Friday, October 21, 2011

TOM JONES (1963)


TOM JONES at first seems like an unlikely candidate for best picture: its cast were mostly unknowns, as was its director and eighteenth century source novel (in America anyway), not to mention the fact that it is an outright comedy, a true rarity for a best picture winner.  But the film definitely caught the zeitgeist of the time; with America's infatuation with all things English just starting  (beginning with 1962's DR NO, the James Bond films were proving to be very popular in the US, meanwhile The Beatles were just starting to hit the charts here) plus the onset of the sexual revolution, (the birth control pill was first introduced in 1960) the stage was set for a saucy and sexy romp from England to become a commercial and critical smash.  But, while the film does produce a few big laughs, its a little too light and silly to really be considered great, and its designation as the year's best movie appears far from correct to me.
The idea for the film came from  director Richardson (who also produced it), who, after years of making gritty English dramas, wanted to adapt Henry Fielding's comic novel for the screen.  After securing funding mainly though his own production company, Woodfall Films, he cast Albert Finney, then known mostly for British TV work, in the lead.  Filming was difficult, as Richardson demanded it be shot on location in various parts of England.  After assembling a rough cut, he was disappointed with the results, but he and editor Anthony Gibbs pulled out all the stops, using unusual cutting techniques (like numerous wipes, irises and freeze frames) and a jaunty harpsichord score by John Addison to brighten the film  (Addison would win an Oscar for it). Also some clever narration by Micheál Mac Liammóir ("We are all as god made us, and many of us much worse") was added. Still, Richardson expected a flop, but instead the film grew into an enormous hit on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing in around $50,000,000 world wide on a budget of around a million.
It tells the story of Tom (Finney), a baby abandoned at birth in the bed of Squire Allworthy(George Devine), who assumes him to be the offspring of one of his servants and his barber, both of whom he casts out.  He then raises Tom like he is own son.  Tom grows to be a good looking young man who enjoys drink and the company of women, but his true love is the pretty Sophie Weston (Susannah York), the daughter of Squire Weston (Hugh Griffith), but because he is a bastard, he is unable to wed her, and eventually his father is coerced into driving him out of the house.  After many adventures (some of a sexual nature), his true standing as Allworthy's nephew is revealed, and, after literally being saved from being hanged on false charges at the last possible second, he and Sophie are reunited.

Albert Finney and Susannah York

As Tom, Finney is full of charm, good looks and energy, and is well matched with York's lovely Sophie; importantly, he remains likable even when he is far from faithful to her.  Still, this is a pretty breezy roll, and I think Finney's best work lay ahead in films like SHOOT THE MOON and THE DRESSER.  The rest of the cast is just fine, except for Griffith as Sophie's father, who's constant screeching of his dialogue quickly grows tiresome (and whose drunken behavior in the film, by all accounts, was not just the result of acting).
The film has an odd style: on the one hand, the recreations of the 18th. century are shown realistically, as is the story and dialogue, but Richardson often adds surreal touches like speeding up the action or having characters suddenly directly address the camera.  He even opens the film like a silent movie, complete with title cards.  Also,  he tends  to fill his frame with people and animals in almost constant motion,  (running, fighting, rolling around).  The result is a 18th. century English period piece like no other; instead of the often staid and stentorian tone of such films it is playful and light.  It also avoids the self conscious prettiness that so many period pieces have, reminding the audience that this was a time of abundant mud and filth.

Joyce Redman in the famous "eating" scene

But there just isn't that compelling a story here, and at over two hours it goes on far too long, especially at the film's beginning, when a long deer hunt followed by romantic scenes between Tom and Sophie  bring the film to a crawl; the main plot doesn't really kick in until Tom is cast out by Squire Allworthy, which should have happened much sooner.   (Richardson apparently agreed with this assessment, assembling a director's cut in 1989 that is seven minutes shorter, and which does play a little better.)
The film's most famous scene comes when, after Tom saves a  woman in distress (Joyce Redman), the two of them go to an inn and share a seductive meal of lobster, oyster and fruit.  Redman and Finney mostly improvised this scene, and their ridiculous expressions as they chomp and slurp away provide the film's biggest laughs.  But this is the only scene in the film that I really find hilarious (although I also enjoy Liammóir's droll narration),  and too often I find the film's straining to be funny by speeding up the action or having the cast yell or perform pratfalls, tiresome.  Still, the film very much captured the tenor of its times by making the sexually liberated Tom the hero and portraying the so called guardians of morality as pompous killjoys.  So, as a time capsule precursor to the youth culture rebellion that was about to rock the 1960's, it's an interesting film, but as a movie, it's only a mild success.

Obviously, I am not that crazy about this film, and I think that AMERICA AMERICA,  THE HAUNTING, and especially THE GREAT ESCAPE are all better films that were released that year.  But, to be fair, TOM JONES is a fun movie, and its nice to see a rare win for a comedy.

