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When his mother just about makes it to the workhouse before giving
birth then dying, Oliver Twist is born into the only world he has ever
known the workhouse and poverty. When he draws the short straw from
among the children, Oliver asks for more food at dinner and promptly
finds himself up for sale for £5 to any honest trader willing to take
him in. Oliver is taken to work for an undertaker until a fight over
his mother makes him run away to London where the masters will never
find him. Taken in by Fagin's group of child pickpockets, Oliver starts
to settle in, until a brush with the law starts to bring his family
history to the attention of those lacking scruples.
Watching this film now (or indeed at the time of its release in the UK) it is hard to imagine that it would have sparked a riot in Berlin in its first showing in 1949 or that it was banned for two years in America on the grounds of being anti-Semitic and was only released after significant cuts (10 minutes) had been made. Of course the cynic in me would suggest that the US was making any excuse to limit British films in its cinema due to competition (they don't need to do that any more!) but I guess history is written by the winners and Hollywood is definitely winning that battle. Ironically enough the film was also banned in Israel and Egypt because of Fagin with Israel claiming that Fagin was anti-Semetic and Egypt claiming he was too sympathetic. Any roads, regardless of the historical controversy this film is still considered by many to be the definitive version of Dickens' story and often is in top ten or so when polls for 'greatest British films' are carried out. The plot is dark and sombre as befits the source material, painting a dark world of thieves, poverty and workhouses within which the story of Oliver and his destiny are told. In essence it is a simple story but it is the atmosphere and characters that make it more interesting.
This may have been as successful as some of Lean's other films due to the daft controversies around it, but his is still a very effective job as director. The film feels Victorian and hopeless just like the lives of those in the story, and Lean creates a real atmosphere of despair and fear that is enjoyably dark and has moments that I was surprised to see in a film of the period. The cast do well with the characters and are a big part of its working. Ignoring all the hysteria over 'bad' characters being ethnic (good to see things haven't changed that much), Guinness is good as Fagin and doesn't allow himself to be just a ethnic stereotype he is exploitative but he is also human and we get to see him as just being somebody else's 'boy' as well as Oliver. Newton is who I see when I think of Bill Sykes and Davies is a good Oliver even if his accent is way too posh for a workhouse baby and the film tends to lose him among all the more interesting and seedy characters we come across. Support is good from the likes of Walsh, Sullivan, Newley and others, all combining to produce a colourful collection of dark characters in the seedy streets of London.
Overall this is a good story even if it loses the Oliver story halfway through for a while in favour of the other characters. The direction is great and the whole film is dark and atmospheric. The acting is roundly good and supports the wealth of seedy characters on which the film is built.
I'm not a massive fan of Dickens by and large but if I want to see a version of this story then this is the film I return to.
After viewing over 10,000 movies, I still have the same opinion I had
after I saw this movie the first time and had watched maybe a thousand
films at that point: this is simply the best-looking black-and-white
film I've ever seen.
On the Criterion DVD, scene after scene is just jaw-dropping. I have never seen so many incredible shots with wonderful contrasts of light and dark. Much of this is filmed dark rooms or nighttime in the cobblestone streets. Those scenes, combined with many facial closeups, great buildings, and interesting camera angles, all make this an incredible viewing experience.
All of this helps make up for watching a depressing story. It was just unappealing, at least to me, because all the people except for the little boy are unlikable. Some of them mistreat the little kid and that's difficult to watch. I'm a sucker for nice people, especially an innocent child, and to see suffer is not fun to me.
One of those bad guys, however, is memorable: Fagin, played by Alec Guiness. In this film, he has to be one of the ugliest people I've ever seen, sporting the biggest nose ever put on screen. A teenage Anthony Newley as "the artful Dodger" also stands out.
But, as someone who is into art, David Lean's direction and Guy Green's camera-work draw me back to this DVD every couple of years...and at least I always know there is a happy ending for the one nice kid in the film.
David Lean's adaptation of Charles Dickens' most irresistible tale must rank
as one of the most astounding masterpieces in all of cinema.
Every detail is wrought with the most painstaking detail and nuance. There are many scenes which stand out but none is more exhilarating as the astounding ending when it appears as if all of London has come out to rescue our hero.
My favorite aspect of this film has to be the depiction of a London in which we have all dreamed of living: gritty, lusty, ugly, beautiful, attractive, repulsive but most of all, exceptionally unique and endearing - yet with pomp and poverty existing side by side.
Oh, so much to say about this film. One runs out of words.
Every performance remains in one's memory, every image in one's heart.
This excellent film is part of a duo of Dickens' books turned into
silver screen magic by David Lean in the 1940s (Great Expectations with
John Mills is the other).
Keeping to the spirit of the book (although not leaving the bleak ending intact) it allows us to follow the fortunes of young Oliver (John Howard Davies, who later gave up acting to become a big shot at the BBC), through his unhappy years at the orphanage under the watchful eye of the Beadle (the huge Francis L Sullivan, who played many similar roles throughout the decade), to his association with boy thieves under the thumb of Jewish money-dealer Fagin (Alec Guinness, in one of his career highlights).
The casting is generally superb - Kay Walsh (then Mrs David Lean) is effective as Nancy, while Robert Newton is suitably unhinged and menacing as Bill Sikes. In the undertaker's, Diana Dors is showy as Charlotte the maid; while in London, Anthony Newley makes an early scene-stealing Artful Dodger (like Jack Wild in the musical version, this Dodger isn't all bad and wants to make sure Nancy and Oliver are all right).
