With its big, bloated recreations designed by John Box, a pre-sold story from Charles Dickens, Lionel Bart’s illustrious score orchestrated by Johnny Green, a cast of thousands tottering on Onna White’s bell-kicking choreography, and some truly indelible performances put forth by the likes of Ron Moody, Jack Wild, Oliver Reed, Shani Wallace and Harry Secombe, Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver!(1968) trundles out the treacle and vinegar of Dickensian London. It’s a cityscape awash in gentlemen and guttersnipes; lurid, colorful bastards and barmaids bursting from the elegant doorways or hidden back alleys and byways; social backgrounds colliding, temperaments flaring, everyone caught in the thistle and thatch; the hustle, bustle and hullabaloo on display for all to see. Oliver! would be quite a show – almost – if it were not lacking the one essential that no amount of razzamatazz can transform into a silk purse from the proverbial sow’s ear.
Where is Oliver Twist? Dickens’ impressionable moppet herein played by Mark Lester is wan, gutless and tone deaf – his singing voice dubbed to even less effect by Kathe Green; the daughter of the famed orchestral arranger/conductor. I’ve always had a problem with Lester’s depiction of this iconic literary figure, herein reconstituted as a soft-spoken, slightly effete and wholly unimpressive musical protégée. Lester – or rather Kathe - can’t hold a note to save her life. When the ensemble choral pauses for the libretto we are instead treated to a heavy expulsion of Bart’s memorable score; the words dragged in thick sustained breaths that seem to be taxing the strength of our pint-sized hero almost as much as they continue to wear thin on the ear. At some base level, Reed must have realized his multi-million dollar extravaganza was in trouble with Lester at its helm, because Oliver! - the movie - never spends too much time getting to know the diminutive Mr. Twist.
Despite having a whole show built around and named after him, Lester’s Oliver spends almost all of his time reacting to other characters more flamboyant than him. It’s an interesting trick on Reed’s part, cleverly keeping the audience at bay and deflecting the pleasures and pitfalls to other parts of the story. It works – superficially, at least; the movie’s overblown musical sequences grinding the rather straight forward plot (that of a displaced person finding his place in the world at large) to a halt. There is, in fact, an embarrassment of riches firmly on display in Oliver! starting with the four utterly brave and exuberant performances shoring up the chasm left behind by Lester’s mini-pop wannabe.
For starters, let us turn to Ron Moody for inspiration; barely thirty at the time but playing the fifty-something slum-living reprobate as a veritable fountain of courtly malice and myrrh. When Moody’s Fagin is on the screen everyone else fades from view. Fagin, the wily deceiver, mollifying his young brood of trained pickpockets with clear-cut zest for petty larceny firmly caught between his teeth. Whether he’s ‘reviewing the situation’ or simply ‘picking a pocket or two’, Moody sells us on empathy for the character as well as his edification.
Of course, Moody’s turn as Fagin would be nothing at all without a pair of deviants to illustrate for the audience just how toxic, yet endearing, his presence can be. These counterpoints are supplied to perfection by Jack Wild – the quintessential Artful Dodger and Oliver Reed – an absolutely terrifying Bill Sikes. First to Wild, who has the presence of mind and devotion to his craft able to will his thoroughly shrewd and manipulative urchin into a devastatingly hypnotic procurer of gullible underage minions for his master. The adult influences in Oliver! are all jaded, dark and enterprising. Wild’s Dodger is on the fast track to becoming just like them. Or has he already surpassed his mentor with a master stroke of unorthodoxy? After Fagin has lost everything of monetary value he once held so dear he briefly contemplates turning legitimate; a prospect quashed by Dodger’s sudden reappearance – another man’s wallet firmly in hand and casually tempting his former employer with the prospect of replenishing their ill-gotten gains; one stolen artifact at a time.
As for Oliver Reed; he is the embodiment of perversity carried a step too far; the once corruptible child now overgrown into a burly beast of a man dominated by vices; his soulless and piercing eyes devouring virtually anyone who gets near. Reed, a fine actor whose career was derailed by bouts of alcoholism and a general sternness towards his costars that branded him as unmanageable, remains the personification of Dickens’ terrific brute. We can believe his Bill Sikes would commit murder as easily as threaten the very life and limb of a petrified child merely to escape his own folly. Reed’s great gift to the movie is his absolute emersion in the part. He’s chilling to watch.
The other great strength of the production is its landmark sets; titanic recreations of Dickensian England with all their classicism intact; the drab and dank inner sanctum of the state-run workhouse, the gleaming white flats in Hyde Park Square, vibrant Covent Garden with its veritable array of meat packers, aproned fishmongers, child labor chimney sweeps and carnival folk mingling with the hoity-toity, the bleak and foreboding slums in which every form of rank villainy is on display; these have all been lovingly recreated to an exacting perfectionism by Production Designer John Box. It is, in fact, utterly staggering to consider that not a moment in Oliver! has been photographed outside these cloistered back lot sets built at Shepperton Studios. Add to this, Phyllis Dalton’s impeccable costume design and the teleportation to another place in time is complete. Oliver! looks every inch the part of a timeless homage to that not so merry ol’ England.
