With David Lean's centenary still upon us, and at this chilly season seems an apt time to reflect upon one of his darkest and most memorable films. As a benchmark of Lean’s career Lawrence of Arabia was probably the pinnacle of his success, but for many, his adaptations of Dickens were in another class altogether, and for me, his Oliver Twist is the most striking and enthralling of all his adaptations.
Like most of my generation, I have to confess that my first awareness of the Charles Dickens novel was through the film musical Oliver!, made in 1968 by another noted British film director, Carol Reed. Many would take this version to be the basic definitive telling of the story, yet many amendments were made to the original novel, and those scenes that were cut down or re-emphasised were not actually adapting the Dickens novel - but the Stanley Haynes and David Lean film script of 1948. Such is its impact.
Where the musical mentions certain notable events of the book in passing (and then gets on with the songs), the 1948 film emblazons them in bold, dramatic style. Not least is the atmospheric opening, purely and perfectly visual, charting Oliver's birth, as a storm swells up reflecting the pains of his mother (Josephine Stuart) who struggles to the workhouse. An effect of tree branches (similar in some ways to the opening of Great Expectations) turn to spiky thorns as she struggles from the pain of labour. The weather (and her condition) deteriorates, but she fights on through to the workhouse, where the baby is born - just as the storm clears - and has just enough strength to hold the child in her hands and kiss it, before she dies. Back in the days when I was writing my own Star Wars prequel trilogy, this was how I envisioned the dramatic build-up to the birth of Luke Skywalker.
As the mother dies, a greedy nursemaid at the workhouse happens to notice a little golden medallion worn by the dead girl, and pilfers it (a plot detail that will have crucial influence later on) whilst the baby himself is taken into the custody of the workhouse. Here Lean lapses into a rare instance of using written words on the screen, instead of his largely visual style:
"Oliver Twist cried lustily. If he had known that he was to grow up in under the tender mercies of the Beadle and the Matron, he would have cried even louder.”
The name Oliver Twist, we learn, was coined by the workhouse Beadle, Mr. Bumble (brilliantly played by Francis L. Sullivan as a sort of masculine Edith Evans), who pays a house call on the Matron (also forcefully played by Mary Clare). Shortly thereafter, we see the boy himself, now eight years older, with that famous, oddly beautiful countenance that seems out of place in such a horrid setting, just as Dickens intended.
Oliver is played by future TV comedy producer and all-round supremo John Howard Davies, and though there’s little sign of his future career to come, he perfectly suits the role, and clearly seems mature enough for one so young to handle material so demanding. That, and of course, he had a brilliant director to see him through the role.
Indeed, it is unfair to single out any individual character in a film like this, when practically all the performances etch them out so well and so distinctively: much later into the film comes Henry Stephenson as kindly old man Mr. Brownlow, played with a genuine air of grandfatherly benevolence and dignity by veteran Hollywood Brit Henry Stephenson. His mood of despondency when Oliver disappears during a chess game, I find incredibly moving. Elsewhere in the far from distant background can be see the likes of Hattie Jacques (as a Cockney tavern singer) and a young Diana Dors as Charlotte, maid and girlfriend of slimy Noah Claypole (Michael Dear), at the house of creepy undertaker Mr. Sowerberry, (amusingly played by Gibb McLaughlin) and Mrs. Sowerberry (played by the great Kathleen Harrison.)
And then of course, once Oliver escapes the Sowerberrys to London, there come the most memorable characters of the lot: the Artful Dodger (a brilliant young performance from the emerging Anthony Newley) who befriends the starving Oliver, but what he leads him into is something else indeed: a nest of a gang of child pickpockets, led by their Jewish mastermind, Fagin (Alec Guinness).
There were objections at the time (across the Atlantic in America at least) that the portrayal of Fagin - only 3 years after the end of World War II and all the horrors of the Nazi regime – was grossly anti-Semitic, when in truth all that Guinness, Lean, Stanley Haynes and make-up maestro Stuart Freeborn were doing were faithfully translating the character as written by Charles Dickens in the 19th century. Freeborn’s make-up design (based upon the novel’s original illustrations by George Cruikshank) had all the stereotypes, but was nonetheless a vividly drawn character. I don’t believe Alec Guinness has ever bettered this portrayal for sheer total transformation into the character. Just think - from young Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, just two years before, to old Fagin in Oliver Twist.
Some scenes that were censored from the American release of the film - where Fagin revels in his riches and also briefly encourages Oliver to become a pickpocket - were actually rather more endearing than anti-Semitic, and their omission only served to make Fagin appear like a monster. The enjoyable performance by Ron Moody in Oliver! compromised Fagin by trying to redeem him, whereas the portrayal in the David Lean film was totally true to the character as written, and was, as with many subsequent performances by Alec Guinness, the definitive article.
As if Fagin wasn’t imposing enough, in comes the terrifying figure of Bill Sikes, electrifyingly played by Robert Newton with demonic drunken torment. The drink element was not entirely fictional on Newton’s part: a heavy alcoholic, he could be inclined to ham on many occasions (and was a brilliant Long John Silver in later years), but his Sikes was an extremely focused and powerful performance, and it was thanks to David Lean’s skill that he was able to control his acting, and (where possible) his alcoholism.
Sikes’s “squeeze”, Nancy (given no surname but presumed wife/lover) is, often I find, a character slightly out of sync with the rest of the set-up, just a little too inherently good to really fit in with these extremely unpleasant men. Kay Walsh, who plays Nancy in spirited fashion, was in fact the instigator of the project. She was then married to David Lean – the opening scene was her conception – and what is clearly established in this version (and the other ones subsequently), is the semi-maternal attitude that Nancy adopts towards Oliver, that ultimately leads to her downfall.
There were many other characters and scenes in the book of course, and Dickens fans may lament the absence of Harry Maylie, Rose Maylie, and the wider significance of Noah Claypole's relationship to Oliver. But David Lean was making a film, not a book, retaining the book’s most memorable scenes, and where the characters and lines were omitted, Lean compensated with his own rich, visually Dickensian language, together with the help of Guy Green's striking Expressionistic black-and-white photography, a marvellous score by Arnold Bax, and John Bryan's brilliantly clever sets, making maximum use of limited space with seamless integration of matte paintings.
The memorable finale, where the mob pursues the murderous Sikes, who has also abducted Oliver (nowhere near this spot in the original novel), but is strangled by his own rope in his attempts to escape, is suitably rousing. The final moment, as Oliver is reunited with old Brownlow and his housekeeper Mrs. Bedwin (a lovely cameo by Amy Veness) captures all the excitement and satisfaction of Dickens, especially after all that has gone before.
Oliver Twist has not dated: this version is still as vivid and exciting as it was 60 years ago. This was David Lean at his most unstoppable. It was no wonder that within ten years he was on his way to even bigger films.
The original costume for Fagin (Alec Guinness) at the BFI South Bank's David Lean exhibition.
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