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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