Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959); The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960); Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960); A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961); The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962); Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963); Girl with Green Eyes (Desmond Davis, 1964); The Knack … and How to Get It (Richard Lester, 1965)
* * *
Any viewer with a sketchy exposure to what has commonly been called the British New Wave will find enlightenment in BFI’s recent release, Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema, a hefty, nine-disc set featuring eight films. Further enrichment can be located in the set’s wealth of extras, which includes an 80-page booklet and more than 20 hours of additional material.
I need to confess that, in advance of this set, I’d only seen three of these films, which were all released in the years spanning 1959 to 1965. During those years I had a good excuse for missing nearly all of them, as I was an adolescent in a town of middling size in northwestern Ohio, where small movie theaters were largely strangers to Woodfall releases. Thanks to the inclusiveness of the BFI collection, I’m now somewhat caught up.
One Woodfall production – Tom Jones (1963) – did make it to the cinema of my midwestern youth, where it pounced with maximum impact on my fifteen-year-old sensibilities. Although the film had not been made, issued, or marketed as anything other than a crowd-pleaser – however unorthodox – it was likely a first taste of a different sort of film art than any I’d been exposed to. Tom Jones moved, acted, and looked like life incarnate. From then on, I knew to expect more from the movies.
Woodfall had obviously produced Tom Jones for broad, international distribution, unlike their earlier, more modest, art house efforts, but, as this set makes clear, those earlier productions workshopped those elements – location shooting, stylistic editing, indigenous, naturalized acting – that made Tom Jones the exciting revelatory experience it was and is.
Woodfall had been the brainchild, in partnership with playwright John Osborne, of Tony Richardson, so it’s not surprising that five of the eight films included in BFI’s collection were directed by Richardson and that half of them are adapted plays, of which two – Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960) – had been written for the stage by Osborne. Subsequently Osborne wrote the screenplays for each and went on to adapt Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling for Richardson’s 1963 film. Richardson himself was a man of the theater before he entered filmmaking, and it’s easily argued that the British New Wave grew from progressive trends in late-fifties English theatre, as it was ushered in by those who’d been active there.
A shy, unheralded, and very young member of that trend was Shelagh Delaney, who wrote A Taste of Honey at the age of nineteen and saw her play performed at the Theatre Royal at Stratford in 1958. As a film, A Taste of Honey doesn’t behave like an adapted play, partly, I think, because of Richardson’s joyous experimentation of a new style of direction, which included an insistence on location shooting and Walter Lassally’s exacting, and often expressively grainy, black-and-white capture of natural light. Perhaps most of all, the lived-in and anti-theatrical performances of its two stars, Rita Tushingham as Jo and Murray Melvin as Geoffrey, yield individualized characterizations of disarming realness. Melvin had played Geoffrey in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop’s production, but Tushingham, although receiving some training in the Shelagh Elliott-Clarke school, had virtually no acting experience, only a brief stint as assistant stage manager at the Liverpool Playhouse. Tushingham was all of eighteen or nineteen when photography commenced, the same age as the playwright at the genesis of her work, and Melvin not much older.
Without push-pinning any social messaging onto their chests, the two characters – Jo, a teenage working-class girl who finds herself pregnant by a sailor on shore leave, and Geoffrey, a young gay man who suddenly finds himself homeless because of his sexual identity – confront at least three cultural elements Britain wished would simply go away without anyone having mentioned them in the first place. Homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, and in the fifties and sixties – and beyond – unwed teenage mothers also suffered the shame of a societal outcast. Topping it all off, Jo has had sex with a black man, Jimmie (Paul Danquah), who ships out for parts unknown a day after his liaison with her. Being black, he too, like Jo and Geoffrey, is an outcast, with his mixed-race child an outcast to be.
Like the archetypal angry young men in several of the other films, Jo begins the show by being an angry young woman, with her pique directed, less ambiguously than those of the men, squarely at her middle-aged tart of a mother, Helen, played with sympathizing, hilarious verve by Dora Bryan.1 Once freed from grammar school – and unaware she’s carrying Jimmie’s child – Jo attempts a life apart from the destabilizing lifestyle of her mother, who has lately picked up, and unfortunately plans to marry, an obnoxious, pub-crawling used car dealer (Robert Stephens).
With surprising alacrity, Jo finds a job in a shoe store and a fixer-upper of a flat. When the unrooted Geoffrey wanders into her shoe store, then her life, the two of them set up an unconventional household that functions smoothly until Jo’s pregnancy enters its final months. Helen, having jettisoned her floundering marriage, reinserts herself into Jo’s life and Geoffrey sees his vision – of becoming the honorary father of Jo’s child – suddenly vanish.
