socialite who takes Tom as her young bit of stuff and showers him with gifts (ones he finds “suitably embarrassing and quite irresistible”). It’s a thoroughly Machiavellian role – think Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, but sexy too – one in which she enlists David Tomlinson as Sophie’s would-be-seducer/rapist (“Are you frightened by the word rape?”) in order to keep Tom to herself.
Indeed, it can be no coincidence that, despite several very deserving performances being ignored (York, Greenwood, George Devine as Squire Allworthy), Tom Jones garnered five acting nominations (three in the Best Supporting Actress category, a first and only thus far for the Academy; Margaret Rutherford took the prize for The VIPs). Finney lost to Sidney Poitier, although Richard Harris was probably the most deserving that year. Richardson, for his troubles, was recognised over Frederico Fellini, Elia Kazan and Otto Preminger.
Of the main prize, there’s little doubt Tom Jones remains the most esteemed of the films that year, even if some are probably better known, such as the bloated likes of Cleopatra and How the West Was Won. It’s curious then, that it had no direct or immediate effect on its industry peers; it certainly didn’t pep up the period piece, preceded by Lawrence of Arabia and followed by A Man for All Seasons, with traditional musicals winning honours in between, and one has to look to later Euro puddings (The Adventures of Gerard, or Richardson’s own The Charge of the Light Brigade) for such stylistic experimentation.
Indeed, the most direct result was probably the likes of Richard Lester, with his ultra-contemporary A Hard Day’s Night. It’s also worth noting that this is a rare comedy win, albeit something of a period hybrid like Shakespeare in Love, making its irreverent achievement that much more notable. Richardson may have despaired, but he was ahead of his time, and for once the Academy was right there with him.