In Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist the contrived happy outcome for young Twist brings to fruition the novel’s (especially early on) comical narration; but by deleting this humorous dimension, David Lean’s 1948 film, like so many film adaptations of the book, abandons the silly plot by having it stand on its own. (Also, a few details alter the plot.) In particular, the material thins out to near nothingness in the communal and police pursuit and death of Bill Sikes, for whom Lean evidences little or no pity, apparently missing the point that had he not been the recipient of impossible good fortune Oliver probably would have turned out just as badly. Lean doesn’t “get” the novel at all. Fagin and his Bill, who has hatefully ended up tyrannizing this surrogate father in their social disease-breeding slum existence, aren’t Dickens’s villains; poverty, class prejudice and a compromised implementation of state charity are.
All that said, however poorly he has tackled the novel, Lean has made a wonderful film that is easily among his most striking. In gorgeous black and white (the cinematographer is Guy Green, who had won an Oscar for their Great Expectations, 1946), Lean conjures a Victorian vision where harsh social reality and fabulous fairy tale intersect. The style and atmosphere suggest the need for childhood among orphaned and exploited children. Lean gets so much so right. Memorable indeed are the shot of noisy forced labor at the work-house and the closeup of wheels of a funeral carriage making its way through the streets, with Oliver Twist, at work, walking solemnly and silently behind: an image, ironically, of his being crushed.
In the shadow of the Holocaust, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith demanded cuts be made and delayed the film’s U.S. premiere by three years. Profile shots of Fagin, highlighting the gigantic fake nose that Alec Guinness wore for the role, stress Fagin’s Jewishness. (Eisenstein’s two Ivan the Terrible films, 1944, 1946, are visual influences.) Lean’s film was banned in Israel.
A future director, nine-year-old John Howard Davies, as Twist, is the perfect waif, with a memorable strain of righteous rebelliousness and insolence darkening his sweetness and light.
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