Tag: Hugh Griffith

Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kinds Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Murder and amorality abound in the darkest (and perhaps Greatest) Ealing comedy ever

Director: Robert Hamer

Cast: Dennis Price (Louis Mazzini), Alec Guinness (The nine members of the d’Ascoyne family), Valerie Hobson (Edith), Joan Greenwood (Sibella), Audrey Fildes (Mama), Miles Malleson (Hangman), Clive Morton (Prison Governor), John Penrose (Lionel), Hugh Griffith (Lord High Steward)

Imagine you’re Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price). Your mother is the outcast daughter of the d’Ascoyne family (all of whom, male or female, bear a striking resemblance to Alec Guinness), Dukes of Chalfort. These vindictive snobs won’t even allow his mother to be buried in the family mausoleum. However, in the event of a series of unlikely deaths, Louis is the eventual heir to the dukedom. That couldn’t happen, could it? Even if they’re all such stuffy, tedious bores that the suave, sophisticated, urbane and witty Louis feels a lot more like what a duke should be.

What to do? Well, it’s obvious really: Louis will have to murder them. Because Louis wants nothing more than the thing he can’t have. It’s the same with the ladies in his life: his childhood sweetheart Sibella (Joan Greenwood), sensual and manipulative, seems all the more tempting when he’s with the refined and austere Edith (Valerie Hobson) and vice versa. We know that the charming Louis’ murderous career will eventually end at the gallows – the film opens with him writing his memoirs and eating his last meal in prison – but what crime will find him there?

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the first of the Ealing comedies. It’s also pretty much the one that sets the Gold Standard. I’ll confess I’ve been sceptical in the past, but rewatching it again, its black comic humour, shrewd psychology and delightful amorality delighted me as never before. Kind Hearts is a very, very funny movie: perfectly constructed, gorgeously scripted and supremely sharp, knowing and scintillating. It’s a miraculously marvellous film.

Is there a comedy sharper and more heartless than Kind Hearts? Our hero is, at best, a sociopath who kills without the slightest regret. Murders are frequent punchlines. One of its leading ladies is as selfish, conniving and ruthless as the hero. D’Ascoynes bite the dust regardless of their decency (and some of them are genuinely quite nice). But we don’t care – largely because Louis is such a smoothly charming and amusing person.

Brilliantly played by Dennis Price, even when poverty forces him into the role of draper’s assistant Louis is the genteel duke to his fingertips. His sociopathic focus on his own desires is delivered with such dry wit (“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”) we can’t help but like him, even though he is a remorseless killer. Dispatching one d’Ascoyne and his mistress in a river “accident” he only sighs “I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death.”

Some critics have attempted to position Louis as some sort of class warrior, pruning the nobility. Would that were so, eh? The biggest snob in the film is clearly Louis (compared to him the worst of the d’Ascoynes are more rude and boorish), a man so convinced of his own intellectual and hereditary superiority that even his lowly roots don’t concern him.

Louis really matches our expectations of a duke. He’s refined in voice and manner, dignified in physicality and has the sort of arch wit no one else can compete with (when Sibella tells him her husband wishes to go to Europe to expand his mind, Louis replies “He certainly has room to do so”). He is a million miles from a class warrior: he wants nothing more than to take his place on the velvet cushions of the House of Lords (so much so he insists on being tried there). He’s so convinced of his own superiority, the dispatch of legions of d’Ascoynes cause him to lose not a second of sleep.

He’s also charming, funny and ingenious: we like him. It’s the same reason we like Joan Greenwood’s scheming, sexy and selfish Sibella: what’s more fun than an unashamed baddy? It’s easier to like her more than Valerie Hobson’s staid Edith – though Hobson’s generous performance is spot on for creating the ideal upper-class wife, exactly the sort of refined status symbol Louis would long for.

Hamer’s perfectly paced comedy is largely a triumph of dialogue and characterisation. He shoots much of it in carefully positioned mid-shot. But there are wonderful moments of visual comedy. Who can forget Admiral d’Ascoyne slowly submerging, going down with his sinking ship? Or, best of all, Louis and Edith’s gentle garden conversation about her husband Henry d’Ascoyne’s future while, in the background, over a wall, the small explosion that has just killed him smokes away (“I could hardly point out that Henry now had no time left for any kind of activity, so I continued to discuss his future” Louis observes). But above all, Hamer doesn’t skim on the cold amorality of Louis. While we are never invited to judge him, there are no attempts to hide his sociopathic blankness.

