Skip to main content

... of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged.

Tom Jones
(1963)

(SPOILERS) It’s my impression that retrospection hasn’t been overly kind to this streamlined adaptation of Henry Fielding’s substantial novel, chiefly because of 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, since 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 bust 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 thatpicture does with austerely rigid wit is first achieved by Tom Jones, but 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 the film 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) as 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 it (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, though – the decision to speed 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 to even incidental walk-on characters, and 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), whom Tom earlier, “like Orpheus leading Eurydice from hell” rescued 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 – before indulging in the famous meal seduction scene; she obliges a mischievous “Oops, ah well” look upon being informed of her unknowing incest with “Your son, Tom Jones” (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 being 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. If Jones hadn’t 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 NarratorHeroes, 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 10% profit share did something to quell his upset). What’s most striking on revisit – I think probably as result of having revisited The Wrong Box 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 (Warner in his movie debut, but he has the presence of an old hand) to marry her niece Sophie (a radiant Susannah York, albeit she’s mostly called on to offer rebukes and refusals). 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 (that 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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I am you, and you are me, and we are here. I am the dreamer. You are the dream.

Communion (1989)
(SPOILERS) Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story was published in 1987, at which point the author (who would also pen Communion’s screenplay) had seen two of his novels adapted for the cinema (Wolfen and The Hunger), so he could hardly claim ignorance of the way Hollywood – or filmmaking generally – worked. So why then, did he entrust the translation of a highly personal work, an admission of/ confrontation with hidden demons/ experiences, to the auteur who unleashed Howling II and The Marsupials: Howling III upon an undeserving world? The answer seems to be that Strieber already knew director Philippe Mora, and the latter was genuinely interested in the authors’ uncanny encounters. Which is well and good and honourable, but the film entirely fails to deliver the stuff of cinematic legend. Except maybe in a negative sense.

Strieber professes dismay at the results, citing improvised scenes and additional themes, and Walken’s rendition of Whitley Strieber, protagonist…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

He did it. He shut down the Earth.

Escape from L.A. (1996)
(SPOILERS) It seems it was Kurt Russell’s enthusiasm for his most iconic character (no, not Captain Ron) that got Escape from L.A. made. That makes sense, because there’s precious little evidence here that John Carpenter gave two shits. This really was his point of no return, I think. His last great chance to show his mettle. But lent a decent-sized budget (equivalent to five times that of Escape from New York) he squandered it, delivering an inert TV movie that further rubs salt in the wound by operating as a virtual remake of the original. Just absent any of the wit, atmosphere, pace and inspiration.

I’m not the Jedi I should be.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
(SPOILERS) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the only series entry (thus far) I haven’t seen at the cinema. After the first two prequels I felt no great urgency, and it isn’t an omission I’d be hugely disposed to redress for (say) a 12-hour movie marathon, were such a thing held in my vicinity. In the bare bones of Revenge of the Sith, however,George Lucas has probably the strongest, most confident of all Star Wars plots to date.

This is, after all, the reason we have the prequels in the first place; the genesis of Darth Vader, and the confrontation between Anakin and Obi Wan. That it ends up as a no more than middling movie is mostly due to Lucas’ gluttonous appetite for CGI (continuing reference to its corruptive influence is, alas, unavoidable here). But Episode III is also Exhibit A in a fundamental failure of casting and character work; this was the last chance to give Anakin Skywalker substance, to reveal his potential …