Oliver Twist (1948 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||David Lean|
|Produced by||Ronald Neame|
|Written by||David Lean|
|Based on||Oliver Twist|
by Charles Dickens
John Howard Davies
|Music by||Arnold Bax|
|Edited by||Jack Harris|
|Distributed by||General Film Distributors (UK),|
Eagle-Lion, United Artists (USA, 1951)
|22 June 1948 (London)|
|116 minutes (UK)|
Oliver Twist is a 1948 British film and the second of David Lean's two film adaptations of Charles Dickens novels. Following the success of his 1946 version of Great Expectations, Lean re-assembled much of the same team for his adaptation of Dickens' 1838 novel, including producers Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan, cinematographer Guy Green, designer John Bryan and editor Jack Harris. Lean's then-wife, Kay Walsh, who had collaborated on the screenplay for Great Expectations, played the role of Nancy. John Howard Davies was cast as Oliver, while Alec Guinness portrayed Fagin and Robert Newton played Bill Sikes.
In 1999, the British Film Institute placed it at 46th in its list of the top 100 British films. In 2005 it was named in the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.
A young woman in labour makes her way to a parish workhouse and dies after giving birth to a boy, who is systematically named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) by the workhouse authorities. As the years go by, Oliver and the rest of the child inmates suffer from the callous indifference of the officials in charge: beadle Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan) and matron Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare). At the age of nine, the hungry children draw straws; Oliver loses and has to ask for a second helping of gruel ("Please sir, I want some more").
For his impudence, he is promptly apprenticed to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Gibb McLaughlin), from whom he receives somewhat better treatment. However, when another worker, Noah, maligns his dead mother, Oliver flies into a rage and attacks him, earning the orphan a whipping.
Oliver runs away to London. The Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley), a skilled young pickpocket, notices him and takes him to Fagin (Alec Guinness), an old Jew who trains children to be pickpockets. Fagin sends Oliver to watch and learn as the Dodger and another boy try to rob Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), a rich, elderly gentleman. Their attempt is detected, but it is Oliver who is chased through the streets by a mob and arrested. A witness clears him. Mr. Brownlow takes a liking to the boy, and gives him a home. Oliver experiences the kind of happy life he has never had before, under the care of Mr. Brownlow and the loving housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin (Amy Veness).
Meanwhile, Fagin is visited by the mysterious Monks (Ralph Truman), who has a strong interest in Oliver. He sends Monks to Bumble and Mrs. Corney (now Bumble's domineering wife); Monks buys from them the only thing that can identify Oliver's parentage, a locket containing his mother's portrait.
By chance, Fagin's associate, the vicious Bill Sykes (Robert Newton), and Sykes' kind-hearted prostitute girlfriend (and former Fagin pupil) Nancy (Kay Walsh) run into Oliver on the street and forcibly take him back to Fagin. Nancy feels pangs of guilt and, seeing a poster in which Mr. Brownlow offers a reward for Oliver's return, contacts the gentleman and promises to deliver Oliver the next day. The suspicious Fagin, however, has had the Dodger follow her. When Fagin informs Sykes, the latter becomes enraged and murders her, mistakenly believing that she has betrayed him.
The killing brings down the wrath of the public on the gang — particularly Sykes who attempts to make his escape by taking Oliver hostage. Clambering over the rooftops, and with climbing rope hung around his neck, Sykes is shot by one of the mob and is accidentally hanged as he loses his footing. Mr. Brownlow and the authorities rescue Oliver. Fagin and his other associates are rounded up. Monks' part in the proceedings is discovered, and he is arrested. He was trying to ensure his inheritance; Oliver, it turns out, is Mr. Brownlow's grandson. For their involvement in Monks' scheme, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble lose their jobs at the workhouse. Oliver is happily reunited with his newly found grandfather and Mrs. Bedwin, his search for love ending in fulfilment.
- John Howard Davies as Oliver Twist
- Alec Guinness as Fagin
- Robert Newton as Bill Sikes
- Kay Walsh as Nancy
- Henry Stephenson as Mr. Brownlow
- Francis L. Sullivan as Mr. Bumble
- Mary Clare as Mrs. Corney
- Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger
- Ralph Truman as Monks
- Michael Dear as Noah Claypole
- Diana Dors as Charlotte
- Amy Veness as Mrs. Bedwin
- Frederick Lloyd as Mr. Grimwig
- Josephine Stuart as Oliver's Mother
- Deidre Doyle as Mrs. Thingummy, the old woman in workhouse
- Gibb McLaughlin as Mr. Sowerberry, undertaker
- Kathleen Harrison as Mrs. Sowerberry
- Hattie Jacques as Singer in the Three Cripples tavern
Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin and his make-up was considered anti-semitic by some as it was felt to perpetuate Jewish racial stereotypes. Guinness wore heavy make-up, including a large prosthetic nose, to make him look like the character as he appeared in George Cruikshank's illustrations in the first edition of the novel. At the start of production, the Production Code Administration had advised David Lean to "bear in mind the advisability of omitting from the portrayal of Fagin any elements or inference that would be offensive to any specific racial group or religion." Lean commissioned the make-up artist Stuart Freeborn to create Fagin's features; Freeborn (himself part-Jewish) had suggested to David Lean that Fagin's exaggerated profile should be toned down for fear of causing offence, but Lean rejected this idea. In a screen test featuring Guinness in toned-down make-up, Fagin was said to resemble Jesus Christ. On this basis, Lean decided to continue filming with a faithful reproduction of Cruikshank's Fagin, pointing out that Fagin was not explicitly identified as Jewish in the screenplay.
The March 1949 release of the film in Germany was met with protests outside the Kurbel Cinema by Jewish objectors. The Mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter, was a signatory to their petition which called for the withdrawal of the film. The depiction of Fagin was considered especially problematic in the recent aftermath of the Holocaust.
As a result of objections by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the New York Board of Rabbis, the film was not released in the United States until 1951, with seven minutes of profile shots and other parts of Guinness's performance cut. It received great acclaim from critics, but, unlike Lean's Great Expectations, another Dickens adaptation, no Oscar nominations. The film was banned in Israel for anti-semitism. It was banned in Egypt for portraying Fagin too sympathetically.
Beginning in the 1970s, the full-length version of Lean's film began to be shown in the United States. It is that version which is now available on DVD.
Release and reception
The film was the fifth most popular film at the British box office in 1949.
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