Confronted with real emotion and situations outside his control, Louis is helpless. When his mother dies, he can only mourn her with a flourish straight out of the cheap melodrama he despises. When Sibella’s husband, the dull Lionel, insults his background, he’s reduced to punching him. Caught off guard in his trial, his articulate wit absolutely deserts him. Louis slips on  personae like the fine suits he wears, but his ambitious mind can only travel on his pre-planned route, no others.

But that makes him more than match for the d’Ascoynes. In a masterstroke, all members of this family are played by Alec Guinness, the sort of impish, playful trick Guinness loved. It’s a series of eight distinct comic sketches – to be honest none of them a challenge to Guinness, who is such a great actor that playing these pencil-sketch eccentrics was no-problem-at-all – but still a delightful running gag. His d’Ascoynes include a bumbling vicar, a windbag general forever banging on about his Boer (Bore?) war, a sneering playboy scion, bumbling amateur-photographer Henry (the most sympathetic by a mile), a stuffy banker, an austere suffragette and a bullying duke with a capacity for violence.

Seeing each of these Guinnesses is a neat running joke (not to mention, a little gag at the in-breeding of the upper classes). Price gets in on the act as well, doubling up as Louis’ Italian Tenor father (who dies of shock on Louis’ birth – our hero’s first murder?). But it’s also part of the film’s comedic commentary on construction, duality and falseness. Is it a surprise that the d’Ascoynes are all facets of the same actor, when Louis himself is an entirely self-constructed man, part bitter by-blow, part natural duke? Nothing is ever quite what it seems. Louis lies to everyone he meets, pretends affections he never feels and presents a front to the world totally different from his real self. Even the reason Louis is on death row turns out to be radically different from what we expect.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a perfect display of arch Wildean front, redirected into sociopathic irritation (I can’t call Louis furious – he’s not got enough depth to him for real anger). It’s a jet-black comedy, crammed with superb lines and brilliantly acted, above all by Price whose tortured unknowability behind his Cowardian suaveness is perfect. Guinness went into film legend, Greenwood is fascinatingly vicious and Hobson the embodiment of polite class. Every scene has a great line and the humour is as dark as it comes. It’s one of the greatest of all Ealing’s comedies –certainly the darkest and most vicious – with a hero who looks, acts and talks like a villain.

Oliver! (1968)

Oliver! header
Mark Lester asks for More. You may not share his sentiments in the Oscar winning Oliver!

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Ron Moody (Fagin), Mark Lester (Oliver Twist), Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger), Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), Shani Wallis (Nancy), Harry Secombe (Mr Bumble), Joseph O’Conor (Mr Brownlow), Hugh Griffith (Magistrate), Peggy Mount (Mrs Bumble), Leonard Rossiter (Mr Sowerberry), Hylda Baker (Mrs Sowerberry), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypool), Megs Jenkins (Mrs Bedwin)

1968. The Vietnam War gets worse. The My Lai Massacre is a low-point in America’s global reputation. MLK is assassinated. Student protests rip through campuses, culminating in Chicago riots at the Democratic convention. RFK is assassinated. In the UK, Enoch Powell talks about “Rivers of Blood”. A flu pandemic sweeps the world. The USSR ends the “Prague Spring” with tanks. It was a year of horrific global turmoil. Perhaps it’s not a surprise the Oscars chose as Best Picture something as blandly comfortable and utterly disconnected from all this mayhem as Oliver! A personality-free re-tread of a successful stage musical, with a few good tunes bolstering a lobotomised adaptation of Dickens’ novel, Oliver! is so coated with sugar it must have helped the medicine of 1968 go down.

Young Oliver (Mark Lester with his singing voice dubbed) is an angelic orphan, thrown out of the workhouse for asking for “more” (Never before has such an event occurred), eventually escaping to London (Where is Love eh?). There he finds the Big Smoke to be nothing less than a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Invited by pickpocket The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) to consider himself part of the family, he’s soon learning how to pick a pocket or two from Fagin (Ron Moody). It’s not all fun and games though: violent criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) is a wildcard, although his devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis), the sort of girl the boys will do anything for, remains loyal to Bill for as long as he needs her. But there’s a secret in Oliver’s past – who are his parents?

Carol Reed could once make a claim for being the greatest director in the world. You couldn’t make a case for that based on this cosily chocolate-box, unimaginative trudge through a musical that has little other than a couple of catchy tunes to really recommend it in the first place. The real MVP here is Onna White, whose choreography is very impressive. White takes everyday acts and, with a little bit of jazz and a dollop of musicality, turns them into dance movements. It gives the dance numbers a heightened reality that kind of works and provides nearly everything worth looking at it in the film. Reed certainly leaves her to it, carefully setting the camera up with simple wide and medium shots to capture as much of it as possible.