If only it were not a road show – that 1960’s movie hybrid in overblown spectacles suffering from acute elephantitis. Oliver! might have risen above its rank sentimentality still oozing from the peripheries of Carol Reed’s overreaching arc in dark cynicism. But Oliver! is, regrettably, an exultation of the stage show; its resurrection of Dickensian England taking a backseat to Lionel Bart’s lurid songs, Johnny Green’s florid underscore and Onna White’s lengthy excursions into tedious and occasionally sloppy footwork. The choreography isn’t intricate so much as it becomes distilled into a few overly-simplified steps that even Mark Lester – who admittedly claims to have been born with two left feet – is capable of performing without much concentration. The grander musical ‘set pieces’ – ‘Who Will Buy?’ and ‘Consider Yourself’ are staged almost in montage; Oswald Morris’ cinematography never resting on a single performer for fear the audience will notice this short-shrift absurdity. When Reed has a gifted performer like Ron Moody to single out, as in ‘Pick a Pocket or Two’ the musical sequences ignite with a potent noxiousness and bawdy excess.
Oliver! is therefore a movie musical of contradictions. On the one hand it extols its period and place with great visual zest. On the other, it cannot help but explore, indulge and celebrate the decidedly 42nd Street pizzazz of live theater. Carol Reed’s curious amalgam of these two irreconcilable worlds never quite fits as succinctly as one might hope. The movie’s strength – apart from the aforementioned pluperfect casting and production values – is that it never once waters down the action for the tiny tot sect munching on their popcorn in the audience. The children depicted in this movie are not really children at all, but hard-bitten realists and old souls deceptively sheathed in pint-sized bodies wearing the tattered remnants of ill-fitting hand-me-downs.
The tragedy of Oliver! therefore lies in Mark Lester’s complete incongruity to assimilate within this backdrop; Lester’s physical features too fine-boned, his skin so smooth and/or untouched by the harshness of reality. Perhaps this makes Lester a good counter-presence to Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger – the unashamed all-seeing/knowing procurer; corrupted well beyond his years. But the bloom in Lester’s cheeks is just a little too pure; a tad too cleanly naïve and therefore not entirely engaging within this imaginary world. Thank Dickens and Bart for the foresight of having surrounded our diminutive ingénue with a menagerie of magnificent felons who do battle over his providence.
We begin in a workhouse in Dunstable, England, visited by the wealthy governors who fund it. While these virtuous men dine in the upstairs offices on turkey with all the trimmings, the orphaned wretches just beyond their walls struggle to consume their daily gruel, dreaming in vane of ‘Food, Glorious Food’. When Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) approaches Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe) with a request for more gruel, the penitence for his hunger is to be sold into service to the highest bidder. The undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter) pays for this privilege. Oliver will be a mourner at children’s funerals. But after only his first, Oliver attacks Sowerberry’s assistant, Noah Claypole (Kenneth Cranham) for insulting the memory of his late mother. Subdued inside a coffin by Claypole and then pitched into a dank cellar below the establishment, the frightened boy wonders ‘Where is Love?’ before discovering that the window grate is loose.
Escaping into the night, Oliver reaches London – a magnificent claptrap of teeming life. But he is ill-equipped to cross paths with the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), a petty thief who manipulates Oliver into ‘considering himself as both a friend and one of the family’: thereafter misled into the attic hideaway of Fagin (Ron Moody) who exploits young urchins in his life of crime. ‘You Got To Pick a Pocket or Two’ Fagin explains before skulking off to meet Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed); one of his former pupils with whom he now conducts a very lucrative business. In the meantime, Sikes’ sometimes girlfriend, the bar wench Nancy, emotes ‘It’s a Fine Life’ to the various cronies at the pub; masking her sadness at being unable to live plainly as Sikes’ beloved.
Oliver witnesses Fagin steal a little off the top of Sikes’ stash. Nancy is sent to retrieve the money and befriends Oliver instead. Ever naïve, Oliver asks to go with the Artful Dodger on ‘a job’ – Oliver apprehended for the theft of a wallet belonging to the gentleman, Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Conor) that the Dodger has actually stolen. At trial, Fagin, Sikes and Nancy pensively await the outcome, fearful that Oliver will rat them all out. Instead, the boy remains silent. At the last possible moment a bookseller who witnessed the crime comes forth to attest to Oliver’s innocence. Brownlow takes pity on Oliver. But Sikes remains unconvinced that the boy will not confess to their crimes out of loyalty to his new benefactor. Awakening to the resplendent serenity of Brownlow’s fashionable home, Oliver observes as the various sellers in the square call out ‘Who Will Buy?’
