#12 in my ranking of David Lean’s films.
This was what I was thinking about when I said it was pretty much impossible to make a great film of a Dickens novel, sacrificing breadth and dept in order to fit as much in as possible. The movie is really well made, well-acted, and great to look at, but the script ends up taking a series of shortcuts in the middle that undermine the believability of the action in order to wipe out a series of side-characters and just make Oliver’s journey from orphan to street rat to rescue fit within the confines of a two hour film. He also kind of gets lost in the final major actions of the film, ceding the film to a pair of side characters which seems to undermine the drama a tad. And yet, having said that, the movie really is a quality entertainment beyond those concerns.
David Lean continued his work of adaptation after Great Expectations with Oliver Twist, and he brought his entire body of knowledge and support staff to bear. What I find most striking about the film is that there are several essentially silent sequences that work so well you might expect Lean to have learned his trade in the silent era. From Oliver’s mother stumbling through the dark to the workhouse to Oliver getting selected to be the boy who asks for more and beyond, there are several incredibly looking pieces of visual storytelling that offer clear narratives in their own right. They almost feel like that have roots in German Expressionism at times, as well, with such stark use of shadows and leaning architecture.
So, much like with Great Expectations, I won’t go through the pot because of its well-worn nature, but I’ll pick up in the middle where my problems arise. Oliver has made it so London and taken up with Fagin and the Artful Dodger. He gets sent on his first mission, so to speak, and who do they run into? Well, it turns out to be the man who is Oliver’s grandfather. Oliver gets captured by the police and Oliver’s grandfather, neither of whom know their relationship as of yet, takes the boy home to help him convalesce and possibly even adopt. Feeling better, Oliver gets sent to deliver some books to a local store when Nancy sees him on his way and takes him despite his protestations. The series of coincidences here is largely created by the script, which Lean wrote in a record, for him one month. In the original book it’s a kindly man family who knows a man who was friends with Oliver’s grandfather, and it plays out in much more believable moves, but in order to do that you have to add half a dozen characters to the film and at least fifteen minutes of screentime to simply explain what’s going on. So, Lean sacrificed believability for an easy throughline on which to hang the characters. It doesn’t work as well as the book, but it may have been what the movie needed to stay under two hours.
Now, to talk about acting. The center of most of these conversations starts with Alec Guinness as Fagin. It’s pretty hard to say that Fagin wasn’t a Jewish caricature. He certainly was, but he extended beyond that at the same time. Guinness took the old English caricature and helped imbue some humanity in it as he watches his life fall apart at the mishandling of the new orphan boy. It straddles a line, but I think it never falls into complete caricature. Beyond that, though, the acting is as good as you might expect from a Lean production. Kay Walsh, his wife at the time, is energetic and forceful as Nancy. Robert Newton carries his frantic part of Bill Sykes really well. Special mention must be made of John Howard Davies as Oliver. It’s a good little performance, but it’s hard to get strong performances out of children and Lean managed a good performance out of the eight year old actor in a variety of emotions from fear, joy, and anger.
For the movie’s final act, Sykes and Fagin really come to the forefront with Oliver’s grandfather, now in command of the knowledge of his relationship to Oliver, leading the pack against the two thieves. It’s here that Oliver largely disappears. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do as the action gets moved to other people and the focus really centers on the emotional states of Sykes and Fagin as their world’s get torn apart. There’s a nice moment that recalls Oliver’s asking for more early when he has to give Sykes a drink, but that’s largely the extent of his involvement in that act. It feels off, like the focus has been misplaced.
Above all, the movie is really well made. It simply looks great, perhaps the best looking film Lean had made up to that point. The use of diffused light in small spaces was an act of almost desperation from the director of photography considering how the sets were built, but it provides a gloomy, almost film noir-esque feel to certain elements that fits really well. It’s a triumph of production that I just wish the script were able to match. It’s not a bad script, but I do wish it had been more ironed out to make the action flow better and provide a better focus on Oliver late.