And you could argue that’s his job. But he brings nothing to the other parts of the production. Of course, Lionel Bart’s musical is a much lighter affair than Dickens’ original (although, in actual fact, this is much more of a musical remake of Lean’s Oliver Twist, making many identical cuts and sharing nearly all the same dialogue), but you’d think the director who gave us Odd Man Out and The Third Man could give some drama and character to London’s underbelly. Not a jot. They have the same muted technicolour cleanliness of everything else, and any hint of ruthlessness, criminality or moral conundrums are well and truly left at the door. What we get is a world where everyone – apart from Bill – is fundamentally nice and decent, and rapacious old men using children as criminals is basically not a lot different from running an after-school club.

It isn’t helped that Oliver!, like Bart’s stage original, has a weak book that offers little light or shade for its characters other than to typecast them into simplified “goodies and baddies”. Reed and the film either can’t or won’t stretch this much further – although the film does rearrange some events of the original production to give a bit more motivational heft to actions and introduce Bill earlier to at least add a bit more tension. The film is as quickly bored with the angelic Oliver as the original is – fair enough since he’s a tediously saintly chap – with Mark Lester alternating between looking winsome and shocked at the company he finds himself amongst.

Nothing can interrupt the overflowing “niceness” of what we are seeing. Ron Moody’s Fagin had been honed from performing it on stage so often (and he is very good). But his Fagin is a cuddly uncle, the sort of grown-up scamp you would invite over for a drink, only keeping an eye on the silverware when you did. This is, let’s not forget, a bloke who colludes in murder (though the film reduces his responsibility), kidnapping, grooms kids for a life of crime and willingly lets them die for him. Not a whiff of this is allowed onto the screen. The Artful Dodger (played with a cheeky but tellingly amoral charm by Jack Wild, who tragically never hit these heights again) is given more light and shade than Fagin.

Like the musical, the film downplays the abusive relationship at its heart. Nancy is little more than a walking embodiment of the cliched “tart with a heart” trope, and the film adaptation chooses to praise her for not just sticking with her abuser, but slavishly devoting herself to him. In fact, beyond being casually kind to a child once in a while, this devotion is pretty much Nancy’s entire personality – and the film approves of it. This isn’t a dark picture of a violent man victimising a young woman, folks, it’s love! See, there’s a ballad about it and everything!

It’s a family drama so her murder takes place off screen (just her death spasm legs are seen), but you’d like to think the film could have taken a few moments to put a bit of light and shade on just why this character feels the way she does and does the things she does. In fact, the film is quite dependent on Oliver Reed, the only actor in it who dares to touch some sort of psychological depth – it’s quite telling that, even though he was a famed drunk, he’s the only member of the cast to have had any success after the film was released.

Instead, this is a great big, colourful, empty pantomime of a musical, devoid of character and (outside of its choreography) inspiration. It’s a great big explosion of tasteful sets, mugging actors, pretty colours, prancing and the odd catchy tune. It’s got no idea what the original novel was about at all, and no interest in even touching some of the themes of poverty and criminality Dickens was aiming at. Reed directs the entire thing with the indifference of a gun-for-hire.

Its syrupy sweetness and hammering tweeness leaves you punch-drunk rather than sugar-rushed. Oliver is such an insipid fella you’ll be delighted when he shuts up and sits in the background for most of the second half. It clumsily unveils a mystery and then drifts towards a conclusion that lacks any real drama. It studiously avoids anything that could remotely stretch the viewer. It’s trying so hard to charm you and hug you, it comes across like a lecherous stranger offering you sweets. Oliver! wasn’t even the best musical of 1968, let alone the best film. But in a year when the world was going to hell in a handcart, perhaps a kid-friendly fable bending over backwards to charm and reassure you was what the world needed. Doesn’t mean I need to stomach it now.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Charlton Heston fights for freedom in the large scale but strangely empty Ben-Hur

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim), Martha Scott (Miriam), Cathy O’Donnell (Tirzah), Sam Jaffe (Simonides), Finlay Currie (Balthasar), Frank Thring (Pontius Pilate), Terence Longdon (Drusus), George Relph (Tiberius Caesar), Andre Morell (Sextus)

