Saturday, April 15, 2006

Saturday Movie Review: Oliver Twist

Posted by Loner.

What's your name, boy?

Oliver Twist, the character who is being addressed, doesn't answer that question in the novel which bears his name.

Having found that the poor were largely responsible for their state, a Royal Commission made recommendations. Subsequently, An Act for the Amendment and better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales was approved by Parliament. It received Royal Assent on August 14, 1834.

Jump to June 1836 when, midway through the latest installment in a serial by a writer calling himself Boz, a character (a chambermaid) calls 'Sam!' and two things happen: A character named Sam Weller says 'Hallo' and Charles Dickens becomes not just another talented writer of little note. The resulting first novel, a sensation from then on and a comic masterpiece for the ages since, will come to be known as The Pickwick Papers. Serialization of a second novel begins before serialization of the first is complete and, with Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens begins to bring to the public's attention the social evils of his day. It is no accident that 1834 post-dates Oliver's birth and pre-dates his ninth birthday. It is on his ninth birthday in Chapter II that he is brought from the farm to the workhouse and before the board and the man in the high chair who asks him his name. By this point the author has already delivered such a withering denunciation of the inevitable effects of the 1834 Act that one might reasonably wonder whether there is a novel, which certainly won't be another Pickwick, here.

Oliver Twist, as it turns out, would become, with the exception of one of the Christmas stories, the Dickens work most often adapted by the makers of moving pictures. There are numerous reasons for this, but one of the primary ones is that it is full of plot and characterization flaws, most of which are undoubtedly the inevitable result of the circumstances (second novels when the first has been a success) in which it came into being. Oliver Twist, in other words, can, in some respects, be improved. Does Oliver ever not answer the above question in one of the adaptations? At the same time, it includes far too many memorable characters and scenes for all to be done real justice in an adaptation meant to play for between two and three hours in a movie theater.

For those who didn't notice, and dismal box office last fall suggests that most didn't, Roman Polanski chose to do an adaptation as his follow-up to The Pianist. In the DVD extras he explains that he wanted to make a movie for his children and that it has been two generations since the release of Oliver!, Carol Reed's movie version of Lionel Bart's stage musical version of the Dickens novel.

The Reed and Polanski movies are not the subject of this review. For the record, I think the Bart stage musical the greatest of the adaptations of the Dickens novel and the Reed movie the finest, save one, of all the adaptations of stage musicals into moving pictures. The Polanski version, beautifully crafted though it be, functions more as a meditation on the effects on the director of his childhood than as a movie for children. For instance, as is the case in all Polanski movies, it doesn't end on an especially happy note.

Murder! Brutal murder!

Charles Dickens died, after suffering a stroke, on June 9, 1870. During the prior two and one-half years the author devoted most of his time and energy to giving public readings from his most popular work. There is plenty of reason to believe that the passion he put into these readings, and one in particular, was a major cause of his death. That one is "The Murder of Nancy" from Oliver Twist. One of the great stage Macbeths of the Nineteenth Century, William Charles Macready, told Dickens that his performance, in which he played all the characters, was the equivalent of two Macbeths. The first movie adaptation based on Oliver Twist was released in 1897. It's called The Death of Nancy Sykes. I've not seen it, but it's hard to believe that it's anywhere near as stunning a depiction of that murder as the one which would play 51 years later when another adaptation got a public showing in England and in some other parts of the world.

That scene is reason enough to recommend Oliver Twist, but there are plenty of others. Its director, David Lean, had as his prior project directed a version of Great Expectations, which is widely regarded as having done for Dickens what Olivier's Henry V did for Shakespeare. Great Expectations was nominated for five 1947 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing-Screenplay, Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Black and White Art Direction-Set Decoration. It won in the last two categories and lost to Gentlemen's Agreement in the first two. I think Oliver Twist the superior of the two movies in all five categories, but Oliver Twist would receive no Academy Award nominations and would, in fact, not get a public showing in the United States until 1951.

To get the Motion Picture Association for the Production Code Administration seal, without which it could not play in regular movie theaters, its running time was eventually cut by eleven minutes. All the cut material featured Fagin and the perceived problem was an "unfair representation" of a race or nationality, but, as David Lean put it: I told them they had turned it into an anti-Semitic picture. What they had done is cut out everything that wasn't absolutely essential to the plot, so all the humor of Guinness's performance went. He was just a straight and unmitigated sod, Fagin. Madness.

