Classic Movie Review: Tom Jones (1963)
Tom Jones is an adaptation of Henry Fielding's picaresque novel. It is about a foundling taken in by Squire Allworthy and raised as a gentleman. He of course is a casanova, a drinker and a carouser who is in love with his childhood sweetheart, but can't keep it in his pants long enough to actually settle down. That and he's base born so her father Squire Western won't except him and with Squire Allworthy's nephew Blifil will find any attempt to bring down his uncle's favorite. It stars the late Albert Finney, Susannah York, and Hugh Griffith amongst dozens of others and is directed by Tony Richardson.
For those who didn't take European literature courses, a picaresque novel is defined by having a hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society (see the Wikipedia article). A number of adaptations of these kinds of novels have been made as the texts are usually long and filled with vibrant characters and dramatic situations. Though, Tom Jones the film, leans very heavily on the satire and humor of it all imbuing the visual product with many styles.
The film starts as a silent picture. There are title cards, characters making grand emotive gestures and faces. Then there are shifts. It's a farce with lots of physical comedy, sped up footage, scenes where a progression of still photos serve to give us emotional joy without the burden of exposition, fourth wall breaking with Tom asking for help or charming us directly. There's also a narrator who saves us from the bawdiness of sex and helps us with the morals of the time. It's a bit of a mess stylistically. With material as dense and broad as this, the constant shifts in style are tiresome. It shifts so often, we only see the bare minimum of Tom himself.
Tom is explained to us by the narrator, he's explained to us by the characters that love him and the characters that hate him, but he's never really there. Tom is just a figure rather than a three dimensional character. Things happen to him without him as a person with agency it feels like. He is who he is on the screen and won't change or grow. Of course, until he lucks into status as the true nature of his birth is revealed. Albert Finney is charming and roguish, but the character is just non-existent. That's the weirdness the film embraces though.
My favorite scene is a part of that weirdness. It's screwball comedy as Tom and Mrs. Waters, played by Joyce Redman, get to an inn for the night. Even though neither of them have any money, they share an extravagant amount of food. Not all at once, though. Each dish we are treated to one character looking at us as they tear into meat or slurp soup suggestively. The characters trying to seduce each other, and us, with their ravenous "appetite." It's one of those scenes that's the strange kind of sexy, but very funny all around. I especially love as Mrs. Waters licks her chicken drumstick and can't fit it in her mouth the way she wants.
Though, contrast that with the other scene I will never forget, the hunting scene. I'm not a hunter. Never have been, likely never will be if our world continues in its current state of civility and non-apocalypse. I don't discourage those that hunt for food, but boy to I not want to see the violence it causes, especially here. I should have gotten concerned once I noticed that none of the people on the hunt had weapons. There were at least two dozen dogs and that many animals chasing after prey is not going to be pretty. The sweeping vistas, the odd hunter falling off his horse or having it trip underneath him, the bloodlust of the riders, their horses being beaten and bloodied to go faster, it's all there and engrossing despite the ridiculous length of the scenario. Then the deer is caught and there are the split second, but easily seen, scenes of the dogs tearing a deer to pieces. They won't show me the tons of sex, but I have to watch dogs eviscerating a deer and the characters smearing blood on their faces. Oof.
That brings us, though to the leader of the hunt, Squire Western, played brilliantly by Hugh Griffith. I don't know if it was natural instinct, superb directing, or a combination of the two, but Griffith knocks his performance up to another level. His improvisations are just perfect and just this side of taking a viewer completely out of the experience. Whether he's eating and speaking, lying drunk in a pile of dogs and hay, offering a dog some cider from his tankard, or grabbing the nearest servant girl to have a literal roll in the hay, he's on and it's brilliant. It's a ridiculous comic performance and entirely steals the show.
Tom Jones, the character and the film are not perfect, but it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Some parts drag and for some reason they couldn't get the right equipment to shoot at night and all of those scenes are way too dark, but the film is well worth your time and effort to seek it out. It is available for rent on DVD from Netflix.