Tom Jones

I.

Tom Jones is more a parody of Henry Fielding's classic novel than an adaptation. For some reason best known to director Tony Richardson, scenarist John Osborne, and the seven wise New York daily reviewers, the film opens with a mock-silent movie episode spoofing the discovery of the foundling Tom Jones in Squire Allworthy's bed. At this juncture the camera is unusually jittery and the color agonizingly murky even for a parody of Edwin S. Porter, but little does the unwary spectator suspect how much the whole film is going to resemble the dream of a rarebit fiend.

One detail will suffice to convey the alien spirit of the sequence. Basic situation: Man in nightshirt shocks spinsterish servant. Here is Fielding's version:

"She therefore no sooner opened the door, and saw her master standing by the bedside in his shirt, with a candle in his hand, than she started back in a most terrible fright, and might perhaps have swooned away, had he not now recollected his being undressed, and put an end to her terrors by desiring her to stay without the door till he had thrown some clothes over his back, and was become incapable of shocking the pure eyes of Mrs. Deborah Wilkins, who, though in the fifty-second year of her age, vowed she had never beheld a man without his coat. Sneerers and profane wits may perhaps laugh at her first fright; yet my graver reader, when he considers the time of night, the situation in which she found her summons from her bed, and the master, will highly justify and applaud her conduct unless the prudence which must be supposed to attend maidens at that period of life at which Mrs. Deborah had arrived, should a little lessen his admiration.

Richardson and Osborne, like the astute vaudevillians they are, have streamlined this commentary into one guffaw-provoking image (on the anal level) of Allworthy's posterior. Not that they had much leeway in compressing an 824-page novel into a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie. Granted. But the Osborne-Richardson perversion of Fielding goes beyond mere compression. One of the most admired scenes in the film concerns the sensual first supper of Tom Jones and Mrs. Waters. For once Walter Lassally's epileptic camera is steady as Richardson cross-cuts between Albert Finney and Joyce Redman as they devour fish, fowl, and crustacean with voluptuous slurps. The scene is well acted and reasonably effective for what it conveys—a cliché of Merrie Olde Elizabethan England indulging the twin appetites of gluttony and lust. This is a cliché derived not from Elizabethan drama, which is quite neurotic about sex, but from old Charles Laughton impersonations of Henry VIII eating with his hands while leering at the ladies of the court. The main point, however, is that the scene is derived not from the moral serenity of Fielding's world but from the yowling nursery of Osborne's anger. Eat, drink, and be merry before the Establishment gets you. That's Osborne, not Fielding. The way Fielding does the scene, Mrs. Waters waits until Tom has finished slobbering his food and then seduces him, not with her saliva but with her luminous eyes. As James Thurber once remarked, you can look it up.

II.

I had not intended originally to belabor Tom Jones two weeks running, but as so often happens in this imperfect world, the demons of disorder intervened. Somewhere between the typewriter and the typesetter half of my scintillating review mysteriously disappeared. Unfortunately, last week's abridged blast failed to do full justice to Tony Richardson's strenuous misdirection, and it seldom happens that a film is at once so popular and so instructively inept. Last week, if I recall correctly, we established that Tom Jones is not particularly faithful to the novel of the same title by an eighteenth-century novelist named Henry Fielding. I would be the last to argue that infidelity, in and of itself, is a capital crime as far as film adaptations of novels are concerned. Yet it should be noted that Fielding is at least a few notches above the novels-for-filming syndicate of Braine, Wain, Sillitoe, and Waterhouse, and even above such titans of the dishpan-and-desire theater as John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney. Tony Richardson can jazz up and distort his contemporaries to his eclectic heart's desire even if it means making bad movies out of such effective theater pieces as Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, and A Taste of Honey, but poor Henry Fielding lacks even an agent to protect his artistic interests. Hence my objections.

The basic Fielding plot is undoubtedly a refreshing change of pace for audiences weary of the dreary ennui (not to mention Antoniennui) of much of today's plotless film-making. Why, then, does Richardson feel it necessary to apologize coyly at every opportunity for the contrivances and coincidences that have delighted readers for more than two centuries? (Was it only fifteen years ago that appreciative audiences at Radio City Music Hall applauded David Lean's "straight" treatment of Dickens' equally outrageous Great Expectations?) I suspect that Richardson has shrewdly gauged current audience psychology, torn between an emotional longing for direct storytelling and the intellectual guilt fostered by that longing. To satisfy the longing, Richardson vulgarizes Fielding down to the level of a road company production of The Drunkard until even Dame Edith Evans begins to sound like Marjorie Main essaying The Importance of Being Earnest for the Sioux Falls Stock Company. To placate the guilt Richardson fragments his footage into jiggling bits and pieces and then splices it all together with the kind of ornamental wipes, iris dissolves, and flip-page transitions that would be considered excessive on the opening credits of a Jerry Lewis movie. Thus, as the film's content becomes more synthetic, the form becomes more analytical. The simplicity of the what is redeemed by the complexity of the how, and with the plot safely nailed down, the reviewer is free to rave over Richardson's "cinematic" style.

An interesting example of overcompensation is involved here. It is always literary people who seem most concerned about what is and what is not "cinematic." Yet excessive technical flourishes very often signal the director's condescension to a genre or to the medium itself. Robert Wise's Gothic mannerisms make The Haunting just about the silliest movie of the year. Wise is a dully realistic director on subjects he considers "serious," but throw in a few ghosts and he becomes a gibbering stylist. John Huston's characteristically sour direction of The List of Adrian Messenger is a more complex example of stylistic corruption resulting from lack of conviction.

Similarly, Richardson, who has spent his directorial career thinking up tricks to conceal the fatal indecisiveness of his characters, suddenly goes berserk when he is confronted "by a full-bodied plot. All the outdated nouvelle vague stunts in Tom Jones only emphasize Richardson's pathetic inability to tell a story with his camera, to describe a place with the slightest degree of spatial unity, or to move from shot to shot without making a separate production out of each time lapse.

Richardson could be forgiven a great deal if he had at least managed to be funny, and I am talking now about comedy/ha-ha rather than comedy/chuckle-chuckle. Even if Richardson were better with players than he is, his cutting and jiggling never permit them to establish any style or rhythm. When one thinks of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Mae West, W. C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers, one thinks invariably of relatively simple single-take techniques emphasizing the rhythms and movements not of the cutter or the cameraman but of the comedian. In itself montage is not very funny unless your taste runs to the Kerensky-Napoleon "jokes" in Eisenstein's October.

Where Richardson goes most wrong, however, is in forgetting that in this cowardly old world, if not in the brave new one, the motion picture is at most a spectacle, however sublime, and not a sublimation, however ridiculous. The frenzied agitato of Lassally's camera becomes monotonous after more than two hours of unrelieved eyestrain, and no valid aesthetic purpose is served by this optical torture. In fact, the agitato only emphasizes itself, and there is consequently little contrast between one character and another, between one mode of existence and another, even between one locale and another. For example, one of Fielding's most inspired bursts of humor involves the hot-tempered Squire Western, who interrupts his pursuit of his errant daughter to join in a hunt along the way. This is a joke of character, a monstrously funny joke based on the rupture of a paternal obligation by an atavistic impulse. Richardson loses the joke completely because he has created such a zany atmosphere that Squire Western's action seems entirely normal. As for the editing of the action on film, a process the French call découpage, Richardson displays a clumsiness that would be beyond mere technique if it were not so obviously beneath it.

(Village Voice, October 17 and 24, 1963)