Luckily for everyone who loves movies, the controversy over Lean's movie and Alec Guinness's performance as Fagin in it did no discernible damage to their careers. Guinness would star and win an Oscar when they next collaborated, The Bridge on the River Kwai and would also contribute memorable supporting performances in character roles in the Lean-directed Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India and a not so memorable one in his Doctor Zhivago.

Alec Guinness's movie career consisted of a day's work and a supporting role as Herbert Pocket in Lean's Great Expectations when he told the director he wanted to play Fagin. Lean's response was: You're out of your mind. Guinness asked for a screen test in which Lean would not see his costume and makeup until he appeared on the set. Lean agreed. Alec Guinness walked onto the set and the part and an illustrious movie career were his. The other great performance is that given by the actor who plays Nancy's murderer. Robert Donat wanted to play Bill Sikes and tested for the part. Things didn't go well and Lean was able to cast the actor he'd wanted all along, Robert Newton. Newton had a drinking problem which made him undependable. Lean went out of character for himself as a director because he wanted Newton enough to not make his normal demands on an actor working in one of his movies. It worked.

Please sir, I want some more.

Most of the best scenes in the novel are in this version. Oliver asks for more and both the scene in which he draws the short straw and the one in which he approaches the master are beautifully composed. Bumble gets to comment on meat and the law. The Game, as ever, is a joy to watch. Mr. Fang, the police magistrate, does not quite get his moment, but Mr. "...I'll eat my head!" Grimwig does. Anthony Newley, in his movie debut as the Artful Dodger, is altogether, as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in his bluchers. Unfortunately, Lean and his collaborator on the screenplay, Stanley Haynes, didn't come up with as neat a prelude to Nancy's murder as did Bart in his musical, so the Dodger is the instrument of her being found out (Noah Claypool makes it to London to do the dodge in the novel.) The murder and its aftermath are among the most effectively horrifying minutes in movie history. In some respects this is because of Newton's performance, but it is also because by chance the crew found something that drove the dog playing Bullseye crazy and then used it devastating effect.

From the opening scene, a mother-to-be outdoors in a storm, to the final scene, an overjoyed Oliver (John Howard Davies) taking Mr. Brownlow and Mrs. Bedwin by the hand, the expressionistic black and white cinematography is incredible. Have brick and wood ever been more beautifully photographed? I never fail to marvel at the set onto which Oliver exits when he leaves the undertaker and to the point of view, high above (the camera is often placed so) from which it is shown.

The Criterion Collection DVD includes a pristine print of the English version and a theatrical trailer in which Guinness appears as both Fagin and Pocket. Why no commentary from a film scholar? Please Criterion Collection, I want some more.

Note: The DVD available outside the United States and Canada includes a documentary, movie stills and biographies, but my reading makes me wonder as to whether or not the movie print from which it was produced wasn't in as good a condition as the one Criterion used.


Unknown said...


That was wonderful.

I have seen Polanski's Oliver and it is good, but I also liked the musical version the best. And I love the character of the Artful Dodger.

Poor Nancy, singing as long as he needs me...

Everytime I think that movie I remember the tune, Where is she? The one with whom I long to be?

Little orphan Oliver crying fo the mother he did not know.

I wonder how many writers of fiction have had such impact on the society he wrote about as did Charles Dickens?

Rick Ballard said...

Thanks, Loner. I've never really cared enough about movies to actually think about collecting them but you've convinced me to give it a whirl.

Really excellent work - I thought the Macbeth review was good but this one is better.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


Good point about Republicans and Jews. For a lot of people on the East Coast, Republicanism is synonymous with Connecticut and WASPs. I grew up elsewhere and had never heard of WASPs or prep schools until I was in college. "Main street" Republicans vs. "Wall Street" Republicans.

Rick Ballard said...


If you read that Dartmouth kid's review that DT highlighted you'll see that it is alive and still kicking. The quieter the uglier as far as I'm concerned.

loner said...


I doubt that there has been any author of fiction who had greater impact on the society in which he lived or on the way we view that society now. It's been years since I read Sergei Eisenstein's Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today so I hesitate to write that no author of fiction had a greater impact on how stories are told in movies, but my gut feeling is that that statement is also true.

I wanted to be the Artful Dodger before I read the novel.


My plan is to mix it up a little next week and write about why I don't like a couple of movies which were released less than twenty years ago.

My best to everyone.