Oliver Twist

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #32: David Lean’s Oliv­er Twist.

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Two years after David Lean’s Great Expec­ta­tions, Alec Guin­ness is back in anoth­er Dick­ens adap­ta­tion. This time he’s very aged through make­up and a giant pros­thet­ic nose [that got the film denounced as anti-Semit­ic], but his por­tray­al of Fagin real­ly shows off his par­tic­u­lar act­ing chops. His struck posed eccen­tric­i­ty steals the show in every scene he’s in, although some­times the beau­ti­ful Nan­cy gives him a run for his mon­ey. I’m only famil­iar with the Oliv­er Twist tale in terms of mod­ern cul­tur­al ref­er­ences, like Chef Boyardee com­mer­cials. Yet it seems as if the same [albeit small] issues that were found in Great Expec­ta­tions are here as well. Name­ly, the incon­sis­tent use of inter­ti­tles as nar­ra­tive cues, and obvi­ous plot exci­sions to remain true to the core sto­ry. Where this film astounds is in the cin­e­matog­ra­phy. Much more var­ied than Great Expec­ta­tions, dutch angles, sub­jec­tive cam­era-work and amaz­ing approx­i­ma­tions of nat­ur­al light make the film beau­ti­ful to watch even when the action gets a bit bor­ing and pre­dictable.

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The artistry that I claimed hard to find in most of Lean’s work is always evi­dent here. From the Ger­man Expres­sion­ist rem­i­nis­cent Lon­don exte­ri­ors, to metaphor­i­cal shots that reflect pain or vio­lence, like the open­ing scene’s shot of thorned branch­es cut to a woman in labor pains, to a lat­er scene where a woman’s mur­der hap­pens off­screen while a dog scrab­bles and yelps to run out of the room. Where Great Expec­ta­tions was psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly charged, Oliv­er Twist is more con­cerned with phys­i­cal abuse. Although the film is quite vio­lent, how­ev­er, it nev­er real­ly seems as though Oliv­er has it that bad­ly off. Espe­cial­ly since we know how tired the trope of down-on-his-luck makes good is. This isn’t the fault of the movie, but a nec­es­sary expec­ta­tion derived from the lega­cy of Dickens’s influ­ence on Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture and sto­ry-telling as a whole.

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The con­tro­ver­sy engen­dered by this film was most­ly con­cerned with the anti-Semi­tism implic­it in Fagin’s char­ac­ter. There real­ly isn’t any way to soft­en it more than Alec Guinness’s por­tray­al man­aged. Fagin isn’t so much a bad char­ac­ter as one to be pitied; his obvi­ous care for his pick­pock­et charges is just twist­ed by avarice. The fact that he is Jew­ish is inci­den­tal to this, but unfor­tu­nate since it does play to cer­tain stereo­types. Com­ing as quick­ly as it did on the heels of World War II [dis­trib­uted in 1948], the tim­ing for the release of the film could cer­tain­ly have been a bit more tact­ful. Nev­er­the­less, the clas­sic-sta­tus of Oliv­er Twist as a nov­el and its trick­le-down to this film in par­tic­u­lar will leave these thorny prob­lems to crop up each time some­one decides to make a great adap­ta­tion of the work.

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