Jo’s dalliance with Jimmie is way too brief to describe it as a relationship, and there’s just a wisp of romance involved in their exchanges – that taste of honey2 – so the film settles for a good part of its length on the nonsexual but quite tenderly realized bond between Jo and Geoffrey. In the Britain of the fifties and sixties, tight strictures were still in place over homosexuality’s portrayal on the stage and in film. Neither Delaney’s play nor Richardson’s film could use the word homosexual in dialog, much less go full out with depictions or descriptions of the gay experience, but miraculously the film makes Geoffrey reality as a gay man vivid, yet uniquely straightforward. Much is due to Murray Melvin’s performance, which abandons all standard gay mannerisms.
In a recent interview, Melvin recalled a young actor asking him, in light of his accomplishment in A Taste of Honey, how to “do” gay. Melvin advised him to just play it “straight,” but “with your eyes lowered.” As an octogenarian in the interview, the actor is thoroughly “out,” speaking and gesturing in an exuberant, grandiloquent, old-man-of-the-theater manner that displays little of the quiet inwardness that envelopes Geoffrey. Beaming with pride as he recalls the role of Geoffrey, he declares that “because he knew that boy so well,” he had no trouble projecting his character’s “softness.”
With fine degrees of shading, Melvin’s performance avoids any amplification of the character’s gayness (while still subtly making it clear that he is gay), which allows Geoffrey to exist in the film’s larger context as an individualized person, rather than a caricatured signpost proclaiming the era’s newly minted liberal rejection of Britain’s long-standing phobic attitudes. Planting billboards is simply not what this film does.
Similarly, Jo’s story is not meant as a cautionary one warning of the consequences of teen pregnancy. Where the path of Jo’s plight will ultimately take her is made quite ambiguous and unresolved at film’s end. If commentaries make too much of the British New Wave having been born of the French, the final framing of Jo’s face is reminiscent enough of Antoine’s at the end of 400 Blows (1959) for us to regard Richardson’s image as having been inspired, perhaps unconsciously, by Truffaut’s. The fate of both films’ adolescent characters is left open to the vagaries of their unseen upcoming adulthood – for the late fifties and early sixties, a new questioning of the standard coming-of-age tale.
Like Melvin’s Geoffrey, Tushingham’s Jo is not a type but a portrayal of a specific individual. Throughout her Woodfall tenure, as we see in three of her films included here, Tushingham – in spite of or rather because of her unusual qualities – grew to be a sustainable asset for the production company.
Unaware of her earlier Woodfall films, I first encountered Tushingham in the 1965 road show release of Doctor Zhivago, in which she played the unnamed daughter of Zhivago and Laura and easily dominated the brief framing sequences she shared with Alec Guinness. Appearing four years after her starring role in Taste of Honey, Tushingham’s role in Zhivago was a small supporting one yet hugely memorable.
Here, her large, darting eyes acted in such a freewill state from the rest of her face that an initial impression was that Tushingham was somewhat cross-eyed. A false impression, of course, but the actress, in contrast to the glamorous costars Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, took hold of the screen as both an unremarkable young woman, who could realistically disappear into the proletariat – as she does in the film’s final image – and an unusual and strangely beautiful one, with a potent personality, who would certainly be long remembered by Zhivago’s Soviet half-brother (Guinness).
It’s an example of inspired casting. In Lean’s imaginary Russia, the lovers, Christie and Sharif, have the gleam of movie stars, their beautiful faces fronting, in high-glam relief, the ugly events of Tsarist oppression, Bolshevik inequities, and the sins of civil war, all of which are wrapt in the director’s highly controlled visual splendor. Tushingham’s energized ordinariness strikes a poignant dissonance in the midst of the film’s supercharged artificial allure.
In my limited experience at the movies – in ’65 I was a senior in high school – I’d never seen anyone like her. Similarly, in the history of British cinema before A Taste of Honey, no one had seen the like of either Tushingham or Melvin. For starters – other than their decidedly non-movie-star looks – Melvin and Tushingham were mostly untrained, working-class actors retaining their regional accents. Two other Woodfall “kitchen sink” dramas included in this collection preceded A Taste of Honey – Look Back in Anger (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) – but in Richard Burton and Albert Finney respectively, both films featured highly trained actors.
Burton and Finney each came from working-class backgrounds, yet rose in defiance of them to become renowned Shakespearean actors before they ever entered film work. Tushingham avers that, before accepting the role of Jo, her work on the stage had advanced only to that of a walk-on role as a maid. Although somewhat trained, Melvin’s only major thespian experience had been creating the role on the stage he was to play in the film of A Taste of Honey.
In a recent interview for BFI, Melvin allows that Delaney’s play only saw the light of day because it was accepted by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, which by 1958 had already a decade’s history of giving voice to working-class playwrights and actors. Before Littlewood’s progressive experiments, Melvin observes, working-class characters were merely figures of fun in the theatre. Like Littlewood, Richardson perceived in A Taste of Honey something fresh and innovative and organized a film matching its adventurous content with newly optioned casting, visual style, and editing.
