By the early ’60s, film director Tony Richardson was best known as a proponent of the British New Wave. His films, such as The Entertainer (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961), drew inspiration from the French New Wave, featured black-and-white cinematography in a pseudo-documentary style of shooting, and employed location shooting with real people (rather than extras) in the background. Richardson was also strongly associated with the “angry young men” of the ’50s that included the authors John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe. Osborne and Richardson were frequent collaborators, co-founded Woodfall Film Productions, and made a lasting impact in film with their 1959 adaptation of Osborne’s celebrated play, Look Back in Anger. These stories, plays, and films, sometimes dubbed “kitchen sink realism”, attempted to open up the subject matter of British literature and theater to include the vicissitudes of working class life, class struggle, and particularly the position of young men who felt trapped in a world not of their making and in which they found it impossible to escape their social condition, impossible to find satisfaction, impossible to attain any sense of equilibrium.
Given his output up to that point, the last thing one might have expected from Tony Richardson in 1963 was a period piece shot in Eastman color, but that is precisely what he delivered. Richardson set Osborne to work on a screen adaptation of the 1749 Henry Fielding novel Tom Jones, a Foundling, a work considered by at least one of its contemporaries to be so scandalous as to be responsible for the two earthquakes London experienced the year after its appearance. The novel was experimental in its form, bawdy in its content, and irreverent in its narration. Osborne’s screenplay and Richardson’s direction attempted to repay their source in kind.
There are broadly comic allusions to past filmic styles (the discovery of the baby Tom at the opening of the film is handled in the manner of a silent-era farce, while a later chase scene alludes to the Keystone Kops), overt examples of film clichés (the iris shot to highlight a recurring character who spies on Tom, stop-action during the scenes of flirtation between Tom and his true love Sophie, the use of still photographs when two characters listen in on a conversation through a keyhole), the constant breaking of the fourth wall (the most notable being when we are led to believe that Tom may have inadvertently bedded his own mother and that personage looks directly at us, smiles, and shrugs it off), and a general sense of riotous revelry that seems smugly satisfied with its irreverence, borne aloft on the carefree wings of its ebullience.
On the surface, indeed, Tom Jones has little in common with the “angry young men” of Richardson and Osborne’s recent past. The film tracks the foundling Tom Jones from the moment of his discovery in the bed of his protector Squire Allworthy (George Devine). Believing the baby to be the illegitimate offspring of the servant Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman) and the barber Mr. Partridge (Jack MacGowran), Allworthy dismisses them and decides to raise the “bastard” boy. Jones (Albert Finney) grows up to be good-hearted and good-looking. His charm draws many women to him including the gamekeeper’s daughter, Molly Seagrim (Diane Cilento). Tom garners the admiration of his drunken neighbor Squire Western (Hugh Griffith), who approves of Tom’s rakish behavior, but that gentleman strongly objects to Tom’s burgeoning affection for his daughter, the charming Sophie (Susannah York). Essentially, the narrative traces Tom’s variegated amorous escapades and manly exploits (including swordplay, chivalrous rescues, and dodging jealous cuckolds) until the point that he is proven to be worthy of attaining Sophie.
Albert Finney as Tom Jones (© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved) (IMDB)
Unlike the angry young men, Tom seems genuinely happy amidst the turmoil of his life. While he longs for Sophie, he certainly doesn’t object to his rendezvous with other women; he may wish to unite his soul with Sophie’s but, in the meantime, he enjoys lending out his body to others. And yet, there are commonalities between the angry young men and Tom. Tom is largely passive (which is the primary reason Finney didn’t enjoy playing the character—he felt that it didn’t provide much opportunity for real acting). He obligingly acquiesces to the various offers of lascivious encounter he receives, but he rarely instigates them. Similarly, the angry young men, for all of their willingness to protest their conditions and for all their bellicosity toward a system that thwarts them, are able to accomplish very little through their efforts. Indeed, that is the source of their ire: the system against which they rail deprives them of any effective agency.
