OLIVER TWIST —-this flawlessly constructed 1948 rendering of Dickens’ ill-treated waif who is bounced from one pack of slimes to another in Victorian England will come as a bracing tonic to those who’ve only seen the story put across as a musical (1968’s superb Oliver!) or whose exposure to the talent of Alec Guinness is limited to his playing at Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
The misery, cruelty and squalor, and the hopelessness of more of the same that was the lot of poor folk in 19th-century London is vividly realized, thanks to the brilliantly conceived imagery of director David Lean and cameraman Guy Green. Lean’s piloting of his art directors, costume designers and set decorators is craftsmanship at its best.
In adapting Dickens vast 1837 novel, the director co-scripted with Stanley Haynes, and outdid his success of Great Expectations, again matched with the producing team of Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan.
John Howard Davies is ideal as young Twist, minutely mirroring the boy’s gumption, confusions and fears. Guinness as Fagin is one of the scroungiest creations of 40s cinema, absolutely rotting with corruption, one guy you wouldn’t want washing your lettuce.*
Robert Newton is eminently coarse and brutish as Bill Sykes, 17-year-old Anthony Newley suitably repugnant as the Artful Dodger. The entire cast is excellent, and along with the film’s other credits they move the timeless story along from one memorable scene to the next.
Guy Green offers some of the finest expressionistic b&w cinematography of the day. 116 minutes, with Francis L. Sullivan, Kay Walsh, Henry Stephenson, Mary Clare, Diana Dors, Ivor Barnard, Peter Bull.
- * Indignation over Fagin’s portrayal as being anti-Semitic (chiefly the makeup, which followed the novel and old illustrations of the character) resulted in seven minutes of cutting before it was released in the US, and that wasn’t until 1951. How much of the supposed slant was germane to the source material and how much of the resultant brouhaha an example of hypersensitivity and selective censorship are questions without pat answers, witness some of the comments still banging back and forth on Internet sites discussing the movie to this day. Israel banned it for being prejudicial, and Egypt banned it for making Fagin look too good. Furor to the side, it’s a magnificent performance.