Casting unknowns in a feature was unheard of in the British film industry at the time. With Murray Melvin already a given to play Geoffrey, a casting call went out for the role of Jo that auditioned, according to Tushingham, upwards of 2,000 applicants until the untried Liverpool actress snagged the part. Here Richardson was fighting the film’s financial backers, who wanted an established actress to anchor the film’s bid for success, their top choice being, Tushingham claims, Audrey Hepburn. Just as unprecedented was Richardson’s decision to shoot all the film’s exteriors on location in a decidedly dour Manchester in all kinds of weather, including the most dreary, chilly, rainy sort.
Tushingham remembers the joy and sense of fun she found acting – this being her first experience in film – in the open air on real streets and how, in her later roles, the sense of stricture she felt when she performed in closed sets. As pointed out by the director Anthony Mann, location shooting pulls a different kind of performance from actors.
Walter Lassally’s black-and-white photography, which can recall the ’50s British street photography of Bill Brandt or the London images of the same era by Swiss expat Robert Frank, has the effect of melding the regional ordinariness of the characters with the variegated textures of their surroundings. It’s these specifics in the Manchester cityscape that exert pressure on and in some ways mold the identities of Jo and Geoffrey. Not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a film accomplishes this, but Lassally’s work in A Taste of Honey remains a supreme example of closely matching its photographic immediacy with the street-level intensity of its film’s actors.
As much as Melvin wants to celebrate the use of Rita Tushingham and himself as actors who “actually spoke” the regional accents of the characters in A Taste of Honey, Richardson’s 1961 production stands mostly alone in BFI’s collection as holding this equation of a one-to-one, working-class actor to working-class character. After A Taste of Honey, Melvin disappears from the films in this collection, and only Tushingham retains the equation in Girl with Green Eyes (1964) and The Knack (1965). While she can’t quite save the frenetic, charmless The Knack, the raw vitality of her performance in Girl with Green Eyes provides needed synergy with the actorly one provided by Peter Finch playing her middle-aged, scholarly lover.
The ascendancy of Rita Tushingham goes to show that what’s compelling in the Woodfall collection is not limited to innovative film grammar and cinematography. It also revels in the wide spectrum of British acting talent available in the ’50s and ’60s, much of it, apart from Melvin and Tushingham, derived from the classic, “legitimate” theatre. More often than not the films feature, not working-class unknowns, but highly trained, often established Shakespearean actors who play working-class characters with some variance in authenticity.
Albert Finney no doubt drew on his working-class roots to inform his role as Arthur, the young conflicted factory worker in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. This likely involved re-establishing the native regional accent he’d been trained to subdue for Shakespearean roles.3 Finney seems wholly and authentically submerged within his character’s identities as working-class son, lover, and wage grunt.
Finney never performs as if Arthur, or his petulant anger, is larger than his surroundings. Arthur is both contained and defined by his boyhood flat nestled within a brick maze of workers’ housing, along with his locked-in position at the factory, and the state of his woebegone, nearly cancelled-out parents. Viewing himself as a victim of all of it, he acts out against it, much as a child would. His sorely tested girlfriends prick his conscience, jump-start his humanity; and ultimately, in a burst of maturity that arrives a little too quickly, Arthur realizes he must quietly resign himself to the whole bag of hurtful compromised existence that makes up adulthood. For an introductory starring role, Finney’s is a remarkably subtle, encapsulated performance.
The star of the earliest film in the collection, Look Back in Anger, Richard Burton, was ten years older than Finney and by 1959, not only established on the Shakespearean stage but in the movies, with such releases as a religious spectacular, The Robe (1953), and a sword-and-sandal effort, Alexander the Great (1956), already well behind him.
In Look Back in Anger, Burton exhibits the exact quality that worried John le Carré when the actor was cast as Alec Leamus in the film adaptation of the novelist’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965). Le Carré believed that Burton’s “thespian voice” would drown out the working-class origins of his down-and-out spy. Thereupon the director, Martin Ritt, did his best to get Burton to tamp down his theatrical vocal proclivities, but even as le Carré grew to accept the actor’s performance, he wondered if Burton hadn’t “taken up the whole space of the character,” leaving little room for mystery in Leamus, as Alec Guinness had provided for George Smiley in the mini-series Smiley’s People (1982).
Much of le Carré’s hesitation over Burton can be directed, perhaps with more justification, at the actor’s performance in Look Back in Anger: unlike Ritt, for example, Richardson allows the actor’s voice to go full throttle. Burton is never less than riveting in this film, but that’s the rub: he overwhelms both the role and the film – not to mention the kitchen sink – leaving in some scenes little oxygen for the other actors.
