Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, David Lean’s adaptation of this classic serialized Dickens novel is “a dark, highly atmospheric, punishing film”, one which will doubtless make you “really get upset [by] watching likable eight-year-old Oliver… be pushed around the cruel world”. Indeed, as much as I genuinely admire this brilliantly crafted film, I find it challenging to sit through, especially during the traumatic second half, when Oliver is torn away from his would-be kindly benefactor (Henry Stephenson), and Bill Sykes (a “terrifying” Robert Newton) shows his true colors by beating “to death his sympathetic companion, Nancy”. Indeed, this is a no-holds-barred Dickensian universe — starting from the astonishingly dramatic opening sequence, in which Oliver’s soon-to-die mother (Josephine Stuart) staggers across the moors in labor, hoping to make it to the Parrish Workhouse in time to give birth to her son. Meanwhile, DP Guy Green’s high-contrast b&w cinematography is never anything short of stunning, and the supporting cast (including Francis L. Sullivan as Mr. Bumble) is consistently strong.
The film is perhaps “best remembered”, however, for its infamous portrayal of “the Jew”, Fagin, by a youthful Alec Guinness in heavy prosthetics. Jewish groups at the time objected strongly enough that its U.S. release was delayed for several years, and “bits with the character were deleted” (they’ve since been restored); meanwhile, modern viewers continue to be dismayed by the overt anti-Semitism evident in Guinness’s characterization. While I certainly can’t argue with these sentiments, I find myself in agreement with Peary’s concise, somewhat neutral assessment of Guinness’s performance as “mannered, effeminate, [and] creepily effective”. Ultimately, for better or for worse, Lean and Guinness remain faithful to Dickens’ original conception of Fagin — and, as a user on IMDb’s message board for the movie points out, to “Cruikshank’s illustrations in the original serialised novel”. Indeed, it’s this close attention to detail that marks both Oliver Twist and Great Expectations (the latter generally considered to be the superior of the two films) as enduring cinematic adaptations.
P.S. Watch for teenage Anthony Newley in his first significant role as the Artful Dodger.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- John Howard Davies as Oliver
- Alec Guinness as Fagin
- Robert Newton as Bill Sykes
- A fine ensemble cast of supporting players
- John Bryan’s set designs
- The powerful opening sequence
- Guy Green’s dramatic cinematography
- David Lean’s masterful direction
- Jack Harris’s smart editing
Yes, as another literary masterpiece by David Lean.