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Based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist is about an orphan boy who runs away from a workhouse and meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. Oliver is taken in by the pickpocket and he joins a household of young boys who are trained to steal for their master. This version of Oliver Twist is topped by Alec Guinness's masterly performance of arch-thug Fagin. Written by
Jenny Evans <J.Evans@uts.edu.au>
In 1835 London began reading a series of comic essays or sketches by an unknown writer - it turned out a Parliamentary reporter. He wrote these pieces in a book illustrated by Hablot Browne, who drew pictures under the nickname "Phiz". The writer of the pieces decided to supply them to the public as SKETCHES BY BOZ, to complement his illustrator. The writer was actually named Charles John Huffan Dickens. He was only 23 years old, and he found himself a minor celebrity. Mr. Dickens followed this with a full novel, originally planned like the SKETCHES, but centered on a group of wealthy Englishmen touring the whole of the British Isles. Eventually this picaresque novel centered on the leader of the group, Mr. Samuel Pickwick, and his valet, Sam Weller. THE POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF THE PICKWICK CLUB (later renamed THE PICKWICK PAPERS) was a tremendous success, especially as in the second half of the story Dickens got serious about the legal issue of breach of promise (broken engagement) lawsuits, the corruption of British lawyers, and the horrors of debtor's prison.
He began to see a formula develop here. He was more than a one book phenomenon, and he could see that while people adored his sense of humor, they also liked the serious material. His own life had been harsh - his father had been in debtor's prison, and Dickens had to work in a blacking warehouse (a warehouse where bottles were filled and labeled) as a youth. So he put a great deal in his work of the underside of life in modern England. Compare his novels with those of the two popular "Gods" of the day: Sir Walter Scott's novels were about a heroic past, while Jane Austen concentrated on personalities in the countryside (upper middle class) who were concerned about getting married. Dickens was quite different.
But for his third novel he reversed his formula - instead of a basically comic story enlightened with dramatic moments, he made it a tragic, dramatic tale enlightened with comic highlights. It was this formula he would stick to (quite successfully) from 1837 to 1870 for the bulk of his novels and short stories.
In 1836 there had been a trial of a receiver of stolen goods named Ikey Solomon. Ikey was Jewish. He was also something of a thief trainer. Found guilty, Ikey was sent to Australia for the rest of his life. Dickens decided that he would incorporate this story into his novel.
The hero, a poor boy who was brought up in an orphanage, is mistreated by those in authority (including a pompous beadle named Mr. Bumble) and eventually runs away, but falls into a gang in London led by one Fagin. Fagin is a Jewish thief and receiver in stolen goods. He is also a trainer of pickpockets and thieves, led by one called "The Artful Dodger". He also works closely with a violent, professional burglar named Bill Sykes, who has only two close relationships: his girl, a woman named Nancy, and his pet bulldog.
Oliver in the course of the story is separated from the gang when he is arrested for picking the pocket of a gentleman named Mr. Brownlow. Brownlow tries to help Oliver - he can't place it but there seems something about the boy he likes. Sykes manages to recapture Oliver again, but the latter is reunited by accident to Brownlow after he is injured in an burglary Sykes is committing.
In the meantime Mr. Bumble and his wife (the matron of the poor house Oliver was raised in) have turned over information about Oliver's real history to a stranger named Monk. Monk has also been in contact with Fagin to make sure that Oliver is kept in the gang. But then Nancy starts showing a strong conscience about what is going on about the boy.
I won't go beyond this in terms of the plot. David Lean had made several films (including BRIEF ENCOUNTER) before this 1948 film. He did a bang up job with a great cast: John Howard Davies as Oliver, Alec Guiness as Fagin, Robert Newton as Sykes, Henry Stephenson as Mr. Brownlow, Kay Walsh as Nancy, Francis L. Sullivan as Bumble, and a young Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger. Lean trimmed much out of the six hundred page novel (short for a Dickens novel), but left the main points. His biggest actions were concerning Alec Guiness's performance as Fagin - the character is a vicious anti-Semitic caricature by Dickens (who made fitful attempts to make up for it in later editions of the novel - showing Fagin was not a good Jew either!), and the make-up job looked like something out of Julius Streicher's Nazi publication DER STURMER of a few years before. But the makeup job on Guiness was based on the illustrations of George Cruickshank and "Phiz" in their editions of TWIST when it came out. Still, in balance to this, Fagin is shown at the conclusion to have a sense of personal dignity when confronted by a deadly mob. That touch shows that Lean could go beyond Dickens' own prejudices to somewhat balance the story. The result was a masterpiece - certainly the best film adaptation of OLIVER TWIST, possibly the best version on film of a Dickens novel.
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