Monday, October 10, 2011



With the choice of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA the Academy gave director David Lean his second best picture winner,  (his first being 1957's BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) and helped cement his reputation for epics.  But LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is an unusual epic in that, even though it has the prerequisite cast of thousands and enormous battle scenes, it also has a complex and often half mad main character who stands in stark contrast to the one dimensional heroes of such films as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or SPARTACUS.  It is this unusual hero (and the great lead performance by Peter O'Toole as that hero) that keeps the film from feeling dated and stilted like so many other epics from that era.  Today it is still seen as the one of the best epics ever made, an opinion I certainly concur with.
After the huge success of BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, director Lean and producer Sam Spiegel were looking for a follow up.  Lean had shown an interest in making a film about T. E.  Lawrence after reading Lawrence's autobiography THE SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM in the early 50's, but Spiegel didn't get the rights until 1960.  At first, Marlon Brando was considered for the title role, and then Albert Finney, before Lean convinced Spiegel to let him cast the then virtually unknown O'Toole, a decision that would certainly prove itself correct.  With a script by Micheal Wilson and (then uncredited) play write Robert Bolt,  Lean went to work on the mammoth production, spending two years on the preproduction alone, before shooting in Jordan, Spain and Morocco.  Although it wound up over budget, it became a smash hit, returning around $45,000,000 on a budget of 15.
The film tells the true story of Thomas Edward Lawrence, a young English military officer, who during World War I, is sent to Arabia to aid Arab prince Faisel (Alec Guinness) in his battle against the Turks.  For two years Lawrence leads successful raids against the Turkish military, most famously taking the city of Aqaba.  After a brief but brutal capture by the Turks embitters him, he later leads his men in the  slaughter of a retreating  Turkish army.  After this harsh experience, combined with his realization that the European powers have no desire to allow the Arabian people to run their own country, he leaves the Middleast entirely and becomes a common soldier.  Years later, he dies in a motorcycle crash (which opens the film).
Right from the start, it has to be said that this is one of the best looking films ever made; although all epics try to knock out the audience with their visual splendor, few succeed as impressively as this one. The incredible way that Lean cuts from Lawrence blowing out a lit match to the desert sands of Arabia is one of the most jarring and stunning edits in movie history.  More importantly,  Lean wrung not only beauty, but drama from the way he and cinematographer Freddie Young shot the pure white sands of the desert, which look not only beautiful but foreboding in the way that they almost swallow the often tiny looking people moving across them.  I love the way that Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) first appears through a mirage in the distance, or the way that the taking of Aqaba is filmed from high above in one long panning shot of the Arab army charging the city, that ends with the camera resting on a now worthless Turkish cannon pointed the wrong way.  (Not since GONE WITH THE WIND has a single shot summarized a battle so effectively!)

The Seige of Aqaba

Although he has had a long and varied career, O'Toole will always be know for his star making performance as Lawrence, and with good reason.  The movie is almost four hours long, and he's practically in every frame, easily carrying the film; along with his smoldering good looks and piercing blue eyes, he was able to  exude an instant charisma that marked him as both a movie star and as a credible military leader in the film.  He is likable in the early scenes, where we see him clumsy and uncomfortable in the British military, and when he resolves to live as much like an Arab as possible once he's in Arabia. (I also really enjoy the almost childish way that he parades about by himself after his men give him a new white robe and dagger). And he is clearly shaken and upset when he admits that he has come to enjoy killing.  But then he begins to lose the audience's sympathy as he begins to see himself as something more than human ("They can only kill me with a golden bullet!"), and he begins to compare himself to Moses and Jesus.  Finally, after his short but brutal imprisonment, he appears to have completely snapped, and he becomes truly frightening, especially when he charges forward to slaughter the retreating Turks with a huge smile on his face, (a chilling image if there ever was one!).  O'Toole perfectly shows his character changes over the course of the film without ever overplaying it.  (When he speaks of his messianic abilities he does it in a quiet and determined voice).  And even as he falls into madness, he is still compelling.
O'Toole is well matched by the rest of the cast: Shariff is excellent as the proud Sherif, who shifts from skeptic to believer to voice of reason over the course of the film.  And if Anthony Quin's Auda Abu Tayi is perhaps too loud and broad, his lovable bandit character is clearly supposed to be over the top, and he brings energy and humor to the film, so  I don't mind at all. Alec Guinness and Claude Raines also have  small but pivotal roles, and they both acquit themselves well.

Peter O'Toole and Omar Shariff

At almost four hours, the film has no real slow spots, and is never far away from a terrific image or well acted scene; the closest thing I can find as a flaw in the film is in the role of Arthur Kennedy as American reporter Jackson Bentley.  Although he is important to the plot in that his reporting makes Lawrence famous, there is little that he brings to the film; almost everything he says to Lawrence is obvious to the audience already, and it feels that his presence in the film is nothing more than a sop to American audiences.  Still, this is a minor point.