As Jimmie Porter, Burton plays what might be the angriest young man in all of Woodfall. Jimmie is a frustrated street cart vendor with a creative bent and an unhappy marriage. He’s in a pub most nights, blowing a jazz trumpet – unless, perforce, he’s trapped within the tight confines of their claustrophobic flat screaming in impotent rage at his reticent wife, Alison (Mary Ure). To retreat from the escalating tension between them, Jimmie might then suddenly launch into impromptu music hall song-and-dance sketches with flatmate Cliff (Gary Raymond).
Jimmie’s marriage is something of a class struggle, with Jimmie thoroughly stuck in the lower rungs, accruing little income, while Alison comes from the upper-middle-class crust, harboring a stash of extra cash from daddy that Jimmie likes to pinch from her purse while she sleeps. Much of Jimmie’s rage is outwardly directed at Alison’s parents, who disapprove of her slum marriage, but a deeper root of his angst ends up being, simply, that she’s not emotionally available to him. The film’s closing scenes – having Alison return home with renewed openness to the needs of her volatile husband – feels, like the wrap-up in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, too neatly accomplished. Not to mention, for current audiences, how they show misogynistic overtones, with the needy creative male being assuaged by the returning and contrite female.
In all of this, Burton, who is quite accomplished in his music hall routines, often seems like he’s projecting his magnificent trumpet of a voice to the upper galleries, much like how Jimmie blows his jazz trumpet to the pub’s rafters. He finesses the character’s intelligence just fine, but the actor’s excitable stage presence rattles the fourth wall.
In contrast with A Taste of Honey, which feels like it was created anew on the streets of Manchester, Look Back operates more like a traditionally “opened up” play, with its locations acting as mostly backdrops to wordy exchanges. Tony Richardson’s film version of Osborne’s play The Entertainer is less constricted in its well-judged location work (in the seaside town of Morecombe, Lancashire) than Look Back, but it still talks like a play and, in featuring Laurence Olivier, who played the role on the stage, acts like one, too. Written by Osborne at the request of Olivier, The Entertainer is the story of a family operating in the shadow of a once-successful but minimally talented music hall performer, Archie Rice, who himself performs, to ever-diminishing audiences, in the shadow of a beloved entertainer from music hall’s heyday, his father (Roger Livesey).
Archie’s children – Jean (Joan Plowright) and Frank (Alan Bates) – must choose either to distance themselves (like Jean) from or (like Frank) hitch themselves to Archie’s failing career – and the familial detritus that comes with it – while their mother, fully aware of her husband’s infidelities and all-pervasive bullshit, sinks into a dithering alcoholism.
Olivier reportedly put heart and soul into his portrayal of Archie Rice. You can see it on the screen and mostly believe it, especially during the sequences devoted to Archie’s disturbingly retrograde stage show. If the actor’s make-over as Archie’s stage persona isn’t all that elaborate – consisting as it does mostly of large painted-on eyebrows that arch with repellent glee and an enhanced gap in his front teeth – it alone provides a squirm factor. The jackass suit, crumpled bowtie, and bowler hat complete the effect, which even in Archie’s better days was meant to be comfortably foolish and comic, but now, amidst the wreckage of his career, appears monstrously out of joint and defeated. All that’s lacking is visible flop sweat. What finally throws Olivier’s performance well into Lon Chaney territory is how intensely it projects, behind all the ingratiatory inanity of the stone-cold gags and off-pitch singing, Archie’s pitiable terror at incoming, annihilating failure.
Like Burton in Look Back, Olivier is mesmerizing, with the similar result that you’re always aware that it’s Olivier the great actor doing a grandiose version of a failed vaudevillian. There’s fine work here from the other actors, especially Joan Plowright, Olivier’s future wife, but with Olivier monopolizing the film, you tend to remember little of it. He certainly owns the part, and you’d never expect Sir Larry to go method, but Archie never erases Olivier, and like what le Carré feared of Burton’s Alec Leamus, the older actor’s Archie lacks the dimension of mystery.
Tony Richardson’s first film after The Entertainer was A Taste of Honey, which in 1961 had initiated a remarkable creative spurt of 18 months that would bring forth two more leading-edge films, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Tom Jones. A key innovation of A Taste of Honey – the insistence on location shooting – would continue in these films, along with Walter Lassally’s contribution, the photography’s emotive link to the action.
The astringent Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner features Tom Courtenay’s unsentimental performance as Colin Smith, a borstal boy who, valuable because of his fleetness as a sprinter, learns to play a game of one-upmanship in order to, quite simply, give the reformatory governor (Michael Redgrave) – and all the authority he symbolizes – the finger. The arc of the story is as simple as Smith’s goal, and the final scenes resemble a sour punch line, subverting what we’d expect from a depiction of a race: the triumph of the hero. The film offers no closing redemption for Colin Smith, merely a dark victory, and a question mark for Smith’s future, like the one hovering over Jo’s in Taste of Honey.
