Home Video Hovel: Tom Jones, by David Bax
I’ve never loved the sound of the harpsichord as much as I did watching Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones. The instrument has long been associated with the Renaissance and, of course, makes an appearance on the soundtracks of many movies set in that era. In this case, though, it’s something different, the manic pinging of the keys matching the irreverence of what’s onscreen. It’s the perfect accompaniment of what Richardson’s done here, another raspberry blown at the stuffy conventions and expectations of the costume drama.
Tom Jones is based on an 18th century picaresque by Henry Fielding about a bastard child raised by a nobleman. He grows into the handsome Tom (Albert Finney), who loves his adoptive father but has little interest in the propriety or protocols of the upper class in which he travels. He’d prefer to spend his free time eating, drinking, hunting and, most importantly, getting to know women intimately. Basically, he’s a good dude with few manners in a society peopled mostly by bad dudes who possess both the decorum and the hypocrisy to appear solemn and virtuous in public.
One of Richardson’s chief assaults on the genre’s traditions is in his stylistic approach. He adapts the handmade, proto-indie feel of his earlier kitchen sink dramas (Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey) to the 1700s and then adds a mugging, winking sense of humor not dissimilar to Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which would come out the following year. The result is a blend of handheld cinematography, freeze frames, direct address, extreme close-ups and plenty more shockingly immediate directorial ploys. All of them come together in one of Tom Jones’ two centerpiece scenes, a great deer hunt that is ambitiously staged and choreographed with a bevy of costumes, actors and, hopefully, very skilled stuntmen. The hunt sequence, like the movie as a whole, is thrilling, funny, occasionally terrifying and, most of all, delightfully chaotic.
It’s incredibly rare that a comedy wins the Academy Award for Best Picture, especially as full-throated a member of the genre as this is. The laughs range from the ribald (“It’s a good night to be abroad and looking for game,” Tom says to a wanton lass he encounters in the woods while hunting for birds) to the dry, self-aware commentary of the narration by Micheál Mac Liammmóir (“We are all as God made us, and many of us much worse”) to the ascendant absurdity of the movie’s other centerpiece scene, a wordless stretch of celluloid in which Finney and Joyce Redman flirtatiously and suggestively consume an increasingly ludicrous amount of food. Tom Jones is almost certainly the funniest Best Picture winner but that’s not saying much. It’s also one of the funniest films of its entire era.
Criterion’s transfer was both scanned and restored in 4K, from the original camera negative along with a hodgepodge of interpositives and internegatives to fill in the gaps. Frankly, the inconsistency, necessary though it may have been, shows. This is especially true during the film’s many dissolves, most of which are accompanied by noticeable downgrades in clarity and color fidelity. There’s also some day for night that looks bad but, really, does day for night ever look good? The audio sounds good, though. Especially that harpsichord!
Special features include a new featurette on the cinematography with director of photography Walter Lassally, a new interview with film scholar Duncan Petrie, an excerpt of a 1982 episode of The Dick Cavett Show with Finney, a new interview with Vanessa Redgrave (who was married to Richardson), an audio interview with composer John Addison and a new interview with Robert Lambert, who edited the director’s cut.