Release Date: December 20th, 1968 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Carol Reed Actors: Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed, Harry Secombe, Mark Lester, Jack Wild, Hugh Griffith, Joseph O’Conor, Sheila White, Leonard Rossiter
t begins with an overture and features an intermission and entr’acte, even though the film only runs two-and-a-half hours. But this layout, which follows that of many of the era’s lavish musical productions, gives “Oliver!” a decidedly more epic feel. Also curious is the top billing of Ron Moody as Fagin – one of the primary villains – though his presence is certainly forceful (and alternately frolicsome). Of course, the title character comes second to the singing and dancing and staging of this Oscar-winning tour de force, based on the book, music, and lyrics of Lionel Bart, adapted “freely” from the beloved Charles Dickens’ classic.
At the Workhouse, a home for paupers and orphans, little Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) is just one of countless children who dreams of glorious food, though all they receive is unpalatable gruel, looking an awful lot like wet cement. Daring to break with tradition, Oliver (who draws the long straw, in a reverse of the game) approaches the stern Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe, appearing a bit like Captain Bligh) to ask for another serving, resulting in a chase through the prison-like establishment and the ultimate punishment: ejection from the premises to be sold on the streets for a mere three guinea. His purchaser is the undertaker, but the family is so disagreeable that Oliver is quickly confined to the cellar for attempting to fight back against bullying.
When he runs away, Oliver ends up in London, where he soon meets the “Artful Dodger” (Jack Wild) and his horde of little pickpockets, commanded by the devilish Fagin – a scenario feeling a touch like Pinocchio discovering bad influences in the real world. Of course, the joviality of Fagin’s comedic lecturing about thieving is a far more whimsical take on the woes of childhood homelessness than in the source material. This unusual viewpoint also provides a basis for the lighter fare of “Oliver and Company,” which would genuinely turn the property into a Disney venture.
Right from the start, the synchronized movements and singing are impressive and memorable; even the first song, about watery porridge and thoughts of tastier victuals, carries a catchy tune. Most of the dialogue is sung, giving each character – uniquely designed and named as only Dickens can do – a fresh identity fitting for a musical translation. Since the setting and events are rather dismal, grungy, and tragic, it’s particularly amusing that they should be transformed into a slightly more colorful, entirely more energetic version of a familiar story, full of fanciful imagery and general gayety – notions far removed from Dickens’ iconic worlds of poverty and depression.
As the film progresses, the songs tend to decrease in power, until Shani Wallis turns up as Nancy, the romantic counterpart for adult thief Sikes (Oliver Reed), crooning with robust lungs and dreaming of prosperity (or merely contentment), just like Twist. Nevertheless, even during quieter, less creative moments, it’s difficult not to find the tale of an unloved orphan discovering a previously unknown concept of happiness a stirring occasion. The inclusion of plenty of comic relief moments also helps with the playful shift in traditionally morbid themes, while the morning after Oliver is taken in by a kind, wealthy stranger (Joseph O’Conor), the bright white, empty streets slowly filling with vendors becomes a perfectly joyous and impeccably arranged contrast to the sooty locales from before.
As for the performances, Lester might look the part, but his acting isn’t nearly as skillful as Wild. Lester has innocence and naïveté, but he’s not terribly convincing when it comes to the severity of his ever-changing guardianship, or the consequences of lashing out against dastardly authority figures. With his outlook and attitude, everything that befalls him comes across as luck; his escape from destitution isn’t propelled by any natural or learned proficiencies. Still, sympathy sticks with him, augmented by the cruelty and monstrousness of supporting players, and his diminutiveness thwarting some great personal, physical revenge. And the finale, which largely dispenses with songs for unimpeded adventure, boasts welcome resolutions (though a decidedly abrupt parting shot).
– Mike Massie