Reportedly, Richardson was reluctant to take on a project like Tom Jones, which, whatever its ribald comic content, would involve all the complexities and headaches of a historical costume drama. To the director, the idea of such a film must have seemed antithetical to what he’d achieved in his last two features. Both films had been modestly budgeted, sparely mounted, and shot inexpensively in black and white. Thematically they were explicitly modern, exploring the identity crises of contemporary working-class youth. A film of Tom Jones would necessitate shooting in color, lots of fussing over costuming and art production, and a sizable budget to bring it all about.
It’s hard to imagine a property more distant in tone and intent from Loneliness or The Taste of Honey than Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel. The 1996 Oxford University Press edition, with explanatory notes, runs to 916 pages, and the act of reading it is not one to be taken on lightly. Raucous and ribald events populate the novel’s narrative, just as they do the film’s, but there’s nothing raucous or ribald about Fielding’s prose, which is rendered in sentences of elaborate syntax and of such length that they would cause any word processing software to scream “run-on.”
In Tom Jones, Fielding’s written one of the best storylines ever devised, but the author seems to want to instruct as much as to entertain; at odd moments, he’s admonitory towards “critics,” a group in which he includes a certain kind of reader – like you or me. There are classical allusions in abundance, and Fielding gives his opinion on any number of cultural and societal issues rocking Great Britain at the time. All of which makes the 46 pages of explanatory notes in my edition absolutely necessary.
As an author Fielding is more than omniscient, he’s omnipresent, becoming pretty much one of the novel’s characters himself. Each chapter begins with some sort of homily on what it means to be human – fundamentally the breadth and meaning of human nature is the theme of the book – and as his tale unfolds, no event passes without Fielding stepping in among it to deliver commentary. Fielding’s pronouncements are nearly always leavened by his slow-burning wit, but the slowly evolving tale can also be down-and-out funny in a way that obviously inspired much of the comic tone of the film.
What’s remarkable about Osborne’s adaptation is not what he had to leave out, but what he was able to retain – from what really is a novel of ideas. One overarching concept that concerns Fielding is that of virtue: that is, specifically, can a young man of Tom Jones’ station, ever branded a bastard, and whose rake’s progress is the novel’s plot line – can Tom, in spite of all this and all his pitfalls, be virtuous? The author’s answer, need we say, is a resounding yes.
Key to Tom’s virtue is his innate kindness, and Osborne’s adaptation is careful not to neglect the scenes that reveal this. A cheaper, more exploitative screenplay might emphasize the hero’s erotic/comedic exploits at the expense of showing Tom’s generosity, his love for Squire Allworthy (George Devine), his steadfast devotion to Sophie Western (Susannah York), and his final redemption. In other words, make for a movie that’s only sexy and funny. Richardson’s Tom Jones accomplishes much more than that.4
Osborne’s adaptation is one thing – scenes of comedy, much of it low, are interwoven seamlessly with those of poignancy5 – but Albert Finney’s performance as Tom is quite another. Fielding portrays Jones’ humanity as multifaceted, remarking on his hero’s “naturally violent animal spirits,” but these, the author seems to imply, are fundamentals that arise from Tom’s youthful love of life, not the earmarks of a vile nature. Even as his carnal appetite makes him wheel out of control to betray her, Tom always manages to swiftly renew his vows to Sophie Western, the personification of his better angels. Affirmation of Finney’s brilliance lies in his ability – without Fielding’s textual support of his hero – to sustain sympathy for Tom as he swings from sexual imbroglio to sweet redemption.
The rest of the casting is right on point, too. No untried, untrained actor will be discovered here; all the roles were given to proven stage actors who were nearly all alumnae of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Unlike Burton or Olivier in their Woodfall productions, however, no one in Tom Jones steals the film from the others, although Hugh Griffith and Dame Edith Evans as Squire Western and his dowager sister come close.
Edith Evans had a near cameo-sized role in Look Back in Anger, in which she played Jimmie Porter’s dying mother, a character not in the play. As the self-effacing, lower-class woman, Evans submerges her normally formidable theatrical identity. It’s a prime example of how not to chew the scenery. Her few scenes with Burton are memorable enough in their restrained poignancy, but they also have the effect of pulling Burton’s performance down to earth. He’s never better in the film than when he’s giving room to Evans and playing the scene with her instead of trumpeting his lines over her. You can be surprised at discovering the great actress in these scenes; she’s not instantly recognizable.
