Monday, September 05, 2016

More Twist, Less Oliver

Sometimes the worst people are the only people worth paying attention to. Everyone knows Oliver Twist is the least interesting character in his own story--David Lean certainly knew it when he adapted Charles Dickens' tale for his 1948 film Oliver Twist. Paring down much of Oliver's story from the book, Lean made a movie much more about the criminals, and did so with great effect aside from some really disappointing anti-Semitism.

Alec Guinness does a brilliant job playing Fagin, the Jewish boss of the gang of street urchins. Despite his garish makeup and ridiculous false nose he's always subtle. The look is inspired by the original illustrations by George Cruikshank, which in turn match up with Fagin's physical description by Dickens. But Lean arguing the need to adhere to the original look for Fagin makes especially little sense when he felt comfortable making other changes, like removing almost everything from the book's last act. I can't say I blame protesters for stopping the film getting shown in Germany right after World War II, as much as I am against censorship. At least with Fred Astaire's black face in Swing Time I could say he meant well, as a tribute to Bill Robinson, even if he was misguided. This Fagin, though, is just purely obnoxious.

The film seems to go through Oliver's story in the workhouse and then the mortuary at a lightning pace though Francis L. Sullivan is given time to deliver an understated and effective performance as Bumble. Mary Clare as his wife is surprisingly menacing beating the shit out of him though she's nothing compared to Robert Newton as Bill Sykes.

This is from my favourite shot in the film--the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) is goaded by Fagin into revealing that Nancy (Kay Walsh) had betrayed them. The camera pans up with Bill as he starts forward and it twists ever so slightly. With the energy of Newton's performance, the jagged shapes of the set--the way those rafters converge on Bill--and Guy Green's black shadows against white, he's terribly threatening. Then there's the horror of him actually confronting Nancy.

Played by Kay Walsh, who was Lean's wife at the time, Nancy comes off a bit too posh and asexual. Diana Dors is in the film briefly as Charlotte, the mortician's servant. How much better she would have been as Nancy than Walsh but sadly she wasn't a star yet.

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