Oliver Twist

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I haven’t watched or reviewed an “old” film in a while, and let me just say black and white, oh how I’ve missed you! This is more than just a sentimental weakness on my part, the black and white here is fantastic. David Lean is able to do some fantastic things with the shadows in this film, and on leaving it, this is my dominant impression. Lean brings the techniques normally found in film noir or German Expressionism to Dickens’ tale, and in doing so brings out its darkness and eventual hope.

Those unfamiliar with the original story will be surprised to discover how little it concerns itself with the title character. As I read the book, I thought of him more as someone that things just happened to, a victim of fate. He seemed to me a personification of innocence tossed about in Dickens’ London until finally finding a home, all at the mercy of others, mainly adults. Dickens makes it clear that it’s an adult world he’s dealing with here. Having translated this into film, Lean helped me make a connection I might not have if I’d only experienced the novel. I was thinking here that Oliver Twist is almost a MacGuffin, if a character can ever be considered as such. The more interesting characters of the story are all looking for him, or trying to keep him from the people who are looking for him. It takes longer to get to know them, and that’s where the interest lies for the most part. Or, more accurately, we get to know Oliver so quickly that it’s easy, and appropriate, to dismiss him as a character of little depth early on.

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The film opens with a great scene; a pregnant women in the middle of a storm trying to get to shelter. It seems to me almost like a scene out of a silent, though there’re sound effects instead of music. This woman is very pregnant, and clearly in pain. As she arches her back, the tree branches get bent back by the wind. The clouds swirl above her, and the wind swirls her hair around her face. The thunder cries out the pain that she is too exhausted to. In this scene, Lean uses nature to reflect this woman’s pain. It’s brilliantly and beautifully done.

She is Oliver’s (John Howard Davies) mother. She dies quickly after giving birth; Oliver is named by the Beadle, Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan), and is left to grow up in a harsh and unforgiving world. First he lives in the poor house, with Lean depicts wonderfully as a grimy and depressing place. I especially loved the shot of the children with vacant and starved expressions watching the adults eat a full meal. The visual speaks for itself; they’re trapped. Most of the social commentary occurs in this first half, when the harsh conditions of the workhouse are sharply contrasted with the unfeeling actions of the board that runs the place.

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After he famously asks for some more food, Oliver is given an apprenticeship, which is hardly any better than the workhouse. He is insulted and given “bits” to eat that were meant for the dog. He is apprenticed to an undertaker, so he is constantly around funerals and death. He is even made a mourner for children’s funerals, because he looks so pathetic and hopeless all the time. He decides to run away, and once he gets to London is picked up by The Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) and taken to Fagin (Alec Guinness). He learns how to pickpocket, though he is too naive to realize this is what he’s learning until he witnesses Dodger steal from Mr. Brownlow (Harry Stephensen).

After being suspected of the crime, becoming ill, and then being cleared, Mr. Brownlow takes pity on him, brings him home, and has his housekeeper nurse him back to health. The change in atmosphere is immediately apparent. Oliver’s whole world has literally become brighter with his change in circumstances. In Fagin’s London, everything is grimy, sooty, and dark. At Mr. Brownlow’s, Oliver glimpses sunlight more often. Sadly it’s not to last as Fagin’s associates Nancy (Kay Walsh) and Bill Sykes (Robert Newton) kidnap him back. Their scheme is to keep Oliver’s true parentage a secret and use him as a pickpocket, for reasons revealed as the film goes on.

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Though he’s not a very deep character, getting an appropriate actor to play Oliver can make or break the adaptation. Davies has the perfect look for Oliver, he looks really pathetic and innocent, and delivers his lines as though he doesn’t fully grasp his situation. When his face is focused on, you can really see just how much he embodies the part. It took me a while to warm up to Guiness’ Fagin, but I ended up liking him in the role. I though Kay Walsh did a fantastic job as Nancy, those scenes of her spying on Bill were pretty fantastic. Nancy the character was able to act there, and Walsh did a great job with it. The weakest link here in my opinion was definitely Newton as Bill. He isn’t scary at all; I don’t think he was nearly menacing enough. I liked his dog though.

I really enjoyed Oliver Twist, I’ve always found the story pretty good and the supporting characters colorful. Despite that, I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the black and white in this film. It gave off a grimy and depressing feel, but also Lean was able to do some really amazing stuff with the shadows and contrasts. I found it worked very well with the story, and just in general as well. It also makes me really curious to track down some of Lean’s other stuff, because it’s very different from his later work on Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. It will be really interesting to see how he evolved.

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“Please sir, I want some more.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

5 responses to “Oliver Twist

    • Yeah the musical is good. It’s funny that I had the same problem with Bill in that one… maybe he’s not supposed to be as threatening as I think he is? I don’t know.
      It’s funny, when they first brought Oliver back to Fagin’s I remembered the “you’ve got to pick a pocket or two” song but of course it wasn’t there! That’s the only time I really thought of the musical while watching though.

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