Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948)Synopsis:

Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies, The Rocking Horse Winner) is an orphan who is “sold” to a funeral home where he is mistreated. Oliver runs away and joins a gang of thieves, whose leader is the avaricious Fagin (Alec Guinness, Star Wars).

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Please, sir, I want some more.”

In 1946, filmmaker David Lean made the definitive version of Dickens’s classic 1843 book Great Expectations, and two years later he made the definitive version of Dickens’s second novel, Oliver Twist — both British productions rank among the finest movie adaptations of classics of literature.

Lean knew it was unwise to make two Dickens films in a row, but he couldn’t help himself (from a financial standpoint, 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 fantastically wordless opening sequence (written by Lean’s estranged wife, actress Kay Walsh) is one of cinema’s best. This is one of Lean’s many jaw-dropping set-pieces. There is also a 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 Alec Guinness’s Fagin racist. WWII 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 director Lean that he was the right person for the role of Fagin (this was the beginning of the lifelong love-and-hate relationship between actor and director). Lean resisted, 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 a change of image, wanted the role badly. I just don’t see Donat, or anyone else for that matter, doing a better job. Kay Walsh is appropriately earthy as the ill-fated Nancy. 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 (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) plays the benevolent Mr. Brownlow. John Howard Davies is great as Oliver and future sex symbol Diana Dors (Lady Godiva Rides Again) appears as Charlotte.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

If I have one complaint, it 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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