Sikes orders Nancy to recall Oliver into their fold; beating her initial refusal into submission. In the meantime, Brownlow entrusts Oliver with some books and money to be delivered in London. Regrettably, Sikes and Nancy seize upon this opportunity to kidnap Oliver. When Fagin learns what they’ve done he begins to ‘review his situation’ – recognizing Sikes unrepentant violent streak. In the meantime, Mr. Bumble pays Mr. Brownlow a visit, presenting him with a locket belonging to Oliver’s late mother who turns out to be Brownlow’s penniless niece. The girl having died in the workhouse during childbirth, Brownlow now realizes that Oliver is his long-lost relative. In the meantime, Sikes forces Oliver into a life of crime. While the pair is away on a burglary, Nancy sneaks off to Brownlow’s home, confessing her part in Oliver’s kidnapping, but promising to return the boy at midnight at London Bridge. Sikes, however, has other plans and keeps a watchful eye on both Nancy and Oliver while he and Fagin discuss their future prospects.
Nancy engages the crowd at the pub in a spirited song, whisking Oliver away amidst the hullabaloo, but not before Sikes witnesses her treachery. Pursuing the pair to London Bridge, Sikes bludgeons Nancy to death and steals Oliver back. But Sikes dog, Bullseye, having had enough of his master’s brutality, alerts the police to his whereabouts. Sikes scales the back alley to the rooftops, using Oliver as his hostage. A police man intervenes, shooting Sikes dead. In the ensuing mayhem, Fagin drops his jewel box, the spoils of thievery sinking into the mire and mud, now forever lost to him. Despondent, Fagin contemplates going legit, his head turned to a new criminal enterprise by the Artful Dodger. In the final moments, Fagin and the Dodger skulk off into the twilight and Oliver is rightfully returned to the loving kindness of Brownlow’s care.
OIiver! is undeniably ambitious film-making. Yet it never quite evolves into the sort of buoyant musical entertainment one expects. Carol Reed’s adaptation is too literal in its Dickensian appeal, yet somehow too Broadway-based to be anything more than a big-time entertainment splashed across 70mm projection and with overture, intermission, entr’acte and exit music to endure. The movie is grand in all its’ production value-laden spectacle, and, occasionally vibrant too in its performance. But the dramatic parts are too full of melodramatic intensity for the fragile Lionel Bart score, the songs somehow becoming almost an afterthought. One genuinely senses that Carol Reed – best known for his dramas and thrillers – would have been quite contented to remake David Lean’s Oliver Twist rather than embarking on a movie musical; and this at a time when musicals were decidedly falling out of fashion with audience tastes.
Nevertheless, Oliver! was hailed by the critics upon its initial release. It was also a financial success for Romulus Films and Columbia Pictures (distributing it) and the recipient of six Academy Awards including Best Picture. Yet, in viewing the movie today one finds a distinct whiff of formaldehyde creeping in from the peripheries of its’ expansive screen; an almost embalming effect taking hold. It isn’t that Oliver! is a bad movie. No, there’s much too much that is good and on display herein to simply discount it as such. It’s just that Oliver! remains not altogether engaging. We don’t leave the theater humming the songs or rushing out to buy the cast album; the music instead existing within its own visually artistic vacuum. Without its story to tell (and with the exception of ‘Food Glorious Food’ that briefly became an anthem for the commercial promotion of the U.S. Milk and Dairy Association in the late 1980’s) the songs lack staying power. In the final analysis, Oliver! is meticulously mounted but lacking genuine heart and that makes all the difference to a movie musical from any vintage.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a decided step up from Sony Home Video’s previously issued DVD. The 3 hour plus film is housed on a single disc. Overall, the image exhibits some exceptionally fine tonality and contrast, with fine details taking a quantum leap forward. Regrettably, color balancing still occasionally looks just a tad off. Flesh tones are infrequently ruddy and slightly orange. As strange as it may seem now, a goodly number of classics from the sixties have endured less than stellar preservation attempts made throughout the years. Oliver! was hardly an exception to this rule. In fact, none of the movie’s original orchestral arrangements or recorded songs survive today without the already integrated SFX.
And Oliver!’s original camera negative was in a perilous state of disrepair by the time Columbia Pictures began its noteworthy restoration dating back two decades. It is these archival materials that are the basis for Oliver!’s Blu-ray debut and, in hindsight, they lack both the overall vibrancy and consistency that we’ve come to expect from newer digital transfers made with the benefit of additional digital clean up. The image quality herein is far from awful. But it is also more than a hair’s length shy from being perfect and that’s a shame.
The DTS 5.1 audio sounds marvelous. Twilight Time has fleshed out the extras with an ‘isolate score and effects track’, a vintage ‘behind the scenes’ featurette made in 1968 and two fantastic interview pieces from 1998 featuring a grown up Mark Lester and aged Ron Moody. Both men offer clairvoyant thoughts on the making of the movie. We also get a ‘sing-a-long’ feature and the movie’s theatrical trailer. Bottom line: if you’re a fan of Oliver! then this Twilight Time release is much preferred. Visually, it isn’t perfect, but it’s likely to satisfy most paying the price of admission.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)