Tom Jones (1963, Tony Richardson)

For not at all the first time since I’ve been writing about movies, I find myself at a disadvantage: unfamiliarity with a film’s very famous source material. Though I was pretty doggedly interested in British literature as a young adult, Henry Fielding and his Tom Jones entirely eluded me. I must someday read the book, for it’s integral to the introduction of the novel as a viable artform in England, but for now we’re left with this broad sex comedy that didn’t seem to me to carry much literary value beyond its bizarrely convoluted story, which appears now a fussy mucking up of a pretty simple idea: the virtuous but sexually charged title character (Albert Finney, alternately charming and irksome) is contrasted with the stuffed-shirt hypocrisy of his enemy Blifil (David Warner, delightful as always). Tom’s adventures lead to much conspiring against him, but ultimately it’s revealed he can do whatever he wants because, surprise, he’s actually part of the aristocracy. Hmm.

I hope it doesn’t brand me a philistine — or maybe I don’t mind if it does — if I confess I had a lot of trouble following the plot of this movie, which is quite sprawling at well over two hours but moves through its sequences and tangents so rapidly it plays like a gag reel for a longer movie. Despite its surviving reputation as a prestige picture, it has an air of exciting newness and influence about it; its mainstream popularity likely stemmed from both the general worldwide adherence to costume pieces that continues to this day, and its resemblance to a number of beloved screwball comedies of that genre’s heyday. But what’s interesting about the film is its probable introduction of a directorial and (especially) editing style we much more fondly remember from Richard Lester and Nicolas Roeg’s work of the period — a rapid-fire, surreal, only vaguely logical sequence of sweeping transitions and jump cuts that create both an illusion of life and express a story with a speed and persistence only possible in cinema. There’s a debt, of course, to Nouvelle Vague and Breathless, but it’s fair to say Godard would never have expected his ideas to appear in service of a film like this!

Still, as lengthy adaptations of eighteeth-century novels about troublemaking young men go, I’ll take Barry Lyndon, in large part because that film’s comic sensibilities don’t seem wholly divorced from real life. I love breaking the fourth wall — I’m a great fan of Moonlighting, for instance — and I have no objections whatsoever to this film’s emphatic good nature, even if its typically British nonchalance about violent death admittedly troubles me a tiny bit, but I can’t really abide by cutesiness. Cutesy pretension, at that, for on some level this all seems like self-congratulation: a lot of very earthy things, sex and liveliness and slapstick and a love of literature, elevated to a rather self-aware slickness, making its frivolity out to be something far more important than a more effective, unforced movie might have.

Director Tony Richardson was never terribly happy with the film, chiseling away at it for decades; we sense that he knew there was something stronger buried in it, as in the cinematic expertise of something like the hunting sequences (which are beautiful but go on forever) and a number of the chases. But the abject busyness of it all is fatal — on the rare occasions that the movie slows down enough to provide some character development, it’s too creaky and distant to involve us at all. There are all sorts of ideas stuffed above capacity into Fielding’s story here — the then-highly unusual silent film parody that precedes the credits; all of the mugging and chatting with the camera; and of course, Jones’ famous use of his hat to cover up the lens when a graphic sex scene is supposedly about to occur.

Which brings us to the film’s own hypocrisy, something that isn’t really its own fault but casts it as the victim of the censorship of its era. While by 1963, directors like Hitchcock and Wilder had begun to ignore the Production Code and were releasing films that would merit R ratings (or close) today, it’s surprising that a film made in England (though partially financed by an American studio, United Artists) would’ve had trouble with any sort of sexual frankness. Nevertheless, the entire story of Tom Jones hinges upon his sexual escapades and his constant flirting with and bedding of women, which is an awkward thing to present without, you know, showing it. Like The Apartment before it, Tom Jones stands out as a film that presents women in a sexual manner without demeaning or condescending to them, depicting sex as a positive endeavor and using promiscuity as a plot point without typical American finger-wagging. In that sense, not to mention its derision toward moral “authority” (the Church of England, here), it’s actually still ahead of its time, but each time Jones and a prospective mate start so much as kissing open-mouthed, a narrator announces that we must now end the scene so as to be polite. This sort of silly titillation dates the film, but perhaps I’m just unfairly wishing we got to enjoy more than a dialogue-heavy blip of the outstanding and sensual performances by Diane Cilento, Susannah York, and Lynn Redgrave, all of whom outpace Finney for charm — and look, let’s be clear about the film’s intent as a secret fantasy-builder for middle-aged marrieds: they’re not awful to look at either, nor is Finney.

Richardson gets around all this by using simple day-to-day movement, eavesdropping, and most famously, eating as onscreen sexual acts. The eating scene, which was largely improvised, goes on for ages and does indeed feature some of the earliest verifiable acts of oral sex on camera (see L’age d’Or and Strangers on a Train for two older ones) — it’s just that they’re performed on chicken wings. Or whatever the hell that is that they’re eating. Like so much of Tom Jones, it’s a clever scene that makes its point and then fails to move on; such moments compose roughly half of the narrative, the other half being things that happen so fast you can’t get a handle on them before they’re over. What I’m getting at, I suppose, is — this is an instance of a film being less than the sum of its parts. There are so many lively ideas in it, and it’s a warm enough environment that you want to be immersed in it. But it’s such a complete mess as a piece of storytelling that it won’t let us. It keeps us at arm’s length, and Albert Finney covering the camera with his hat is only the most literal example.

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