Ben-Hur is big. Hammering home its monumentalism, the poster features the colossal stone-carved title dwarfing the people below. It’s the sort of Hollywood epic where the numbers – 10,000 extras! 2,500 horses! Over a million props! 1.1 million feet of film! 11 Oscars! – are as much a part of what you are sitting down to watch as the characters and story. Ben-Hur sits at the apex of the Hollywood Biblical epic: three and a half hours long, the most expensive film ever made (at the time). Age hasn’t always treated it kindly, and its eleven Oscars give it a sort of classic status it’s very hard for the first-time viewer to reconcile with what you actually see on the screen. Fundamentally, Ben-Hur is part spectacle, part pageant: some striking sequences linked together by the twee and the forgettable. Entertainingly middle-brow and over honoured, it’s a classic mostly because of what it represents rather than what it is.

Adapted from General Lew Wallace’s best-selling doorstop (he basically invented the airport novel, decades before the first airport ever opened), the story follows the fortunes of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) in the early years of the first millennium. Ben-Hur grew up regarding Roman officer Messala (Stephen Boyd) as a brother. But when Ben-Hur refuses to help Messala identify Jewish insurgents, their friendship comes to an end. Before we know it, Messala suses trumped up charges to send Ben-Hur in chains to a life rowing as a galley slave while his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) are imprisoned. Ben-Hur survives the galleys – even becoming the adopted son of Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). When he returns to Jerusalem, will he take his revenge on Messala? Or will the teachings of the mysterious preacher spreading the word of God change his life?

For bursts of its (huge) run-time Ben-Hur is gripping, exciting stuff. The action when it comes is superbly done and some of the moments of high-emotion really hit the spot. But it’s impossible to avoid that, for large chunks of time in-between, Ben-Hur is ponderous, overlong, more than a bit self-important and a little twee. Frequently the film grinds to a halt to parade its numbers: after all we need a long intro to the chariot race so we can see all those extras and horses. Things like this frequently don’t drive forward the story, or help the pace: but Ben-Hur was at least as much about wowing the audience as it was about telling a story.

William Wyler was offered more money than any director in history to bring it to the screen. He produces a film as faultless in its professionalism, as it is impersonal. Wyler – a director who worked best with actor-led stories – struggled with the vastness of Hur: his visual compositions often an awkward attempt to mix the width of the frame with the intimacy of two characters talking. His style doesn’t help here: the heaviness of the cameras made them difficult to move, making many of the conversation scenes of the film rather flat and dull to look at. Wyler doesn’t put a foot wrong, but it feels more like a competent professional ticking boxes.

It’s the big set piece moments – of which there three – which really have stuck in people’s minds. Those would be: the early scenes with Messala/Ben-Hur, the naval battle sequence and the chariot race. Outside of those moments – which are all, in their own ways, very memorable – it’s amazing to me every time I watch it how much of the film I fail to remember. I certainly had forgotten how damn much of the movie is left post Chariot race (over 45 minutes!), the film dragging on through the Miriam/Tirzah leprosy sub-plot intercut with moments from the life of Jesus (often with dialogue of the “He’s giving a Sermon on that Mount” variety). There are several moments in the film where events play out at great length inversely proportional to their interest.

But those set-pieces are great. The chariot race alone probably made the film the success it is. It’s ten minutes of compelling drama, gripping stunts: a feast of tight editing, dynamic camera work and thundering sound effects. Shot by a second unit – although, to be fair, supervised in its planning and editing by Wyler – it’s the heart of the movie. Viscerally enjoyable, it perhaps stands out because it’s the most earthy, exciting, real thing in a movie that can be rather stagy and turgid.

Running it close is the naval battle sequence – show-casing a gravely Jack Hawkins – very well-done (and disguising its water tank shooting origins), particularly because Wyler keeps most of the focus on the slave rowers in the bowels of the ship. While fire and arrows fly up top, and boarding parties clash, it’s from the slaves perspective that we see a vessel approach to ram the ship – and their terror at drowning that we feel. It’s another fine use of the epic big-screen. With virtually no dialogue, it’s also a triumph of visual story-telling, communicating a host of emotions and actions with brilliant efficiency.

The Messala/Ben-Hur sequences have stuck in the mind for other reasons. Long-running debates exist about who actually wrote the script. The credit goes to Ken Turnberg, but Gore Vidal long claimed his fingerprints were on most of the dialogue. (Wyler and Heston disagreed, giving the credit to playwright Christopher Fry – Heston even thanked Fry in his Oscar acceptance speech.) Vidal liked to claim he directed Boyd to play these scenes as if Messala was a spurned lover of Ben-Hur – taking an equal delight in claiming Heston had no idea of this subtext. Wyler argued he had no memory of this, and denied any such direction to Boyd took place. The truth will never really be known, but to me the idea of the writer on a film like this taking creative control seems a stretch.

