Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948)Synopsis:

A nameless woman gives birth to a boy at a workhouse. She dies and the child is raised as an orphan. The little guy, named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies, The Rocking Horse Winner), is later “sold” to a funeral home, where he is mistreated. Oliver runs away to London where he becomes part of a gang of thieves, whose leader is the avaricious Fagin (Alec Guinness, Star Wars).

Reaction & Thoughts:

Against the advice of friends and colleagues, director David Lean decided to follow Great Expectations (1946) with another Dickens adaptation. Lean knew it was unwise to make two Dickens films in a row, but he couldn’t help himself (from a financial stand point, the decision proved to be indeed unwise). Although he was far from being a scholar, Lean found Dickens’s work irresistible, especially Oliver Twist. Lean and writer Stanley Haynes locked themselves in a room and a month later they came up with a nearly complete script.

In most areas, Oliver Twist is superior to the well-received Great Expectations. Guy Green’s brilliant chiaroscuro cinematography draws heavily on 1920s German expressionism. John Bryan’s Freudian sets are eye-candy. The fantastic wordless opening sequence (written by Lean’s estranged wife actress Kay Walsh, This Happy Breed) is one of cinema’s best. It’s one of Lean’s many jaw-dropping set-pieces. There is one murder sequence that will leave you speechless. The climax is fantastic too.

Sadly, Oliver Twist faced a lot of criticism, especially in America. Many people found Guinness’s interpretation racist. Timing was not on Lean’s side. WW II had just ended and the Nazi atrocities against the Jewish population were making headlines. Lean was accused of being highly insensitive. Guinness’s stereotypical Jewish appearance is a little too close to the caricatures used by the Nazis. The controversy affected the film at the box-office. It was pulled out of the American market, and in Germany, the film caused riots.

Personally, I think Guinness is superb. Some viewers find Guinness’s make-up and acting a bit too much, but I think it fits rather well within the film’s constant juxtaposition between realism and expressionism. The actor had to convince Lean that he was the right person for the role of Fagin (this is the beginning of the lifelong love-and-hate relationship between actor and director). Lean just couldn’t see the actor in the part, but after a screen test Guinness was immediately casted.

Robert Newton (Treasure Island), as brutish Bill Sykes, gives the best performance anyway. Robert Donat (Goodbye Mr. Chips), who was looking for change of image, wanted the role badly. But I just don’t see Donat, or anyone else for that matter, doing a better job. Walsh is appropriately earthy as the ill-fated Nancy, and Anthony Newly (Doctor Doolittle) is fabulous as the Artful Dodger.

The truly fantastic cast includes Frank L. Sullivan (Quo Vadis) as the opportunistic Mr. Bumble, and Henry Stephenson (Captain Blood) plays Mr. Brownlow. Future sex symbol Diana Dors (Lady Godiva Rides Again) appears as Charlotte.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

If I have one complaint is that the story seems a bit rushed. The thickness of the plot and the numerous characters demand a bit more screen time — I thought Carol Reed’s Oliver! was better at fleshing out the situations and characters. But it’s a great movie; one of the best films based on a literary classic. B&W, 116 minutes, Not Rated.

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