In Tom Jones her stage presence is out in full force, as it had been when she played Lady Bracknell in Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. It works in perfect collusion with the blustery excellence of Hugh Griffith as the Squire, who, when his sister accosts him sprawled inebriated in the barnyard, merely farts and rolls over on top of a compliant milkmaid. As in the novel, her Miss Western is all upper-class pretense, and Evans’ theatrical diction and grandiose hauteur perfectly underscore the character’s ill-fitting presumptions and the faux elegance of her speech.6 Hers and Griffith’s are also possibly the funniest performances in the film.
In this historical costume dramedy, your eyes are not on its costumes or art production, but on its actors.7 It’s also a film that makes you aware of itself as a film, and this it does, in the best way possible, not just to announce its cleverness, but to enrich one’s experience of it. The opening sequence, which briskly sets up the entire story, mimics a silent film, complete with intertitles. Anytime a film decides to include a comic sendup of a silent, it’s normally a regrettable choice, but here it works brilliantly, with composer John Addison’s harpsichord solo, seemingly improvised, in turn parodying a silent film accompaniment. This, too, should make one squirm, but Addison’s playing supports this prelude’s frenetic blur of expository event with serious artistry. And that’s the point: artistry. Here both Richardson in his direction and editing and Addison in his underscore have the sensibility and the mastery to take what could have been a lame parody into a comedic territory that’s both crowd-pleasing and artful.8
Fielding’s plot points are many, but the film manages to include nearly all of them at a swift pace that nonetheless doesn’t feel rushed or crowded. Once the film proper gets under way, the orphaned bastard Tom, having grown up under Squire Allworthy’s good graces, philanders with abandon as he falls in love with the unattainable Sophie Western. When her visiting aunt engineers an engagement for Sophie with Squire Allworthy’s nephew, the nefarious William Blifil (David Warner), her secret romance with Tom is rudely interrupted. Misfortune continues when the Squire himself is gravely injured in a road accident, which kills his sister Bridget (Rachel Kempson). After Squire Allworthy’s recovery, Tom becomes a victim of Blifil’s perfidy and is banished from his adoptive home by the Squire. Thus, armed with only a walking stick and carrying but a rucksack, Tom begins his travels.
Richardson punctuates the film’s unrelenting pace with several set-pieces, beginning with the introductory sequence already discussed. Though well integrated into the narrative, it’s these sequences that can linger in the mind even fifty-some years after seeing the film.
The most extended is a startlingly realistic depiction of an English hunt, complete with a multitude of hounds. As Addison’s all-pervasive score drops out, multiple hand-held cameras capture a chaotic courtyard scene where riders gather before the hunt for a pregame toast amidst braying hounds. Edited together in a delirious montage are shots of drinking, overlapped conversations and shouting, and servants running to and fro. There, inserted into the literalness, Finney, Griffith, and Warner mix it up with dogs, chickens, rearing horses, and spilt wine.
The hand-held technique and jagged editing are well-worn in their usage today, but Richardson, as he had been in his last two Woodfall films, was still experimenting, and today the scene remains uniquely fresh and full of eighteenth-century spit and grit. Plenty of films since, including PBS-bound BBC series, have attempted the same rough-edged capture of Olde England, but Tom Jones was there first.
When riders and hounds take to the field, Richardson unleashes a full arsenal of camera positions, including those from a helicopter. Operators on the ground run variously alongside, in back of, and in front of the riders. Getting in close to the principals – who in this case are ensconced in a vehicle along with the camera – the director manages to capture reaction shots of Susannah York, frowning at Finney, as she speeds through the landscape.
And although you also take in the riders’ points of view, it’s unlikely any cameras were attached to the horses themselves, as Abel Gance did for a scene in his 1927 film Napoleon, a feverishly inventive sequence in which troops chase the future emperor through the Corsican landscape. Richardson’s multidirectional shots of the hunt are reminiscent enough of Gance’s truly groundbreaking photography that you wonder if he had managed to see the silent film and find inspiration for his own unique sequence.9 Gance also pioneered the use of hand-held cameras long before the cameramen of the French or the British New Wave manned theirs.
Credit for much of the hunt scene’s impact must go to Walter Lassally, of course, who engineered and secured these visuals. The still spry Lassalay makes multiple appearances in various interviews included in BFI’s set, and his remarks on shooting Tom Jones are detailed and revealing. Apropos of the hunt sequence, he mentions the nearly subliminal shot of a rider’s spur drawing blood from a horse’s flank. With much of the film purposely shot in less than vibrant color, Lassally pushed the hues of these few frames to high saturation, with the effect that the red of the blood startles the eye with its sudden intensity, spotlighting with a single deft touch the casual cruelty of the hunt. Neither are we spared the sight of the hounds ripping apart the torn neck of the cornered deer.
