OLIVER TWIST. (1948) BASED ON THE BOOK BY CHARLES DICKENS. DIRECTED BY DAVID LEAN.
STARRING ALEC GUINNESS, ROBERT NEWTON, KAY WALSH, HENRY STEPHENSON, FRANCIS LOFTUS SULLIVAN, MARY CLARE ABSALOM, DIANA DORS AND JOHN HOWARD DAVIES.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘It’s the old story… no wedding ring…’
Okay, so we’re probably all agreed that Lionel Bart’s 1968 musical version of this story is the best one. Wonderful songs like FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD, CONSIDER YOURSELF, YOU’VE GOT TO PICK A POCKET OR TWO, I AM REVIEWING THE SITUATION and OOMPA-PAH have been belting out of peoples’ tellies every Christmas for the last fifty-odd years. It’s a flawless film, the kind of film that gives musicals a good name.
But this 1948 re-telling of the Dickens classic is a proper corker too, even if the cast doesn’t burst into full-throated song every five minutes, lol. Its opening scenes are magnificently atmospheric in a dark brooding kind of way and deal with a subject that’s only implied in the musical version, that is to say, the arrival of Oliver’s beautiful young mother at the workhouse across the moors in the middle of a thunderstorm.
She’s already in labour and in terrible distress, both physically and emotionally. She gives birth to the child in the company of an ancient crone and a doctor, then ‘takes one look at ‘im (Oliver) and promptly dies,’ as the marvellous Harry Secombe as Mr. Bumble informs us in the musical version.
She is wearing an expensive locket that would lead to her highborn identity- and her child’s- being uncovered and to Oliver’s being restored to his wealthy and caring blood relatives, if it were brought to the attention of the proper authorities.
But the locket is unfortunately stolen by the old crone who attends the miserable workhouse birth, and so Oliver is brought up ‘on the parish’ like any other wretched orphaned waif. Poor kid.
Francis Loftus Sullivan was born to play a beadle. He’s brilliant here as Mr. Bumble, the workhouse official who places Oliver Twist with the undertaker Sowerberry after Oliver draws the short straw, asks for more chow at dinner-time and gets ejected from the workhouse after due consideration by the gluttons- sorry, by the gentlemen- of the Board.
The apprenticeship at the undertakers’ goes tits-up when Oliver runs afoul of Noah Claypole, Mr. Sowerberry’s nasty little assistant. A very young blonde-bombshell-in-waiting Diana Dors plays Charlotte, the Sowerberry’s slatternly maid, by the way. She’s already a beautiful woman, though this role’s not quite as glamorous as some of her later ones…!
Oliver, as we all know by now, runs away to London and falls in with Fagin the Fence, the vile receiver of stolen goods and corruptor of London’s youth, and his little band of pickpockets, cut-throats and thieves. Alex Guinness does a top job as Fagin, the Jewish miser whose huge hooked nose, straggly beard and voluminous rags all proclaim him to be a scoundrel of the first water.
He sends his boys, the Artful Dodger and Charlie and all the lads, out into the metropolis each day- ‘Cheerio but be back soon!- to rob and pilfer wallets, jewellery, silk handkerchieves and whatever other gew-gaws and fol-de-rols the toffs of London might be carrying about their exalted persons. He sells on the stuff and keeps most of the proceeds for himself, the scallywag.
When the green-as-grass and scrupulously honest Oliver is taken out for the first time with the Artful Dodger and Charlie and he sees them robbing an old gentleman, Oliver gets the blame and finds himself up before the Beak or Magistrate. And no, a Beak ain’t a bird’s mouf…!
The old gentleman who was robbed, however, a courtly old toff called Mr. Brownlow, is kindly disposed towards the sick and ill-treated Oliver and takes him home to live with him. It’s a strange but fortuitous ‘twist’ of Fate- lol- that will eventually lead to the discovery of the truth about Oliver’s true parentage.