'Oliver Twist' is one of the greats of British cinema and does justice to a complex book. Highly recommended.
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.
Charles Dickens and David Lean. What a combination; a novel by one of the
greats of 19th century literature brought to film by one of the 20th
century's best directors. Can't miss? You're right; David Lean's "Oliver
Twist" is a great movie. The casting and acting is superb, every role a
standout. I'd read "Oliver Twist" years ago, and watching the movie
transported me back to the Victorian London of the novel. Alec Guinness is
the perfect Fagin, after seeing this version I can't think of any other
actor ever playing him. Bill Sikes, Nancy, Artful Dodger, Mr. Bumble, and of
course Oliver. All perfect. The direction is without peer. The sets and
cinematography resemble the best of German Expressionist work from the
previous generation. Buildings at odd angles, light playing havoc with the
dark shadows. I'm blathering....
My recommendation is to dig this up in the classics section of the video store and treat yourself to an oldie but a goodie.
David Lean's adaptation of "Oliver Twist" is the perfect screen version of a
wonderful novel. Dickens' world comes alive through the acting, writing,
and settings, making it not only a faithful realization of the atmosphere of
the original, but also a joy to watch. The story of the young orphan
Oliver, caught among a band of thieves while longing for a home of his own,
is one of Dickens' most melodramatic, a story that loses all effectiveness
and believability if not told with great skill. Dickens' own great writing
made the original succeed, and this screen version succeeds because it too
is done masterfully.
While some details have been necessarily changed for cinematic purposes, the world of the film is all Dickens. The acting in this film is wonderful - the actors are true Dickens characters, from Robert Newton (Sikes), Alec Guinness (with some wild make-up, as Fagin), and young John Howard Davies (Oliver), to all of the minor roles. They are all just slightly exaggerated, which makes them perfect renderings of the way that Dickens designed his characters. The settings are also perfect, from the bleak workhouse at the beginning to the labyrinth of decrepit rooms and passageways where Fagin's gang hides out.
Those who love old-fashioned stories like "Oliver Twist" will find this movie to be a perfect realization of the world of the original novel. It is a memorable and enjoyable film.
Still the most Dickensian of all the Oliver Twist films David Lean's
inspired version, never the less is much indebted in its style to the
German Expressionist Cinema. It's London is more related to Fritz Lang
than Victorian England but the spirit of Dickens is alive and well in
the accurately drawn caricatures from the novel. Outstanding
performances by Francis J. Sullivan as ridiculous Mr. Bumble, Alec
Guiness's chillingly evil Fagin despite a badly judged nose job, and
the eye boggling twitching Robert Newton as the ferocious Bill Sykes.
Even his dog trembles at his temper, in fact the dog is a major actor
in this version.
John Newton Howard is a rather angelic Oliver, with a more refined delivery than one would have expected from a workhouse background. But it all goes decidedly well thanks to Lean's superb direction, stunning images, clever editing and a sterling cast. Viewed today so many years after it was filmed it remains the most vivid and Gothic recreation of the story. Probably Charles Dickens would approve. The heroic length recent version by Roman Polanski is generally faithful to the novel but lacks the pizazz and humour that is in Dicken's writing. David Lean made only two excursions into Dickens (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations) both milestones in cinema. One can but wonder how well he may have brought Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend to the screen.
David Lean knew how to capture the essence of Dickension London
Robert Newton gives the finest performance of his life as Bill Sykes, the murderous thief who uses Alec Guinness' Fagan as his fence. The two men have an uneasy relationship that comes apart toward the end of the film. As actors, Newton and Guinness have a chemistry and an acting partnership that is superb. I have rarely seen two actors so perfectly matched in any film. I only wish they had done other films together.
Sykes has a girlfriend, Nancy, who is loyal to the point of death. The murder scene and the scene that follows are brilliant. There is Sykes, drunk and paranoid accusing his only love of betraying him. She pleads for her life in vain. The next scene is oddly quiet. Sykes in a chair contemplating the body with early morning light streaming through a filthy window onto the body. Newton's portrait of Sykes, the man who killed the thing he loved most in the world- the guilt and remorse that flutter across his face are wrenching. That silent scene will stay with me forever.
There was a great deal of controversy over Guinness's portrait of Fagan. His explanation of himself to Oliver, "They say I am a miser..." is chilling and pathetic at the same time. In this early film of Sir Alec's you see his genius for characterization. Guinness played Fagan as a Jew with a distrust and a hatred of humanity that is hard to top.
Director Lean assembled the finest actors in England at the time for his Oliver Twist. He created a seamless story that was a classic the moment it was released. David Lean's Oliver Twist is still the BEST adaptation of ANY Dickens story on film.
Special praise goes to the film score, which has been recorded many times and has entered the classical music rep. as incidental music. The Oliver Theme and the Fagan theme are instantly recognizable.
A MUST SEE!
David Lean spoils us yet again, Oliver Twist is an amazing piece of work. I
regard this version of the Dicken's classic as definitive. No one could
capture the eerie quality and the authentic style better than
The film is quite dark, strong blacks dominate the canvas.
The acting is extraordinary, Alec Guinness as Fagin steals the film. Perfect casting. Robert Newton is equally superb as the drunk, Sykes. John Howard Davies as Oliver is fantastic, he fits the character perfectly.
The direction and screenplay are awesome, I can't put into words how perfect everything is.
Watch the greatest adaptation of Oliver Twist by David Lean, it's a masterpiece!
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