“It is widely held that too much wine will dull a man’s desire. Indeed it will, in a dull man.”
So states the ever-understated omniscient narrator in 1963’s “Tom Jones,” and however you may personally feel about the effects of too much wine, ladies and gentlemen, let me assure you: Tom Jones is not a dull man. He is a young man and a ladies’ man and a borderline con man but, at the end of the day, he is a good man, and you can’t help but like him.
Don’t mistake him for the Vegas showman, either. Before “It’s Not Unusual,” the name Tom Jones was better associated with the 1749 comic novel by Henry Fielding, a literary classic following the humorous coming-of-age of one exuberantly rakish English foundling. The public stir caused by the book’s sordid adventures may have been predictable for the 18th-century time period, but its lively cinematic adaptation in the 1960s made no less of a sensation. In a year when the Academy’s best picture contenders included an Elia Kazan drama (“America, America”), a mammoth Cinerama western (“How the West Was Won”) and an unprecedented epic (“Cleopatra”), it was this quirky British comedy that took home the prize.
And, for once, rightfully. I’ve yet to see a best picture so capably combine pathos and comedy. Condensing more than 1,000 pages of densely packed narrative into a mere two hours, the film careens at breakneck pace through the various hussies and genuine sweetheart of Tom’s young love life, and couldn’t be more rollicking were it shipboard.
As the titular rogue, Albert Finney (“Big Fish”) deserves a good deal of credit. With the manic grin of a young Ewan McGregor (as well as the strange profile resemblance to a better-coifed Donald Trump), Finney gives Tom all the charm and good intentions necessary to keep the ne’er-do-well so earnestly lovable. Throw in a spirited lady love (Susannah York), her unapologetically bestial father (Hugh Griffith) and the deliciously carnal Mrs. Miller (Rosalind Atkinson), and you’ve still only got one-fifth of the film’s charmingly distinct characters.
In the end, however, it’s the lively touch of director Tony Richardson (“Blue Sky”) that so winningly captures the book’s tongue-in-cheek spirit. He freezes frames, runs scenes on fast forward and, when he breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, doesn’t just settle for a knowing wink. He goes for full-out seduction. In one unparalleled display of dinnertime food lust, Tom and Mrs. Miller alternately square off towards the camera with vigorously suggestive rips into their turkey legs.
One roaring fox-hunt sequence could make even a vegetarian understand the primal thrill of the hunt. This movie is a living, breathing monument to the spectacular over-reaching of human desire, enthusiastic to the core and engaging to the last.
How often do you see a film based on a 1,000-plus-page novel and end up sprinting out to buy the book as soon as the credits wrap? Even as I write, Henry Fielding’s mammoth tome sits above my desk, the most tantalizing cinder-block of prose to ever bell-curve a shelf. If that backpack anvil has even a quarter of the fun of its film adaptation, it’ll be well worth the lifelong crippling of my eyesight necessary to read it.