Anyway, it adds a frisson to the scenes – and its undeniable there is more than a touch of camp to them. To be honest I think a lot of this is due to Stephen Boyd’s OTT performance as Messala. He plays every single scene at a ludicrous pitch – throughout the chariot race he makes Dick Dastardly look the model of underplaying – and I can well imagine Vidal enjoyed taking advantage of his over-emphasis in these sequences to spin an amusing story of sneaking in a homo-erotic subtext.

The acting in general is fairly mundane – for all the film won two Oscars for its performers. Heston (in his only nomination) was named Best Actor. He’s a monumental actor, best used in roles that could have been chiselled from marble, but this is not his best (look to Khartoum, Agony and the Ecstasy or Planet of the Apes for starters). Much like Boyd he’s prone to over-emotionalism (most of the last 40 minutes feature him throwing his face into his hands), intermixed with moments of stony po-facedness. Hugh Griffith won the other Oscar (insanely generous considering he beat out Scott and O’Connell in Anatomy of a Murder) and his hammy, black-face is increasingly uncomfortable. Few of the other performers make much of an impact (although I enjoyed seeing an unbilled John Le Mesurier as a Roman doctor).

The one thing about Ben-Hur that lives up to its grandness is Miklos Rosza’s brilliant -and hugely influential – score. A brilliant mix of the inspiring epic, the grandiose and the deeply spiritual, you can hear its DNA throughout the works of John Williams and several others. It’s one of the longest scores of all time (three hours of music!) but it captures the tone of every scene perfectly, helping to build the overall effect.

It even manages to make some of the Jesus sequences work. The film is never more twee than when it touches on the Bible. Jesus is only ever shown from behind, but always as the classic long-haired, beatific figure, practically floating through the ether. Sequences that show the nativity, the sermon on the mount and the crucifixion have a Sunday School earnestness about them, largely free of drama and seem designed to be as inoffensive (and uninteresting) as possible. It’s when the film is as its most self-consciously earnest.

And Ben-Hur is a very earnest film. A professional job – with a director wrestling all those numbers – it’s got some striking sequences but even more flat, twee and forgettable moments. With acting that ranges from overly-earnest to just over the top, its classic status is more about what it is. The largest, most expensive, most honoured film of the Biblical epic genre. Its’ most famous for all those Oscars and the chariot race: in other words ten minutes of its screen time and garlands from a ceremony we often say honours the wrong films. Judged on film merits, Ben-Hur is not the best but not the worst. But it’s more about all its numbers, the vast array of things in it. It represents Big Studio investment: it’s about money. No wonder Hollywood garlanded it with so many Oscars.

Tom Jones (1963)

Albert Finney flirts with Diane Cilento (among many, many others) in Oscar winner Tom Jones

Director: Tony Richardson

Cast: Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Susannah York (Sophie Western), Hugh Griffith (Squire Western), Edith Evans (Miss Western), Joan Greenwood (Lady Bellaston), Diane Cilento (Molly Seagrim), George Devine (Squire Allworthy), David Tomlinson (Lord Fellamer), Rosalind Atkinson (Mrs Millar), Wilfrid Lawson (Black George), Rosalind Knight (Mrs Fitzpatrick), Jack Macgowan (Patridge), Freda Jackson (Mrs Seagrim), David Warner (Blifil), Joyce Redman (Mrs Waters/Jenny Jones), Rachel Kempson (Bridget Allworthy), Peter Bull (Thwackum), Angela Baddeley (Mrs Wilkins), Julian Glover (Northerton)

In early 1964, America was at the height of Beatlemania. Everything about Swinging Sixties London was the height of cool, so what better way to reflect that at the Oscars than naming Best Film of the previous year as being Tom Jones, the film that turned Henry Fielding’s work into the epitome of the era’s vibe. Watching Tom Jones today is a cruel reminder that generally nothing dates as hard or as fast as cutting-edge film techniques, and that time is often not kind to comedy. But Tom Jones was the first truly British film to lift Best Picture since Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948, so it was a sign of the short-lived all-conquering cool of British culture.

