Aug. 21, 2005
Oliver Twist (1948)
Grade: 78/100

Director: David Lean
Stars: John Howard Davies, Alec Guinness, Robert Newton

What it's about. Eternally innocent orphan Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) ends up as the eye in a hurricane of trouble in pre-Victorian England. Evicted from a workhouse, he is conscripted into a gang of juvenile thieves led by Fagin (Alec Guiness). Fortune also smiles on the lad, as he is adopted by his potential grandfather, wealthy and kindly Brownlow (Henry Stephenson).

How others will see it. A black and white film made in England, Oliver Twist is nonetheless accessible because most adults are familiar with the basic story, as it is one of Charles Dickens' most famous works.

Cynics may roll their eyes at Twist's continued innocence despite a lifetime spent with corrupting peers. Providing further fodder for cynics, Brownlow is eternally confident in the pure soul of his would-be grandchild, and in the lottery chance that the workhouse reject could be his once-removed flesh and blood. The kicker is Nancy (Kay Walsh), who after working so hard to have Oliver kidnapped by a criminal gang, then jeopardizes her life to rescue the indefatigably earnest child. Which proves that pretty women must all be good after all.

However, such cynics are usually in the minority, since most people accept what they see unless it is tedious and/or patently false. This handsome adaptation of the Dickens' classic is both entertaining and smoothly directed. Most people will be caught up in the tale, although they may wish it were filmed in color like a 'normal' movie.

How I felt about it. Director Lean tackled Great Expectations in 1946, and it was natural, in hindsight, to return again to Dickens' well for another (and better) story. Although Lean's Great Expectations is probably more familiar today, the edge goes to Oliver Twist. Both films have artificial endings; the difference is that Twist has the superior cast, and lacks the bogus plot surprise (The benefactor was the escaped criminal?).

One reason offered by others for the relative obscurity of Oliver Twist (by the standards of David Lean films) is Guiness' rendition of the deliquency-contributing Fagin. Some considered the performance offensive to Jews. The problem with this insight is that Oliver Twist has more than its share of criminals, most of whom were presumably raised under a Christian banner. Equal opportunity applies to villains, too.

One small weakness is that young Oliver is amused, instead of shocked or afraid, when he realizes he's just joined a gang of pickpockets led by a man with a freakish beard and hat. Painfully honest and earnest in some scenes, here he seems all too eager to participate in the communal criminal occupation. Or maybe he's just too hungry and tired to care.

And does anyone really believe that Fagin isn't wearing a fake nose? With a honker like that, he should carry a sword and call himself Cyrano.