In a year that produced Bergman's Shame, Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Cassavetes' Faces, the Academy Award for Best Picture went instead to the handsomely produced crowd-pleaser Oliver! (1968), a film version of the hit Broadway musical, which in turn had been "freely adapted" from Charles Dickens' much darker Oliver Twist. Though primarily a British production and lacking a single star name to carry it, Oliver! represented the type of old-fashioned entertainment Hollywood's Old Guard preferred. It played to packed houses and much like The Sound of Music, still in circulation three years after it had opened, Oliver! offered a respite from all the race riots, assassinations, and bad news from Vietnam.
Looking at it now, Oliver!'s best attributes aren't its splashy and mostly overdone musical numbers, but rather its production design/overall look, the basic drama of Oliver's plight, and the realization of Dickens' other colorful characters. Almost frustratingly, director Carol Reed handles these darker elements with a sensitivity and imagination at odds with the broadly-enacted and (mostly) cheery songs.
When orphan Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) dares ask for more gruel at the dire workhouse where he lives, Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe) promptly sells the boy to undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter). Oliver runs away, eventually making his way to London where in its backwater slums he's taken in by Fagin (Ron Moody), a fence for stolen goods who also manages a gang of boy-pickpockets, including the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), and whose associates include prostitute/thief Nancy (Shani Wallis) and her abusive lover Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed).
Oliver Twist had been filmed at least a half-dozen times before, never better than the 1948 film by David Lean. Carol Reed's film is very different, and has all the advantages and disadvantages of a big color production. Where Lean's film marvelously evoked the spirit of Dickens through Guy Green's black and white cinematography, director Carol Reed, working with DP Oswald Morris and production designer John Box, have work have their work cut out for them trying to fashion something bleakly Dickensonian in Panavision/Technicolor and to do so without alienating mainstream audiences for whom the picture was intended.
They also have to contend with trying to adapt a successful Broadway show that had catchy songs but which was otherwise pretty dreadful, a cutesy Cliff Notes version of the book. (This reviewer remembers seeing a touring company in 1983 with Shani Wallis very good reprising her character, but starring the most miscast Fagin imaginable: comedian Jack Carter.) At least the movie version eliminates the ludicrous number sung by a baleful Bill Sikes.
Lionel Bart's songs are tuneful and Onna White's staging of them is lively and imaginative if somewhat conventional. "Consider Yourself," London's open arms welcome to Oliver, is a great song but outrageously overdone, complete with dancing fishmongers, a carousel, and kiddie chimney sweeps with their little butts on fire. "As Long As He Needs Me," an instant classic love song, is also fine if highly ironic, considering that it's basically one woman's ode to her abusive, psychotic boyfriend, a man who'll eventually beat her to death. ("Who else would love him still/When they've been used so ill?")
The end result is a mixed bag, though mostly Oliver! succeeds in spite of its many flaws. Box's sets are outstanding, meticulous recreations of mid-19th century London, particularly its crumbling slums separated by streets of running sewage and muck. Oliver's arrival in a big basket of lettuce, with its subjective camera angles of Oliver looking up at the tall buildings piercing the sky, and during the exciting climax where Fagin makes his getaway as an angry mob chases Sikes and Oliver through decrepit alleyways, utilize them well.
The movie is visually sumptuous throughout, and Reed and Morris seize the opportunity to bring to life the period atmosphere in such sequences as "Boy for Sale," during Oliver's brief career as a "coffin follower" for children's funerals, and Hugh Griffith's amusing bit as a drunken magistrate.
After the controversy surrounding Alec Guinness' Fagin in Lean's version, the Jewishness of Ron Moody's character has been greatly toned down, and like the Broadway musical, Fagin has been transformed into something of a clownish rogue who, particularly during the musical sequences, plays it BIG, to the back of the house. Like the rest of the film, this broad playing is at odds with the "straight" scenes, which Moody handles equally well, but it's almost like he's acting in two different films simultaneously.
Mark Lester is cute but otherwise a disaster as Oliver Twist. To borrow a friend's assessment of a different actor, Lester has but two expressions: worried and more worried. His singing voice is reedy and occasionally off-key, and he walks with extreme awkwardness, as if on a wobbly tightrope, or afflicted with severe hemorrhoids. It doesn't help that his deer-in-the-headlights performance is completely overshadowed by Jack Wild's confident, natural Artful Dodger.
Video & Audio
Oliver! was first released to DVD way back in August 1998, and for this new release, which combines the movie with the Original Soundtrack CD, the same old transfer has been sourced. However, for a transfer more than seven years old, the 16:9 enhanced Oliver! holds up pretty well, with reasonable color and grain. The two-sided disc presents the first 86 minutes on Side A, halting at the intermission, and the film resumes on Side B for the remaining 67 minutes. The essential Panavision ratio is preserved, and the original overture, intermission card, entr'acte, and exit movie are retained (the above running times include these). The Dolby 5.1 remix track is fairly impressive, and a mono French track amusingly offers the songs in that language. French and English subtitles are available.
On the DVD sent to this reviewer, the sides were mislabeled, with what was labeled as Side A actually Side B, and vice versa. The menu screens are rudimentary and difficult to even access, such was early DVD technology, one supposes.
Beyond the older transfer, Oliver! cries out for a new "Special Edition," especially considering the myriad special editions other popular musicals of the era have enjoyed on laserdisc and DVD. Instead, this new release of Oliver! is supplemented only by the soundtrack CD and those features carried over from the first release. They include a post-Oscar Theatrical Trailer, in 4:3 letterboxed format, which trumpets its various wins at the Academy Awards. A 1968 Featurette is 4:3 format, runs seven minutes, and is standard behind-the-scenes fluff, though it does offer footage of Reed, Onna White, and Oswald Morris at work, and glimpses of the sets being constructed. A surprisingly good Photo Gallery is varied and annotated.
Oliver! doesn't hold up well to multiple viewings, but has good songs and at times is colorfully evocative of the period while true to the basic spirit of Dickens. It's far from the Best Picture of 1968, but for the most part succeeds in its ambitions.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.