Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Tom Jones (1963)
Studio Line: HBO

When Tom is discovered an abandoned orphan on the bed of Squire Allworthy, his origins are a mystery; but the Squire adopts him as his own and Tom begins a life of bawdy adventure. A devilish, good-looking young man, Tom has a way with women, but loves only one: young Sophie Western the daughter of a neighboring landowner. His attempts to wo her and the many adventures that befall him from forest sword fights to bedroom romps all lead in one direction: to London where a duel with a jealous husband lands him in prison waiting to be hanged. Will the secret of Tom's birth be revealed in time to save his life, love and love-life?

Director: Tony Richardson
Cast: George Devine, Rachel Kempson, Angela Baddeley, Joyce Redman, Jack MacGowran, Albert Finney, Diane Cilento
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Score-John Addison. Nominated for Best Actor-Albert Finney; Best Supporting Actor-Hugh Griffith; Best Supporting Actress-Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, Joyce Redman; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, 1964.
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio English Digital Stereo, Spanish & French Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - single layer; 29 chapters; rated NR; 121 min.; $24.98; street date 10/14/97.
Supplements: Cast Bios
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Henry Fielding

Picture/Sound/Extras: D/D+/D-

If I'm in the mood for a bawdy tell of Ye Olden Days, I know where to go: the 1983 version of Fanny Hill. The movie itself is pretty bad and offers no fun or drama, but it does present one significant asset: the often-unclad person of the insanely beautiful Lisa Raines. Oh my - what a gorgeous woman! Her lovely visage makes the whole affair worthwhile.

Unfortunately, 1963's Tom Jones offers no similar pleasures, mainly because it was made 20 years earlier when nudity wasn't as acceptable. As such, it comes across like Fanny Hill without the wonderful skin; it's a complete bore, a silly film that did nothing other than bore me.

How in the world this tripe won an Academy Award for Best Picture is a mystery to me. How it got nominated for Best Picture is a mystery to me. How it got made is a mystery to me. I guess it was the Sixties; who can explain half of the odd things that happened that decade?

To me, TJ seems stuck as a product of its times. As with ...And God Created Woman, this is a film that lacks much impact outside of the era in which it was made. I'm sure that in 1963, something like TJ may have seemed like a breath of fresh air, a respite from the repression that marked society in the Fifties. The film was able to be "naughty" but still be seen in respectable circles, which I'd assume let viewers have their cake and eat it too.

While all of this may have been terribly stimulating back then, it doesn't make the movie watchable today, and I indeed found TJ to be an unmitigated bore. Essentially it tells of the life and loves of hunky young Tom (Albert Finney), a handsome young man of suspicious birth who captures the hearts and beds of pretty much every babe he meets, all while he continues to pine for his "true love", Sophie Western (Susannah York). There's little plot of which to speak; essentially the film comes off as a series of sketches that have been welded together in a semi-coherent manner.

All that would be fine if the material itself were presented in a more entertaining way, but TJ strikes me as little more than an episode of Benny Hill with better production values and a more attractive protagonist. What anyone sees in the film appears mysterious to me. The "bawdy" scenes lack any sense of eroticism or lewd allure, and the comedy falls completely flat. The characters are nothing more than silly and uncompelling caricatures. Finney adds a lot of gusto to his portrayal of Tom but does little else. A "bawdy comedy" with no sex appeal or humor is what I call a "disaster". I've seen less interesting films than Tom Jones, but not many with such a pedigree. I've seen all of the Best Picture winners from the Sixties except The Apartment, and though the decade offered some other clunkers - A Man For All Seasons and Oliver! stand as two other weak Oscar winners - Tom Jones takes the cake; it has to be the worst BP victor for the Sixties, and is one of the poorest of all time.

The DVD:

Tom Jones appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This isn't the worst picture ever encoded on a DVD, but it's close and it seems disgraceful for a Best Picture winner. Before I discuss the details of the image itself, I should mention that the DVD does not include the entire film as originally released. In 1989, director Tony Richardson apparently decided the film was too long so he edited it for reissue. The DVD features the cut version, one that loses about seven minutes of material. Would this extra footage led me to enjoy the movie more? I doubt it, but I find it bothersome that it doesn't appear; even though I loathed the movie, it retains its status as an Oscar winner, and it deserves better treatment.

That idea extends to this remarkably poor DVD. During close-ups and a few wider shots, sharpness appears pretty clear and accurate, but for the most part, the image looks very soft and fuzzy. It's a tremendously dull and flat picture that usually lacks precision. At least this hazy quality means that we find no moiré effects or jagged edges, but print flaws are a completely different issue; they abound. Surprisingly, grain seems quite minor; I rarely noticed any. However, I did find lots of white speckles throughout the film, and many other problems occur; I witnessed numerous scratches plus some hairs and blotches as well.

Colors appear very drab and lifeless. All of the hues are faded and bland, with no brightness or boldness to them whatsoever; most colors look pasty and weak, while some darker hues - as in a few faces, which occasionally look purple - come across as excessively saturated. As seen in clothes, black levels actually look fairly deep and accurate, but shadow detail is horrible. Many scenes are virtually unwatchable because they're so dark. It appears that most of these stem from poor "day for night" photography, but even low-light segments not shot under those circumstances look dim and hazy. I don't think I've seen worse shadow detail on a DVD; significant portions of this film are almost totally impenetrable. Put simply, this is one ugly picture.

The film's Dolby Surround soundtrack doesn't seem much better. I'd assume that the original mix was monaural and this track was created for the 1989 reissue mentioned earlier, but that's just speculation.

What I know for a fact is that this mix is pretty weak. Actually, the soundfield is generally adequate because it doesn't try to do much. Music spreads nicely to the side speakers, and some effects emanate from the right and left as well; both extend extremely gently to the rears, where they only make themselves known if you check closely. Some of the effects seemed too strongly isolated to one area. For example, during the hunt sequence, the sound of barking dogs always came strongly from the right speaker, although it should have spread out more. Still, the soundfield appears acceptable and isn't the problem with this disc.

Audio quality is where we find the DVD's main faults. Dialogue is the worst offender, as it almost always seems flawed in some way. Either the speech sounds harsh and edgy, or it's dull and flat, or it somehow manages to be both; it just never manages to come across as clear and accurate. Dialogue seems generally intelligible, but the roughness makes it a tough listen.

Effects fare a little better, though they consistently appear thin and brittle, with little realism on display. At times, the music seems relatively clean and accurate, and it even boasts some mild bass, but for the most part, the songs suffer from the same reedy quality found with other aspects of the mix. On this DVD, when the sound is good, it's decent, but when it's bad, it's atrocious. The audio of Tom Jones surpasses the picture, but both remain badly flawed.

Rounding out this trifecta of terror are the supplemental features on the DVD, of which we find slim pickings. There are very brief biographies of five actors plus director Tony Richardson and writer John Osbourne, plus we get the film's theatrical trailer (which looks even worse than the movie itself). Yes, that's right: it's another DVD for a Best Picture winner that offers almost no extras.

At least in this case that seems somewhat fitting, since Tom Jones is easily one of the weakest Oscar victors in history. Granted, almost anything would fail to live up to the prior year's champ, the magnificent Lawrence of Arabia, but TJ is such forgettable piffle that I can't understand how it even received a nomination. The disc itself is terrible, with some of the worst picture and sound I've seen. Add onto that an extremely sparse offering of supplements and you have a DVD to avoid.

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