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

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances.

A Few Good Men (1992)
(SPOILERS) Aaron Sorkin has penned a few good manuscripts in his time, but A Few Good Men, despite being inspired by an actual incident (one related to him by his sister, an army lawyer on a case at the time), falls squarely into the realm of watchable but formulaic. I’m not sure I’d revisited the entire movie since seeing it at the cinema, but my reaction is largely the same: that it’s about as impressively mounted and star-studded as Hollywood gets, but it’s ultimately a rather empty courtroom drama.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

What happens at 72?

Midsommar (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ari Aster, by rights, ought already to be buckling under the weight of all those accolades amassing around him, pronouncing him a horror wunderkind a mere two films in. But while both Midsommar and Hereditary have both received broadly similar critical acclaim, his second feature will lag behind the first by some distance in box office, unless something significant happens in a hitherto neglected territory. That isn’t such a surprise on seeing it. While Hereditary keeps its hand firmly on the tiller of shock value and incident, so as to sustain it’s already more than adequate running time, Midsommar runs a full twenty minutes longer, which is positively – or rather, negatively – over-indulgent for what we have here, content-wise, and suggests a director whose crowned auteurishness has instantly gone to his head.

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.