TOM JONES: Blu-ray (Lorpert Pictures/UA, 1963) Criterion Collection
A breakneck, footloose and fancy-free sex comedy, back when movies found humor in the act itself, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) offers us an untrammeled exercise in film-making; crassly commercial, action-packed, and, as lustily satisfying as a wench with her pantaloons riding down around her easy virtue. Richardson’s bawdy social satire remains a valiant adaptation of Henry Fielding’s classic novel, The History of Tom Jones – a Foundling, tricked out in Eastman color and afforded a pluperfect performance by Albert Finney as the eponymous and titular…uh…hero. Actually, Tom’s a randy sod; blessed with good fortune and above average looks, parlaying his meager lot in life into some of the most bodice-ripping sex-capades of the 18th century. Tom’s endurance is commendable. No Viagra here. And his unquenchable thirst for the ladies, good food and fine wine – not to mention spirited misadventures that can – and do – arise after the husbands find out – is the stuff of Don Juan meets Harvey Weinstein.
In 1963, Tom Jones seemed to point to something new – or at least, different; if not to defy censorship, at least striving to be audacious. As Thackery’s Barry Lyndon is a tale of rake’s progress in steep decline, Tom Jones remains declarative of the roué’s ribald triumph, thumbing his nose at this straight-laced, poker-faced and crinoline-lined status quo, distinctly preferring not to acknowledge his kind: hypocrites, every last one. Albert Finney’s countrified gent (the cream of the jest) with petty larceny always brewing, is the perfect foil for sophisticated Sophie (Susannah York) – a lady…well, mostly. Tom’s feeble chances to amass a small fortune and support his beloved in the manner to which she is accustom, is offset by his wild follies, suffering for his art with some truly clumsy seductions. John Osborne's Oscar-winning screenplay embodies the novel’s tone, even as the entire cast throws caution to the wind, casting aspersions, telling glances, and, witticisms aplenty with tongue-in-cheek naughtiness, never to degenerate into a tawdry or vulgar mess.
Historically accurate, yet utterly cheeky, and, possessing a unique rhythm to its rhetoric – Tom Jones somehow typifies the swingin’ sixties, as well as the uninhibited techniques of the New Wave. These are effortlessly transposed to Fielding’s time-honored milieu; Richardson, unerring to maintain this kinetic energy, seesawing between serious drama and farce-laden frankness. The picture sticks its creative fingers in the eye of well-born and lowbrow British society; each, transparently debunked through the eyes of our bastard/boulevardier. Richardson stands antiquity on end; no ceremony here, as he loosely toys with the literary text and our expectations of the period costume/film-based epic; no compunction either, applying a sort of Tudor burlesque to this tenderly fraught romance. Distilling Fielding’s 1000 pages into128 minutes, Richardson cannot help but to condense and/or jettison a good portion of the novel’s plot. And yet, he remains uncannily faithful to the essential qualities of the novel, and, with a mischievous streak of contemporary social awareness to boot.
The major episodes recounted in this young buck’s life are densely bookended by Ralph W. Brinton’s gorgeous Production Design, photographed to lush perfection by Walter Lassally. Yet, it’s the roar of Richardson’s artful lunacy, wed to the innate (if, by direct comparison, relatively ‘tame’) raciness in Fielding’s prose, conspiring here to give us a Tom Jones unlike anything the author could have envisioned, though likely would have garnered his glowing approval, albeit, with a sly grin and a nudge. The picture’s opener, shot in B&W like a silent newsreel, depicts the moral Squire Allworthy (George Devine) returning home to discover an infant in his bed; the offspring of an amatory disgrace, surely to topple the respectability of his house. The camera hits a close-up on the child, a prudish narrator offering this less than glowing introduction, “Tom Jones…of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged.” Flash forward to Tom as the Squire’s vigorous, transparent, and brash young ward, leaping through a series of raunchy exploits with casual aplomb. Richardson and his actors break the third wall, addressing the audience or camouflaging the camera lens so as to obscure the more salacious events presumably about to unfold from our prying eyes. It’s a very 20th century approach to 18th century mores and manners; the escapade set to John Addison’s flamboyant score with a contingent of the absurd.