Later, during Tom’s picaresque travels, we see the most celebrated set-piece, the pre-coital eating scene, which was improvised on camera by Albert Finney and Joyce Redman, who plays Mrs. Waters. Redman in particular pushes the envelope here, especially when her tongue falls just short of performing cunnilingus on an oyster.10 Finney keeps up with her but just barely. Still hilarious today, the scene is a one-off masterpiece of high-octane improv, impossible to imitate.
As it does at various junctures throughout, the screenplay here inserts a voice-over, which plays the role of Fielding’s reflective interruptions throughout his novel, in which he philosophizes, moralizes, and explains. Often these take the form of epigram-like assertions that, if you took the trouble, you could use to preface a TED talk. As far as I can tell, Osborne never in these passages quotes Fielding directly – the prose is too complexly elegant for that – and most often they’re not sourced from Fielding at all. In the film these more pithy pronouncements are voiced by the stage actor Micheál Mac Liammóir,11 whose stentorian and strangely antique-sounding readings so match the authoritarian tone of Fielding himself that they could be coming from beyond the grave.
To introduce the eating scene, however, Osborne has adapted a passage from the novel that precedes the same event in the novel, here elided: “Heroes, notwithstanding the high ideas which … they may entertain of themselves … have certainly more of mortal than divine about them.”12 To enlarge upon this idea, Fielding brings up the act of eating as the great equalizer of both the great and the low. One of the novel’s most persistent goals is to satirically strip the high-born of their pretensions, to show that, exposed, they are just as foolish and miserable as the rest of us.
It’s a truism of which we nonetheless need constant reminding, and the film, like the novel, mines its comic potential when Tom gets to London and, while still searching for his Sophie, becomes ensnared in the erotic machinations of Lady Bellaston. If after the frenzied shenanigans at the inn, the film appears to somewhat lose steam, the appearance of Joan Greenwood as Lady Bellaston allows us to forgive the slackening pace. Like Edith Evans, Greenwood’s career was mostly on the stage, but she too graced Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In other film work, she was not above taking on several roles for Disney – e.g., The Moon-Spinners (1964) – or for Ray Harryhausen, facing down his giant animated chicken in Mysterious Island (1961).
In her early forties during the filming of Tom Jones, the long-necked, smoky-voiced Greenwood sports a gray-haired wig most of the time and thus appears of indeterminate age. Back in the 1960s, at least, her seduction of Tom – which includes paying to dress him up in stylish, uptown regalia – had the unsavory dynamic of an older lady buying the favors of a young buck. Yet at the same time, the elegantly beautiful actress – again, that neck! that voice! – is undeniably sexy (in bed with Tom, she discards her wig and suddenly looks ten years younger).
Soon enough the plot reveals Lady Bellaston to be needy, brittle, and vindictive: such is Fielding’s remonstrance against the high-born. See too in this context, David Tomlinson’s disturbingly funny cameo as the hypersexed Lord Fellamar, who at the instigation of Lady Bellaston attempts to rape Sophie. Her whoops of protestation bring to the rescue the volcanic Hugh Griffith as Squire Western.
The film is peppered with rescues like this. Tom does his bit in a couple of them, but it’s mostly Squire Western who leaps out of nowhere to save the day. As Richardson once again amps up the pace with an excitedly choreographed sword fight between Tom and a high-strung Irishman, Jones lamentably appears to kill his opponent and lands in prison. Tom is then rashly sentenced to be hanged, a threat not offered by Fielding, but which in the film provides one more last-second rescue by the resourceful Squire. Galloping through the hanging’s public gathering, he simply rides up and cuts the dangling Jones down from the gibbet. The sight gives you a rush not unlike the one felt in 1966 when Benjamin rescued Elaine from her wedding in The Graduate.
From there Tom Jones rolls swiftly to its boy-gets-girl finish. O happy day for the lovers, of course, a cadence underscored by a final epigram from Mac Liammóir. But such has been the film’s parade of mid-20th-century British acting talent that you’d almost like to see, before the credits roll, a proscenium appear so that Griffith, Evans, Finney, York, et al. can all come out to take a bow and be applauded.
Finally, though, an overriding x-factor contributing to the glory of this film may be the quality alluded to by Josephine Botting in her essay about Tom Jones for BFI’s booklet: that the show is, plainly put, fun. Fun to watch, certainly, but just as certain, as evidenced by the energized symbiosis we see on the screen, fun for all involved in its making.
As a director, Richardson was known to have encouraged a relaxed set and convivial, collegial relationships with his actors. A prime example of all of this is, of course, Finney and Redman strutting their improvisational stuff in the eating scene. But the film is dotted with such moments. In an audio interview provided by BFI, Finney recalls spontaneously inserting a bit of improv into a scene in which Tom frantically searches his pockets in vain for some cash to pay an irked landlady. The frustrated Jones goes on muttering that somebody must have taken it in the night – maybe even the landlady – when the actor unexpectedly turns to the audience and splutters, “Did you see her take it?!” The unplanned moment remains in the film, as famously do other instances of fourth-wall breakage, improvised or not, as when Finney covers the eye of the camera with his hat in order to shield us from Mrs. Waters’ state of undress.
