The Best Movie Critic + review

Oliver Twist (1948)

In 1948, David Lean released his take on the Charles Dickens classic, Oliver Twist, as a follow up to his very successful adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations. As near as I can tell, Oliver Twist was received at the time as a commercial and critical step down from its predecessor. No matter. It is the better movie.

You might recognize David Lean’s name from his epics in the fifties and sixties, such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. These are the movies Lean is famous for. These are the movies he will be remembered in history for. Few now seem to remember that these panoramic color spectacles were actually the moviemaker’s rebirth after a very successful tenure under WWII British film entrepreneur Arthur Rank. Think of Rank as sort of the British equivalent as the Warner Brothers or Louis B. Mayer. You can always tell a Rank movie from the odd but memorable logo that would precede all of his movies: If you have any interest in WWII era British movies, you will soon discover that when this intro leads into a movie you are about to watch, you're in for a treat (see also: Rank’s partnership with Powell and Pressburger, The Archers).

Full disclosure: I’ve never read Oliver Twist. I can’t tell you how faithful of an adaptation this is. I can’t tell you how much of what I’m attributing to Lean’s genius is actually Dickens’ genius. I can say, however, that Lean’s Oliver Twist movie has an unparalleled control over tempo through editing, and that’s something you can’t get out of a book. It is in these early directorial works from Lean that his apprenticeship an editor in the 30s and early 40s is clearest.

Take for instance perhaps the most infamous sequence in Twist, the “Please sir, I want some more” scene. Lean’s version is entirely wordless until the fateful request, and, mirroring Twist’s own dread, the build up is painfully slow. When Oliver draws the short straw, his movements become deliberate, while the rest of the boys spiral around him, relieved that they will not have to make the request themselves. The boys scuttle away, leaving Oliver alone with the camera hovering high above him and his shadow stretching out behind him like a cursed figure from some German expressionist movie. At dinner the next night the boys wolf down their gruel. They have all finished eating, and watch Oliver with great expectation (pun!), while he drags out every bite with determination, as if it were his last meal. Oliver ever so sloooowly sets down his spoon, pushes back his chair, and commences his death march across the room. The workhouse supervisor shakes his whipping cane agitatedly in the foreground.

He’s asks, “Please sir, I want some more,” and out of nowhere, bam! bam! bam! we are subjected to a montage of the fallout. “What!?” exclaims the workhouse supervisor, “What!?,” exclaims Ms. Corney, “What?,” exclaims Mr. Bumble, “He asked for more!?” exclaims the head of the workhouse board of directors in disgust, followed by a freshly posted sign reading, “5 pounds and a boy, offered to any tradesman wanting a strong and healthy apprentice.” These actions must take place over hours if not days, but through a shockingly swift series of jump cuts, the action from “I want some more” to the undertaker looking over the apprentice notice occurs in under 10 seconds. It’s this editing to the desires and emotions of the characters that gives Oliver Twist the movie its gravity, intrigue, and excitement. Lean will cross time and space in the blink of an eye if it suits his purposes, or he will draw out a second for a minute.

Lean’s filmic influences in Twist are strange. After all, one doesn’t watch a British melodrama expecting to see the visual fingerprints of F. W. Murnau and James Whale all over the place. Scene after scene of this movie features overbearing shadows, strange and bizarre faces, canted angles, and claustrophobic sets right out of Murnau’s Nosferatu or Faust. No doubt about it, the mob scenes and roving camera belong to Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, respectively. The point is, David Lean was pretty deft about where he drew his visual influence from, and that really sets his Oliver Twist apart. There is a breathlessness here that might be unique in the “great literary adaptation” milieu.

There is a bizarre sequence toward the end of the movie: Bill Sykes has killed Nancy for allegedly ratting him out, and in a deranged and hallucinatory state, sees and hears her from beyond the grave: “I didn’t do it, Bill.” An imaginary Fagin is on Bill’s other side, eerily repeating, “She did, she did, she did.” Bill beats Fagin over the head for deceiving him, and as the body slumps to the floor, it is not Fagin but still poor Nancy. There’s no turning back the page on his sins now. I don’t know where this sort of surreal physical representation of a character’s imagination and emotional unbalance becomes common in the history of the movies, but I don’t think it is this early, making this scene an innovative anomaly in its time. In a movie (and a career) so often defined by grand scope, this sequence highlights Lean’s ability to go small and internalized. David Lean’s ability to do both simultaneously makes Oliver Twist a highlight in his career.

Of course, I can’t overlook what is for many the movie’s most notable contribution, Alec Guinness’ controversial performance as Fagin, the miserly Jewish stereotype, who takes Oliver into his band of boy vagabonds. This performance was considered so derogatory and out-and-out racist that it delayed the release of the movie in the States. It was never release at all in Israel. Conversely, it was banned in Egypt for being too sympathetic toward Jewish people, so go figure.

So I think the popular consensus about this movie is good filmmaking, but pretty anti-Semitic in the way it retells the Oliver Twist plot. Seriously, this movie ends with the good, white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed people of London saving Oliver from the Jew and his cronies. It seems pretty black and white.

But it isn’t.

I’ll return to the influence James Whale’s Frankenstein seems to have had on Lean. The mob that comes to save Oliver shares too many visual similarities with the mob that hunts down Frankenstein in Whale’s movie for it to be an accident. In Whale’s Frankenstein, the mob, which should be seen as righteous, is instead brutal and unfeeling. This can’t have been lost on Lean, and I think by making his mob appear to be the same ilk as Whale’s mob, he was trying to tell us something. The mob in Oliver Twist is incensed by what these ‘ethnic types’ have been doing with their blonde-haired, blue-eyed Oliver (it has been established at this point, of course, that Oliver is of noble blood, but lost at birth through a series of misfortunes). Sure Fagin and Bill Sykes did some pretty unsavory things (I am not condoning their actions), but the mob seems to have been looking for some excuse. They were ready to purge.

You’re not off base if that comparison leads you to think about Nazism, I think, and the movie’s release date, 1948, places it right about the time the atrocities of the Holocaust were beginning to sink in. Sure, Oliver was saved, but at what cost? And what happened to Artful Dodger and the other boys? They seemed just about as scared as Fagin or Sykes, and I didn’t see any of our kindly mob helping them, saving them. And I’m sure they weren’t as lucky as Oliver as to have had a wealthy benefactor to fall back on. No. At the very best, they ended up back in the workhouses, in the same vicious cycle we saw at the beginning of the movie. Though the subversion is disguised, this is not a happy ending.

Magic Moment:This is a no-brainer for me. When Artful Dodger brings Oliver to Fagin and the gang’s hideout for the first time, they enter an abandoned building and ascend an impossibly steep, impossibly long, impossibly dilapidated staircase, then another. The shadow of each step falls over Oliver’s face. Where are they going? The music swells as they step onto a bridge far over the streets of London. Rows and rows of beautifully matte painted houses recede into the distance and the dome of good old St. Paul’s Cathedral hovers over them. As if that weren’t breathtaking enough, the introduction to Fagin that follows reveals that he doesn’t keep these boys by force, but through the powers of his charm, and that scene has charisma to match. This is another entry into my own personal great scenes of cinema.

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Oliver Twist (1948) + review