Directed By: Carol Reed
Written By: Vernon Harris (Based on the musical by Lionel Bart and the novel by Charles Dickens)
Starring: Ron Moody, Mark Lester, Shani Wallis, Jack Wild, Oliver Reed
If ever a Dickensian world has been successfully whisked from paper to screen, maintaining all the creativity and imagination that made the tale such a success in the first place, surely it’s Carol Reed’s Best Picture winner Oliver! It is a musical, operating from the stage work of Lionel Bart, and is a film destined to win your affection, exuding all the character one could hope for in its rendering of a grimy, crime infected London and boasting all the whimsical production befitting of such a beloved story as Oliver Twist.
Director Reed’s greatest impact on the film is his widening of the story, an intelligent broadening of his lens to capture much more than just the tale of the titular character. Within the first ten minutes of the film young Oliver Twist is whirled from an evil workhouse where he starves and is berated by his fellow orphans, to the freezing cold streets of Dunstable where he is sold for a measly 3 pounds, to the office of an undertaker who plans to use him as a poster child for deceased youths, all the while having his dead mother verbally beaten by those in every corner of his life. It is a story which is inherently pandering for sympathy. It is so completely transparent in its battering of the compassions that it runs the risk of reducing Oliver to nothing more than a receptacle to which the audience is told to dispose their sympathies. But once Oliver finds himself free from the undertaker, Reed is sure to incorporate him into the much larger and more arresting world of London, a world teeming with colourful personalities which envelop Oliver and provide the film a vehicle with which it can exhibit its fanciful imagination.
Oliver (played by Mark Lester) flees to the cold streets of early 19th century London to make his fortune, and is promptly told to consider himself part of the pickpocketing family by the young Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), who together with an army of youths just like him, work under the tutelage of the eccentric Fagin.
Fagin is a skeletal looking man, a twitchy but deep-down benevolent Grinch type (brilliantly and deliberately overplayed by Ron Moody) who moves with a mesmerising energetic rigidness and performs his musical numbers punching out his consonants and dexterously twiddling his digits like ten miniature batons. Both Moody and Jack Wild, who plays the Artful Dodger, were Oscar nominated for their performances and they are joyous to watch as they induct Oliver into their circle and educate him in the ways of the trade.
When Oliver is assured by Dodger that he’ll be accepted with open arms, and when Fagin informs the young orphan that he’ll have to pick a pocket or two to get by, wondrous musical numbers are used to spiral Oliver around the city, each tune indelible as the whole of London becomes part of the show. From priests to butchers, Onna White’s outlandish but brilliant choreography turns London into a caffeinated circus, awesomely using the setting and its menagerie of playful personalities to inject the picture with an infectious life.
Young Mr. Twist finds the perfect, audience investing antagonism from Oliver Reed as the vile Bill Sikes, an associate of Fagin who grows particularly interested in Oliver. Bill is an intimidating menace, his gravelly but hushed voice giving him a constant air of volatility, always on the cusp of exploding into violence, whilst characters like Bill’s beautiful wife Nancy (Shani Wallis) who captivates Fagin’s squad, and Mr. Brownlow who uniquely approaches Oliver with a genuine kind-heartedness, provide the film with a glowing warmth, wonderfully elevating the plight of the title character beyond what could have been hollow pandering.
As Oliver attempts to survive England and find a true home, the film is sure to never take a backwards step. Its energy is constant, its characters every bit as colourful as Dickens himself could’ve imagined, and Carol Reed energetically herds the elements together. The songs, the characters, the choreography, and the art direction, Reed crafts it all into a story that is at once charming, funny, gripping, and oftentimes dark but constantly entertaining. It is a film that by hook or by crook will win over the most jaded cynic, a complete movie going experience that demands, no, earns, your love.