Think of the rebellious act of Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) that serves as the climax of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). Colin merely stops running in order to defy the Governor (Michael Redgrave) of the Approved School to which he’s been assigned. His act of autonomy consists in rendering himself openly passive—that is, standing still—and the effect of it is simply to return him to his lowly status at the school, working in the machine shop; his moment of agency (such as it is) gets him nowhere. The angry young men, no less than Tom, are the playthings of fate. For Tom and the angry young men, all the world is a courtroom, judging and evaluating them, condemning them to a life they would hardly choose for themselves, and remanding them to a state of utter passivity—it just so happens that Tom enjoys his captivity.
In some ways, one might regard Tom Jones as the obverse of the “angry young man” films of Richardson’s immediate past. Whereas those young men faced the world with a ubiquitous bitter scowl, Tom gazes out upon it with an open and somewhat naïve smile. Both the angry young man and Tom are callow fellows full of undirected energy but for Tom that translates to a raucous exuberance whereas for the angry young man it results in boiling frustration. Tom shines brightly upon a world that refuses to take him seriously; the angry young man burns inwardly, immolating himself in the heat of his rage. Tom, finding no place vouchsafed for him within society, helps himself to whatever fate places in his path and seems eternally grateful for whatever handout he happens upon; the angry young man, finding only a place in society that he detests, lunges at opportunities that remain outside of his grasp and broadcasts his conviction that the world which refuses him is for that very reason debased and crooked.
One comes away from an “angry young man” film inevitably thinking that if only the protagonist had been born into a different situation all would be fine. He is not incapable, nor immoral, nor without talent. The world is arbitrary and indifferent and failure is a matter of birth as much as it is a matter of a lack of accomplishment. One comes away from Tom Jones inevitably acknowledging that as soon as the protagonist is revealed to be the illegitimate son of Squire Allworthy’s sister, and not his servant, all of Tom’s troubles end and all of the obstacles standing between himself and Sophie evaporate. The world is arbitrary and indifferent and success is a matter of birth regardless of accomplishment and character. Sure—we are told over and again of Tom’s good character (long before we know of his proper heritage) and sometimes we even see evidence of it, but without being the son of a noblewoman he was to be hanged and as the son of a noblewoman he attains his deepest desire. His goodwill earned him nothing. The narrator (a brilliantly droll Micheál MacLiammóir) even emphasizes the point: “To die for a cause is a common evil, to die for nonsense is the devil, and t’would be the devil’s own nonsense to leave Tom Jones without a rescuer.” It is at this moment that Squire Western (who only wants to rescue Tom because he has just learned of his noble birth) cuts Tom down from the hangman’s noose—as if required only by the desire of the narrator to keep his story without bitter consequence.
In short, Tom Jones is not the break from Richardson’s earlier work that it is so often perceived to be. It simply provides the negative image of those earlier films. The world is still unjust and unreasonable; only here the protagonist’s attitude toward it has changed. In place of the angry young man, Tom Jones offers us the happy young man. But make no mistake. This disposition, blessed as it may be to the naïf, is no more effectual than the rancor exuded by Tom’s angry counterparts. Indeed, perhaps Tom Jones can be seen as the insipidly nihilistic answer to those earlier films (the nihilism of eudemonia)—if all action is pointless and the world offers no meaningful sense of value, then why insist on dignity and worth as do the angry young men? We might as well enjoy the empty spectacle, grab our pleasures as they come, and face absurdity with a smile.
Criterion Collection recently released a Blu-ray special edition of Tom Jones featuring two versions of the film: the original theatrical release and a “director’s cut” prepared by Richardson in 1989. Unlike nearly every other director’s cut with which I’m familiar, this one actually cuts seven minutes from the film. Richardson was never quite satisfied with Tom Jones, despite its success, and it is interesting to consider the material he trimmed. The edition includes a discussion with the film’s cinematographer Walter Lassally, a lecture by Duncan Petrie on the film’s importance in the history of cinema, a clip of an interview of Finney by Dick Cavett, a recent interview with Vanessa Redgrave (who was married to Richardson at the time of filming Tom Jones), an interview with the composer John Addison, and an interview with the editor of the director’s cut Robert Lambert.