Fagin and his band of villains and thieves, including the housebreaker and all-round bad guy Bill Sykes and his girlfriend Nancy, are all up in arms about Oliver’s new circumstances. What, Oliver taken? This is a disaster!
What if he peaches, blows, squeals, snitches on the gang and reveals their names and whereabouts to the law? They’d all be for the drop. (This is how they described the jolly process of being hanged.) ‘If the game were up with me, Bill, I fear it would be up with a great many more besides, and it would go rather worse with you than it would with me…’
Fagin puts the fear of God into Bill Sykes. Bill resolves to get the troublesome Oliver back at any cost, even though the kindlier and more compassionate Nancy, with a heart as big as all-outdoors, would prefer to leave the poor child where he is. One day, the couple see Oliver out walking by himself, running an errand for Mr. Brownlow. It’s only a matter of minutes before he’s back in the clutches of the gang and the die is cast…
The marriage of the pompous but not entirely heartless Mr. Bumble to the horrible Mrs. Corney, the self-serving, cold-hearted auld Bitch-With-A-Capital-B who runs the older folks’ workhouse, is both a source of mirth and terror.
Imagine ending up in a marriage as awful, as abusive and utterly joyless as this one. ‘If that’s what the law believes, then the law is an ass! The law is a bachelor, and the most I would wish for it is that its eyes would be opened by experience, Sir. By experience!’
Poor Nancy shares the same fate as the Nancy in the musical version, but it somehow seems grimmer and more dreadful here in stark black-and-white. There’s a very poignant moment when, after the terrible deed is done, Bill Sykes is looking round their bedroom at all the little things that were Nancy’s, her hairbrush and perfume bottles and powder puffs and her side of the bed.
There is something very poignant about someone’s belongings after they’ve passed on. Remember Vera Duckworth fondling dear old Jack Duck-Egg’s spectacles after his death in CORONATION STREET? The whole of Britain and Ireland were reaching for their hankies…!
The book goes one better and portrays Bill Sykes as being most dreadfully haunted by the ghost of the murdered woman after he does what he does. He flees to the countryside after the murder but is so tormented, both by what he’s done and also by the spectral sightings that chill his blood, that he ends up returning to the city, hue-and-cry or no hue-and-cry. Better the devil you know, eh, Billy Boy…?
I love the scene in the film where Nancy’s talking in secret with Mr. Brownlow on the very steps that lead down to the mighty Thames, while the Artful Dodger is concealed, listening for all he’s worth, just around the corner. This super-atmospheric scene is also in the book, though not in the musical version.
Want to hear some random facts about the 1948 film? Kay Walsh who plays Nancy was married to David Lean, the director. David Lean also directed the superb 1946 film version of Charles Dickens’s ‘GREAT EXPECTATIONS,’ starring John Mills as Pip, Valerie Hobson (THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, WEREWOLF OF LONDON) as Estella and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham.
Mary Clare Absalom who plays the awful Mrs. Corney was an absolutely stunning beauty in her youth, and was also a stage actress and silent movie star. Kathleen Harrison, Mrs. Sowerberry, also plays the charwoman Mrs. Dilber opposite Alastair Sim in the superb 1951 film version of SCROOGE.
The film’s producer, Robert Neame, was the father of Hammer actor Christopher Neame, who plays Johnny Alucard, Dracula’s little bitch, in DRACULA AD 1972, opposite Christopher Lee. Hattie Jacques from the CARRY ON movies has a cameo role here as a singer in the Three Cripples tavern.
Finally, Alec Guinness’s performance and make-up as Fagin caused great offence in certain circles, especially the outrageously oversized hooked ‘Jewish’ nose, because it was all thought to be desperately anti-Semitic. Not a cool thing to be accused of in the very recent aftermath of the Holocaust, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
John Howard Davies makes a great Oliver, just as good as if not better than Mark Lester from the musical version. This black-and-white version is overall of terrific quality and the equal of the musical, but you just can’t beat those familiar old songs. All together now: ‘As long as ‘e needs me…’
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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