Tom Jones (Preview)
Reviewed by David Neary
Produced and directed by Tony Richardson; screenplay by John Osborne, adapted from the Henry Fielding novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling; photographed by Walter Lassally; production design by Ralph Brinton; art direction by Ted Marshall; edited by Antony Gibbs; music by John Addison; narrated by Micheál MacLiammóir; starring Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, George Devine, David Tomlinson, Peter Bull, Joyce Redman, and David Warner. Two-disc Blu-ray and DVD editions, color, 128 min. (1963 version) and 121 min. (1989 director’s cut). A Criterion Collection release.
“’Twould be the devil’s own nonsense to leave Tom Jones without a rescuer,” says Micheál MacLiammóir’s ebullient narrator as our hero hangs from the neck for a crime he never committed. And like Tom himself, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones had fallen from boisterous heights to a state of endangerment. Somewhat of a pop culture phenomenon upon its release in 1963, the film became increasingly overlooked with each passing decade. Perhaps it was the common fate that so many Academy Awards–dominating films suffer. Or maybe it was so monumentally influential that film and television, borrowing from it so often, made the earlier work seem frightfully naff. Or could it have been the success of Welsh crooner Thomas Woodward, who adopted his mother’s maiden name to capitalize on the success of Richardson’s film, and went on to become one of the most successful recording artists of the twentieth century? Was there room for only one Tom Jones in the collective memory? Even Richardson grew quickly to resent the film, writing in his posthumously published autobiography, The Long-Distance Runner, “[W]henever someone gushes to me about Tom Jones, I always cringe a little inside.”
The film itself was in dire need of rescue, not just from the doldrums of cinephilia, but also in the literal, photochemical sense. Shot in bright, jolly hues on early Eastmancolor stock (now notorious in film preservation for dramatic color fade), barely fifteen years after its release film historian Paul Spehr addressed Tom Jones in a piece on “the color film crisis” for American Film magazine, noting that the evaporation of yellow and green had “totally destroyed the playful spirit of the original production.” In 1989, two years before his death, Tony Richardson produced a director’s cut, inspired by the rapturous reception awarded the release of a newly restored version of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
Cutting his film by about eight minutes, this was hardly an act of film preservation in the strict sense, but it did briefly make an attractive version of the film available to audiences. Alas, the tumbleweeding distribution rights (from United Artists to MGM to the Samuel Goldwyn Company) further drove the film into obscurity, with cheap, rapidly out-of-print DVDs or the intermittent Turner Classic Movies airing the only way to see it the past two decades.
So, here we are in the year 2018, and Tom Jones is gallivanting again. The Criterion Collection has released a splendid restoration of this unruly film, undertaken by the director’s old production house Woodfall, from a 4K scan of the original negative and the best elements available to support it (Richardson had, of course, cut into the negative to make his second version). It looks about as good as ever, in both cuts, and is bolstered by an impressive array of extras that tend toward the defensive, seemingly aware that the film has fallen out of vogue, but unwilling to surrender the belief that it is a pivotal work in the canon.
What makes Tom Jones so special? Well, first, there’s the film itself—divorced from its position as a major turning point in the British New Wave, it’s simply a ceaselessly creative, untiringly cheeky, delightful romp. Adapted from Henry Fielding’s 1749 picaresque novel by playwright John Osborne, with considerable rewrites by Richardson, it’s a sometimes bawdy but always moral (if un-Christian) tale combining comedy, romance, sex, and adventure in surprisingly balanced measures. Tom (Albert Finney) is the bastard son of Jenny Jones, a disgraced servant in the home of Squire Allworthy (George Devine). The good squire brings the boy up as his own, but a rebellious streak always runs through Tom, charming almost everyone he meets—especially women. His love for the beautiful Sophie (Susannah York), daughter of their neighbor Squire Western (Hugh Griffith), is returned, but his limbo-like status between upper and working class makes the union difficult, and when his joie de vivre gets the better of him and he is caught in a drunken dalliance with the gamekeeper’s daughter, he finds himself sent out into the world with little more than his good looks and his naiveté. Off he sets on an adventure to London, wooing new lovers while evading sanctimonious soldiers, jealous husbands, and accidental incest along the way.
If the story sounds like good but traditional fare, the production is anything but. Woodfall Film Productions had been the epicenter of the British New Wave—Richardson and Osborne had founded the company to bring Osborne’s hit play Look Back in Anger to the big screen in 1959—changing the game with vérité-inspired looks at ordinary working-class struggles, known as “kitchen sink” realism. For Tom Jones, they threw in everything but the kitchen sink, combining their Free Cinema–honed camerawork with some Nouvelle Vague stylistic anarchism. Richardson felt that as long as the sets, props, and costumes looked the part, and the dialogue sounded period, they could shoot in as “thoroughly modern” a fashion as they liked. Walter Lassally, director of photography on Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), was convinced to switch to full color, but did not abandon his style, often shooting handheld with an Arriflex IIC, even without synchronized sound when his roving camera couldn’t permit it. Using nets and gel filters to soften the lighting, the film takes on a strangely lived-in feeling, the realism of the early Sixties cast back in time. The comedic value of this juxtaposition would be used even more famously in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Indeed, it’s hard not think of that film’s famous exchange—“Must be a king.” “Why’s that?” “He hasn’t got shit all over him”—as Finney emerges from a riverside rescue caked head to toe in mud, or as Hugh Griffith feasts sweatily on a leg of meat, with slivers of beef stuck in the tresses of his wig.
Yet, despite this, it is the fracturing of realism for which Tom Jones is most famous. The film begins as did cinema itself, as a silent movie, complete with exaggeratedly accelerated actions, intertitles, and a neat trick of editing as a fully dressed Squire Allworthy passes behind a partition and immediately appears on the other side in his nightshirt. As an added gag to match the eighteenth-century setting, the scene is musically complemented not by a nickelodeon organ but by John Addison’s jaunty compositions for harpsichord. All this serves to speedily introduce the complications of Tom’s parentage and upbringing in a succinct, amusing way, while boldly declaring before the main title has even appeared that this film is not afraid to break a few rules and get a bit, even a lot, silly…
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.