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Tom Jones

Directed by Tony Richardson starring Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffiths, Diane Cilento and Edith Evans, 128 minutes, color, 1963

A Rural James Bond

Albert Finney is Tom Jones

Albert Finney plays Tom Jones

By Carter B. Horsley

"Tom Jones" is the 1963 film frolic of Edward Fielding's droll 18th Century comedic novel with very memorable performances by Albert Finney and Hugh Griffith and engaging and energetic direction by Tony Richardson, who had previously done such serious works as "Look Back In Anger" and "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner."

It is a rollicking delight, full of quirky surprises on a quite rocky road that includes a lickety-split deer-hunt on horseback and a lot of liasons.

It is a self-conscious endeavor with smirks, asides and jerky action, to say nothing of improbabilities.  It is a British interpretation of the recent French New Wave in which humor always flaunt interruptions of the storyline.

In his October 8. 1963 review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that viewers should be prepared "for what is surely one of the wildest, bawdiest and funniest comedies that a refreshingly agile filmmaker has ever brought to the screen."

He argued, correctly, that director Richardson and his scenarist, John Osborne of "Angry Young Man" fame, have "whipped out a roaring entertainment that develops its own cinematic gusto from the racy material it presents."

"At the very beginning, for instance, before the main title comes on, they serve astonishing notice that this is to be a lark in movie terms. Home comes the righteous Squire Allworthy to find a bawling infant in his bed and the hint of an amatory scandal lurking somewhere below his stairs. But do you think this conventional prologue is done in conventional style? Not at all! It is done in mock depictment of an old melodramatic silent film, with the action fast and the cutting frequent, printed titles instead of dialogue and a wild din of spinnet music setting an antique tone. And then, as the camera hits a close-up of the baby and as the title is superimposed, the voice of a primly sly narrator comes in to say, 'Tom Jones, of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged.'  And the breakneck pace set in the prologue is miraculously maintained to the measures of a highly contributive musical accompaniment composed by John Addison. Mr. Addison's score, so full of mischief, instrumental and melodic, swings along with the breathtaking tempo of the action."

Indeed, the score is marvelous, full-spirited fun and it won an Academy Award as did the picture, the director and the editor, Walter Lassaly, none of the superb actors.

Hugh Griffiths

Hugh Griffith

Finney, Crowther mused, "is tops in the title role, but Hugh Griffith is his match as Squire Western, the snorting, cursing, barnyard-mannered goat," adding that "Mr. Griffith is everything that Fielding intended him to be—fire-eater, hypocrite, lecher—with a madcap style of his own."

In his essay on the film included in the Blu-ray edition, Neil Sinyard notes that when Henry Fielding's satire, "The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling" was published in 1749, it was "widely admired as a landmark in the form of the English novel, innovatory in its technique, unsurpassed in the ingenuity of its structure, and unprecedented in the breadth and variety of its characterization and social scope."  Not everyone agreed: "The age’s most formidable arbiter of literary taste, Samuel Johnson, pronounced it 'so vicious a book . . . I scarcely know a more corrupt work,' and the bishop of London thought its publication was partially responsible for two earthquakes that rocked the capital the following year."

Diane Cilentro as Molly Seagrim

Diane Cilentro as Molly Seagrim

"Finney has said he never liked the title role, feeling that Tom was too passive a character to allow him the opportunity for much real acting. Yet that passivity is important, for it is a facet of Tom’s sensitivity. He is a lover, not a lecher, and never proceeds with sexual advances without invitation. Indeed, in Tom’s scenes with the predatory Molly Seagrim (Diane Cilento at her most alluring), the film perfectly captures the feeling implicit in Fielding’s comment that 'Jones had more regard for her virtue than she herself.' And for all Finney’s qualms, it is hard to imagine another young English actor of that time who could have conveyed Tom’s good nature so robustly, for it is essential to the moral scheme of the tale that, for all his sexual susceptibility, Tom’s generosity of heart is infinitely to be preferred to the ostensible virtue but secret malevolence of Squire Allworthy’s nephew, Blifil (a suitably sinister David Warner)....

Albert Finney and Joyce Redman

Albert Finney and Joyce Redman

“'I have shot it all as if it were happening today,' Richardson told Life magazine. Throwing caution—and the rule book for reverential adaptation—to the wind, he deployed a gallimaufry of gleefully obtrusive devices to galvanize the narrative. The tone is set by a madcap opening that covers the first two chapters of the novel in about five minutes of screen time, rendering the mysterious circumstances of Tom’s birth in the style of silent comedy, all accompanied by John Addison’s jaunty, harpsichord-dominated score, which will throughout contribute much to the film’s sense of gaiety and mischief....

Finney and York

Albert Finney and Susannah York

"Yet the runaway success of the film was due not to its skill in capturing the spirit of a 1749 classic but to its felicity in catching the mood of 1963. With the soaring popularity of the Beatles, the sixties had started to swing, and Tom Jones became part of the revolution. It brought a colorful and joyous exuberance back into British cinema. Tom Jones himself seemed an oddly modern figure, a hero who cheerfully exemplified the possibilities of social mobility and did so without a class chip on his shoulder. He could also be seen as a sort of rural James Bond, the depiction of his amorous appetites exemplifying the trend of saucy screen comedy reflecting the decade’s sexual emancipation....

Susannah York as Sophie

Susannah York as Sophie

"Nevertheless, if Tom Jones was a film of and for its time, it merits celebration as the work of a fine artist who, deservedly and unexpectedly, for once struck gold. He would surely have been entitled at that point to rejoice in the narrator’s final words in the film, quoting from a translation of Horace by the seventeenth-century English poet John Dryden, as Tom is united at last with Sophie:

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own;
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today."
It is syncopated with the dizzying wobble of a hand-held camera.

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This film ranks 58th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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