Immediately following the movie’s prologue, depicting the good Squire’s discovery of the foundling birthed by his barber, Mr. Partridge (Jack MacGowran), and a scullery maid, Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman), we fast track to the adult world of Tom Jones (Albert Finney); sinfully handsome, but a kind soul. Naturally, he is the envy of the opposite sex. But also, rather passionately, Tom only has eyes for one woman, the temperate Sophie Western (Susannah York), demure in all things except her reciprocated passion for him. The stigma of being considered as a bastard in polite society equates to being denied marriage to any lady of well-born pedigree. Hence, Sophie conceals her truest feelings for Tom from her Aunt (Edith Evans) and father, Squire Western (Hugh Griffith); both, imploring the head-strong girl to enter into an ‘arrangement’ with a more suitable man, Blifil (David Warner) whom regrettably, she absolutely despises.
On paper, at least, Blifil is a good match: the son of Squire Western’s widowed sister, Bridget (Rachel Kempson). Of legitimate birth, Blifil is nevertheless rather ruthless, concealing his truer self behind a self-professed mask of virtue. Lacking Tom’s intuitive genuineness – a quality that cannot be taught or bought, Sophie sees right through Blifil’s ill-mannered façade. When Bridget dies unexpectedly, Blifil intercepts a letter his mother did not intend him to see. Determined to wed Sophie, at mother's funeral Blifil and his conspiring tutors, Mr. Thwackum (Peter Bull) and Mr. Square (John Moffatt) set out to prove Tom an unscrupulous sort, unworthy of Sophie’s love. To spare Tom this further indignation, Allworthy gives his ward a small cash sum and mournfully sends him out to seek his fortune.
Embarking upon his travels, Tom is knocked unconscious as he attempts to defend Sophie’s honor. Awakening to an empty purse, he flees from an insanely jealous Irishman, Mr. Fitzpatrick (George A. Cooper) who falsely accuses Tom of an affair with his wife (Rosalind Knight). Other incidents on this very bumpy road to self-discovery include a pair of deadly sword fights and a chance meeting between Tom and his presumed father and mother, a certain Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman), whom Tom spares from a maniacal Redcoat Officer. Tom later beds the same Mrs. Waters, their post-coital consumption of a lavish meal at the Upton Inn creating a palpably erotic spark of ignition. In the meantime, Sophie has stolen into the night to escape Blifil. Narrowly passing one another undetected at the Inn, Tom and Sophie separately make their way to London. It does not take long for Tom to garner the attentions of Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood), a licentious tart, born a ‘noblewoman’ in name only. Tom’s senior by some span of years, Bellaston is nevertheless wealthy and still very attractive. She also happens to be an unabashed wanton.
So, what does it say about Tom, enthusiastically bedding ‘the lady’ in order to gain a generous stipend for his…uh…services? Hmmm. Fate catches up with Tom twice; first, rather unexpectedly, facing down a vial crowd, jeering in the square at Tyburn Gaol, aflame for his hanging after Blifil frames him on a charge of robbery and attempted murder. Mercifully, the second blow is in Tom’s favor: Allworthy learning the contents of the mysterious letter intercepted by Blifil. Tom is not Jenny Jones’ son, but Bridget's illegitimate and thus, Allworthy’s nephew. Blifil’s conspiracy to ruin his own half-brother leads to his total disgrace and disinheritance. Allworthy uses the letter to obtain a pardon for Tom; alas, already taken to the gibbet. In the nick of time, Squire Western rescues the young man from certain death. Tom is reunited with Sophie and granted permission to court and wed her with Western's blessing.
Tom Jones is as bawdy as it proves farcical; imbued with a stylized mad genius perennially on display, from fox hunt to sword fight to masquerade ball. Our hero’s episodic misadventures might just as easily be the stuff of gaudy ‘art house’; encounters with town slut, Molly Seagrim (Diane Cilento) or the topsy-turvy upheaval caused by Fitzpatrick’s righteous disgust at having unearthed a bit of scandalous badinage at the inn. Albert Finney’s inveterate playboy is a charismatic rogue, teeming with a Puck-ish desire to turn the world upside down. His counterpoint, Hugh Griffith as Squire Western, is the antithesis of Tom’s youth and vigor. Indeed, his gluttonous behavior may be a signpost pointing in the general direction Tom is headed, should he not heed the call of true love and repent against playing the amiable Lochinvar. Susannah York makes for a comely and good-natured lass who, decidedly, knows her own heart and mind and is not afraid to exercise the privilege of expressing it, defying one suitor to wholeheartedly pursue another of her choice. The picture is too transparently ironic to be truly vulgar and far too sophisticated to be accused of pandering to the lowest common denominator for its box office.