While other fine films like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT came out the same year as LAWRENCE, clearly this impressive epic stands head and shoulders over the rest.   I must admit that for the third straight year I can't really argue with the Academy's choice.  That streak will end with my next entry...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011



The best picture win for WEST SIDE STORY would mark the fifth time that the academy awarded a musical, the first since 1958's GIGI.  But this was a musical unlike any of the other winners; a bittersweet story of doomed love mixed with a critical look at modern racism and the difficulties of urban life.  Although the film falters in some of its casting (Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican?), it has dynamic dance scenes, terrific songs, and a moving love story; of all the musicals to win the best picture award over the years, I think its the best.
It genesis began in 1949 when writer Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins envisioned a musical update of Romeo and Juliet set in modern times.  Originally it was going to be about an Italian Catholic boy and a Jewish girl falling for each other, but a boom of Puerto Rican immigrants arriving in New York in 1954 caused them to change the characters to a Polish Catholic boy and a Puerto Rican girl.  With Laurents writing the book and Robbins directing, Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, and  future Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim did the lyrics.  The show opened in 1957, and, capitalizing on the popularity of "troubled youth" stories like 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE,  was an enormous hit, even if its dark subject matter and borderline profane lyrics ("when the spit hits the fan") were the cause of some controversy.  United Artists producer Walter Mirisch was a fan of the show and purchased the rights for the studio.  Robbins was originally hired to direct the musical and dance scenes, while veteran director Robert Wise was to handle the non musical parts of the film.  Trouble began quickly, as Robbins's exacting perfectionism caused the film to go over budget, and he was eventually fired after directing only four numbers. (He would still be credited with co direction of the film, for which he would eventually win a best director award with Wise).   Wise himself would also push the film over budget as he wanted to shoot as much of the film as possible on location in New York.  Despite all the difficulty, the film turned out to be a big hit, costing around $7,000,000 and bringing in around 50; it's soundtrack would also prove to be very popular.
Set in New York City, it tells the story of two rival teen gangs, the Caucasian Jets led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo (George Chakaris), who are fighting over turf.  Meanwhile, former Jet Tony (Richard Beymer) and Bernardo's sister Maria (Wood) meet and fall in love at a dance.  When the two gangs plan a rumble, Tony goes to try and stop it, but when Bernardo kills Riff, Tony kills him.  Tony hides out with Maria, and the two of them plan to run away together, but Tony is shot and killed by one of the Sharks.

The Sharks and the Jets face off

One of the scenes Robbins directed is the terrific opening that shows the escalating tensions between the two gangs almost entirely through action without dialogue.  The use of New York locations, along with quick cutting and unusual camera angles, clearly shows that Robbins was determined to give audiences something more than a direct filming of the Broadway show.  I love the way that the macho strides of the boys almost naturally lead to dance moves, and the way that dance choreography and fight choreography seem to blend together (an idea used again during the rumble).
While I think that every musical scene in the film is a success, my personal favorite is the "America"sequence, performed on a rooftop by the Sharks and their girlfriends; along with being a great showcase for  the  lively dancing of Rita Moreno's character Anita (she won a best supporting actress award for the role),  the song plays as a clever debate between the boys and girls as to the wisdom of immigration, an unlikely subject for a Broadway song that Sondheim's clever lyrics illustrate beautifully.  Another Sondheim highlight are the hilarious lyrics to "Office Krupke", wonderfully performed by Tamblyn and the rest of the Jets. 
I've already mentioned that I consider Wood miscast as Maria, but I must admit that every time I time I see the film, her performance wins me over; she and Beymer certainly make an attractive couple, and it's hard not be charmed by the scene where the two of them act out a pretend wedding in a dress shop.  I also admire the way she played the tragic final scene, with her anger and sadness becoming almost palpable.  So, even if her Caucasian background makes her unbelievable, and her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon (to be fair, all of the singers in the film were dubbed at some point by other people, except for Chakaris), it's hard to imagine the film without her.  As for the rest of the cast, I think they are all perfect, with Tamblyn's James Dean like tough guy Riff being a real standout (his acrobatic dancing is certainly impressive).

Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer
I'm always surprised by how dark this story is for a musical; really, the only really blameless characters in the film are Maria and Doc (Ned Glass), the drug store owner. (We like Tony, but he does kill Bernardo in anger). The cycle of violence between the gangs seems inevitable, while the police officers, usually the most moral characters in a story like this, are ineffectual, and downright racist.  And while it is clearly shown that the criminal behavior by the Jets is due in part to the poor environment of their families, nothing can excuse the way that they torment Anita towards the end of the film, hurling racial epithets at her and stopping just short of rape (apparently this was a very difficult scene for Moreno to shoot, and understandably so!).  Really, the film's only bright spot comes after Tony's death, when both the Jets and the Sharks sadly carry his body away, implying that they might finally stop their fighting.


I think it's obvious that I love this movie, and while THE HUSTLER and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, are also great, I can't argue with the Academy on this one.