Vanessa Redgrave, Richardson’s wife at the time, witnessed the filming of Tom Jones,13 and in her BFI interview, she tells her own story of synergy between director and actors. On one particularly rainy day – the kind of weather normally considered hopeless for color photography – Richardson, with two eagerly cooperative cast members, went outside to take advantage of it anyway. Camera rolling, the director simply told Finney and Susannah York to horse around, with a resulting capture of a thoroughly soaked Finney climbing down and back up through a pond-side’s dense bullrushes to pluck a water lily for a likewise drenched York.
This grainy snippet shows up in the extended montage in which a recuperating Tom dallies playfully with Sophie here and there in the English countryside. Finney’s improvised gallantry – struggling up the pond’s bank, his arm in a sling, handing the flower to York – gets an unrehearsed, joyful explosion of laughter from the actress.
No wonder Sophie falls for Tom. And we for the film.
* * *
Released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 11, 2018 by BFI. Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots.
- A special moment from Bryan – likely not in the play – takes place in a pub, where she gives a spirited rendition of a music hall song. Britain’s music hall culture haunts several of these films and is the thematic understory of Richardson’s The Entertainer. [↩]
- In a video interview included in Criterion’s edition of the film, we hear Murray Melvin prefer to see tastes of honey, not in Jo’s “first time,” but in the happy moments Jo and Geoffrey spend together. [↩]
- Interestingly, Finney grew up in Salford, a region of Greater Manchester that provides the location for Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. [↩]
- BFI’s set offers two versions of Tom Jones: the original theatrical cut, plus a director’s cut from 1989, for which Richardson trimmed seven minutes from the original. Watching both, I failed to see why the director was impelled to make the cuts, which are minimal and hardly have the effect of quickening the pace of the film. One or two bits, like the shot of a drunken Tom leaping on the back of his tutor, Thwackum (Peter Bull), and riding him around, I miss in the 1989 cut. [↩]
- A good example of such poignancy, and the subtle manner in which film can convey how those of low birth understand and appreciate Tom’s character, is the scene – after the Squire has dismissed him from the manor – of Jones’ twilight departure. In the low light, all of Allworthy’s servants gather on the steps to say goodbye. As Tom then proceeds down a long grove of trees, the sight of the servants, still waving from the steps, gets smaller in the dwindling light. Besides being intensely moving, the sequence is a testament to cinematographer Lassally’s risk-taking and the emotive affect his photography can have in Tom Jones. [↩]
- A good example of Osborne’s ability to make the most of a line of dialog in the novel comes in the film when Miss Western, reacting to her brother’s coarse behavior, exclaims, “Brother, you are a perfect goat!” The screenwriter clearly adapted this line from one appearing on p. 241 of the novel (Oxford University edition), where the same character says, “Brother, you are absolutely a perfect Croat.…” What initially looks like a typo – “Croat” – turns out to be one of Fielding’s references to the current events of 1749, involving Queen Maria Theresa and her association with Croatia. “Whatever …” is the reader’s likely reaction to the explanatory note, but Osborne saw an opportunity and merely changed the first letter of the last word as he ignored Fielding’s nearly incomprehensible topicality. [↩]
- Although Edith Evans’ morning gown’s décolletage (above) is hard to ignore. [↩]
- I can’t confirm that it’s Addison himself supplying the harpsichord solo (or the lovely piano solo in the Tom/Sophie romance montage), but it seems likely. Addison underscored most of Richardson’s Woodfall pictures with varying effectiveness. His score for A Taste of Honey is inventive in in instrumentation, but its whimsical tone often undercuts what’s on the screen, and intrusive and ever-present, the music often seems like it wants the film to accompany it, not vice-versa. His score for Tom Jones is also front and center – and almost always present – but this time forms a true partnership with the visuals, a remarkable achievement that can now be considered one of the key scores of the decade. [↩]
- I wonder also if Sergei Bondarchuk, when filming the quite similar wolf hunt in part two of his War and Peace adaptation, had seen Tom Jones. [↩]
- Mentioned somewhere in the BFI’s extras was an attempt to censor Redman’s tongue action. [↩]
- Mac Liammóir, who was rarely seen in films, played Iago in Welles’ Othello (1952). [↩]
- Fielding, p. 440. Osborne’s voice-over: “Heroes, whatever high ideas we may have of them, are mortal, not divine. We are all as God made us and some of us much worse.” [↩]
- Botting tells us that it was Redgrave who proposed the silent film concept for the opening. [↩]