With so much at stake, to find Academy voters just as eager to embrace Tom Jones as the audience is quite refreshing; nominated for a whopping 10 Oscars and winning four: Best Score, Adapted Screenplay, Director, and, most coveted of all, Best Picture. It is one of those film-land ironies, a movie to have pleased so many should cause its own director such consternation. But Tony Richardson has always considered Tom Jones his artistic miscalculation, writing in his autobiography, “I felt the movie to be incomplete and botched in much of its execution. I am not knocking that kind of success – everyone should have it – but whenever someone gushes to me about Tom Jones, I always cringe a little inside.” Under budgetary restrictions and time constraints (128 minutes is hardly an epic), Richardson could not have hoped to squeeze in all of the satirical misfortunes depicted in Fielding’s novel. Miraculously, it doesn’t matter one hoot whole portions of text and many extemporaneous characters have gone missing.
As Bryanston Films, the original company footing the bills, balked at the decision to shoot Tom Jones in color (and ended up bankrupt shortly thereafter), the picture was eventually financed by U.S. monies through United Artists. Cinematographer, Walter Lassally has suggested, although he and Richardson ‘got on well together’, the director apparently ‘lost his way’ during post-production, becoming fixated on endless tinkering where no such pruning or finessing was required. Whatever the truth, there is little to deny nobody on the outside looking in could identify these faults; Tom Jones, ringing registers around the world as the third highest-grossing release in the U.K. in 1963 and the fourth in the U.S. Tom Jones’ miniscule $1 million budget was effectively eclipsed by its $16 million gross state’s side and another $4 million accrued elsewhere. While money alone does not necessarily equate to an artistic triumph, and despite Richardson’s misgivings, the picture remains indelibly etched into movie-goer’s minds as one of the all-time sassy, saucy and salacious good times ever to grace their picture-house screens.
Tom Jones arrives on Blu-ray (long overdue) from Criterion in two different cuts; the 128 minute ‘theatrical’ release seen in 1963, and the 7-minute shorter director’s cut released in 1989 and overseen by cinematographer, Walter Lassally. Both are advertised as a new 4K scan and, with minor caveats, this is the very best Tom Jones has ever looked on home video. Owing to decades of improper storage and lack of restoration, earlier incarnations were frequently plagued by inconsistent and digitized grain; the natural palette of earth tones reduced to a muddy mess. Virtually all of these shortcomings have been rectified in hi-def. The image is remarkably free of age-related artifacts and colors, especially during daytime scenes, greatly improved. Flesh tones are quite natural. Darker sequences continue to lean towards an unhealthy green bias. Criterion’s PCM mono is pretty limited, but is presented at an adequate listening level.
As already stated, we have two versions of the movie to critique. Image quality is virtually identical on both. Two Blu-rays: the first, in addition to housing the Director's Cut, packed with a new 25-minute retrospective featuring Walter Lassally and film critic, Peter Cowie. We also get 22-minutes with film scholar, Duncan Petrie discussing the impact Tom Jones had on British cinema. Finally, there is a 10-minute interview with editor, Robert Lambert. The second disc houses the theatrical release, along with a 4-minute excerpt from a 1982 episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring, Albert Finney. Vanessa Redgrave weighs in on Tony Richardson (a fairly glowing tribute from an ex-wife). Finally, there is an illustrated archival audio interview with composer, John Addison. Capping off our admiration: liner notes by scholar, Neil Sinyard. Bottom line: Tom Jones is an entertaining movie; its technical merits have influenced an entire generation of film-makers. There is an economy to Richardson’s technique, undoubtedly inspired by limitations in his budget, but also the result of his unique parallel impressions of eighteenth and twentieth century life. Tom Jones remains vital and fun-lovingly addictive. Good stuff here – ditto for Criterion’s newly restored edition.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)