Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones is the ballsiest Best Picture winner of the 1960s, and one of the most creatively daring films to win the prize. The film received a long overdue Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection on Feb. 27.
Richardson was one of the major figures of the British New Wave and already had several classics under his belt by the time he came to Tom Jones in 1963. Rather than continue with his downbeat, gritty and realistic movies, he took a detour to Henry Fielding’s mammoth 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
The story concerns the titular character, played brilliantly by Albert Finney. Tom was a foundling – that is, a baby born out-of-wedlock. But Squire Allworthy (George Devine) decides to raise him as his own son and puts up with his wild and salacious behavior. Tom jumps from bed to bed and sword fight to sword fight until eventually being cast out to London. Along the way, he has tortured his beloved Sophie Western (Susannah York), disgraced Allworthy and embarrassed everyone else he knows.
Rather than film it like a stagey, period costume drama, Richardson and cinematographer Walter Lassally chose to use the camera and editing like they would for a modern comedy. They decided if everything else about the film was correct to the period, the one thing they could play with was form. Characters are always breaking the fourth wall, the film’s prologue is shot like a silent movie and the gorgeous hunting sequence was partially shot with a helicopter.
Life is not all fun and games in Tom Jones though. Like Fielding, Richardson’s film is critical of nearly every aspect of uptight British society. We see the hypocrisy of religion, the pointlessness of class distinctions and the jarring difference between country life and urban society.
Tom Jones is an imperfect film, and Richardson apparently had a combative relationship with his own work. Although it won him two Oscars (for directing and Best Picture as its producer), he did not feel that the released film was his best work. In 1989, just two years before his death from AIDS at age 63, Richardson went back to the editing room to create a new director’s cut. Unlike most director’s cuts, this one is actually shorter by seven minutes.
Albert Finney also did not care for the film, even though it made him an international star. He thought Tom was too light a character, with little dramatic weight. And the film also has not aged all that well. What was considered risqué in the early 1960s was not even risque by the end of the decade, never mind 50+ years later. While the eating scene is delightful, some of the other gags just aren’t that funny any longer.
Tom Jones‘ strong suit though is the performances from a great cast of British character actors. Susannah York is also enchanting as Sophie.
The director’s cut had long been the only version available on home video, although MGM briefly accidentally released it on DVD before it was replaced. Now, the two cuts available side-by-side thanks to Criterion. Richardson tried a little too hard to refine the movie. Every gag – even the improvised ones – feel part of a cog that a wheel needs to work.
The transfer is based on a new 4K restoration, supervised by Lassally before his death last year. It looks astoundingly beautiful, and a vast improvement from the old DVD. However, it’s the supplements that feel a little weak. While every feature is useful, there is nothing about the Fielding novel. Here’s what we get:
Disc 1: Director’s Cut
- 1989 Director’s Cut (121 minutes)
- Walter Lassally – This is the best feature on the set. It is a 24-minute program mostly built on a 2017 interview between Lassally and Peter Cowie. Criterion also included excerpts from a 2004 interview with Lassally. Although very technical, the piece shows how radical the production was and where it fits in Richardson’s career.
- Duncan Petrie – For 22 minutes, film scholar Duncan Petrie breaks down Richardson’s career, the response to Tom Jones and how it reshaped British cinema.
- Robert Lambert – Late in his career, Richardson worked with editor Robert Lambert, who he enlisted to help on the 1989 director’s cut. He discusses the making of the re-edit for about 10 minutes.
Disc 2: Theatrical Cut
- 1963 Theatrical Cut (128 minutes)
- Albert Finney – Criterion only included a four-minute excerpt of Finney’s 1982 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, in which he talks about just Tom Jones. It’s a little disappointing, since complete Cavett episodes have been included on previous Blu-rays.
- Vanessa Redgrave – Vanessa Redgrave is not in Tom Jones, but she recorded this new interview to discuss her former husband. They were married from 1962 to 1967, so she has a very personal point of view on the film. A fantastic addition.
- John Addison – Lastly, Criterion includes an eight-minute audio interview with John Addison, who won an Oscar for the film’s jaunty score.
- “Tomorrow Do Thy Worst” – Scholar Neil Sinyard provides a short essay in the insert. He discusses the novel, but much of his essay is covered by Petrie as well.
Tom Jones is a classic, although certainly not one of the best Best Picture winners. It’s also not one of Richardson’s best movies. It’s still a lot of fun, and proof that you can be a little silly and still win the top Oscar. However, there is a reason why this has not held up as well as the other mammoth 1960s Best Picture winners, like Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Cowboy and even My Fair Lady.
Criterion’s edition is also a little disappointing, as there’s no commentary and no discussion of the Fielding novel. But it’s a must-have for any fan of the film. There’s no way we will ever get a better release.
Thanks to the Criterion Collection for the disc to review!