Adapted with a frenetic style from Henry Fielding’s novel, the film follows the trials and tribulations of Tom Jones (Albert Finney), adopted by Squire Allworthy (George Devine) after he is found abandoned on Allworthy’s bed as a baby. Growing up, Tom is a roisterer and rodgerer (especially keen on rodgering) but fundamentally decent, in love with Sophia Western (Susannah York) and the target of jealous rumours from his cousin Blifil (David Warner, looking a bit lost in his film debut). Banished as a result of Blifil’s schemes, he journeys to London encountering adventures along the way, not least a night of bliss with a Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) who may (or may not) be his mother. Will Tom be able to prove his innocence, win the love of Sophia and escape his destiny of being “born to hang”?

Tony Richardson came to Tom Jones fresh from directing several searching, morally complex kitchen-sink dramas – and basically seemed determined to cut loose with this film by having fun. What he comes up with is an explosion of multiple different styles, from silent film to sped-up Benny Hill chases. Not a single editing or camera trick is unused, with the film stuffed to the gills with fades, wipes and freeze frames. Richardson basically used every single trick in the book. He was also lucky to have a perfectly judged score from John Addison (winning an Oscar).

It makes for a frenetic and fast-paced film, in love with its own 60s cool of anarchic comedy, sexual liberation and tongue-in-cheek lack of reverence all washed down with a bucket load of thigh-slapping bawdiness. It’s a film that’s inordinately pleased with itself, using Fielding’s interventionist narration style as the licence to break the fourth wall frequently and introduce a dryly hammy voiceover from Michael MacLiammóir. All of this was seen as the height of daring film-making back in the day – especially since Hollywood expected literary adaptations to be treated with reverence rather than as a high-brow Carry-On. But it’s dated badly.

Its smug, overbearing sense of zeitgeist cool comes across terrifyingly passé today, and the film’s daring use of every single cinema style makes it tonally feel like a complete mess. Richardson will segue from farce straight to an immersive hunting sequence where we are invited to feel every moment of the blood lust and violence, straight to a pastoral sequence showing the courtship of Tom and Sophia in glorious countryside.

Richardson himself – despite winning Best Director for his very self-consciously flashy work – also had mixed feelings about the film, recutting it shortly after its Oscar win into a shorter version which remains the version most people have seen today. He said of it that it “felt incomplete…and botched in much of its execution…whenever someone gushes to me about Tom Jones, I always cringe little inside”.

It’s a fair assessment of a film that is all flash – and way too much of it – and so little substance that it frequently becomes trite, smug and unpleasant to watch. John Osborne’s script (which apparently he submitted than refused to redraft) is in all honesty a mess (much of it was rewritten on set while the narration was a post-production addition to make it all make sense), with barely any quotable lines, and whatever skill the film has is all in the telling and the editing. 

Did Richardson take the whole thing as a lark and then work out later on that comedy is harder than it looks? The entire film was a complete mess on set – several errors were in fact left in the film (such as Western falling off his horse due to Griffith’s drunkenness) and then turned into jokes through the voiceover. There is a slight air from all involved that this isn’t proper film-making, that this is just one to flog for a bit of cash. Its Oscar win is inexplicable, but can be chalked up to a horrendously weak year at the Oscars.

Albert Finney goes through the entire film on autopilot – little matter than it made him a star – and he seems a curious choice for a young lover, throughout the film he channels instead a sort of horny Arthur Seaton. Finney thought the entire thing bosh and a waste of his talents – an attitude that does come across on the screen. Lightness is not always Finney’s strength, and his distant disengagement with the film becomes more striking with every viewing. 

Many of the rest of the cast mug shamelessly. Hugh Griffith bizarrely landed an Oscar nomination for a performance of gurning over-the-top mania. The film had three nominations for Best Supporting Actress: Edith Evans emerges best, although she could play this domineering Mrs Western standing on her head; Diane Cilento brings an attractive lightness to buxom Molly while Joyce Redman is good value and gets the film’s most famous sequence, a slobbery eating sequence with Finney where food is consumed in a very suggestive way as foreplay. Arguably the best supporting roles come from Joan Greenwood as the sexual but cruel Lady Bellaston and George Devine as the decent Squire Allworthy (the only character who isn’t some sort of caricature).

Tom Jones is most of all a memento of a particular brand of fast-paced, technique heavy, manic sixties comedy. It made a lot of money and won a lot of awards, so led to a torrent of similar films from bawdy Hogarthian costume dramas to sex comedies in modern London with naïve but well-endowed young men. Richardson and co. should have credit for catching this vibe first – but it makes for an odd experience today, like a slightly uncomfortable museum piece.