is the definitive specimen of Dickens on film; and also the greatest achievement in high cinema art in the all of the medium. I've seen them all--Citizen Kane
, 2001: A Space Odyssey
, The Passion of Joan of Arc
, etc.--movies which are considered to be the last word in cinematic achievement. But no work begotten of cinematic hands is so essentially
and ultimately cinema
as this 1948 masterpiece by David Lean.
In an image indicative of the strength of Leanís visuals, Oliver (John Howard Davies) draws the short straw.
Never has any studio in any country at any time produced so successful a translation of a work so reknownedly established as a masterpiece of the literary medium into something so brilliantly cinematic in essence and content. So masterful and so assured is it in it's cinematic treatment that it could achieve the impossible--a silent Dickens.
Oliver and the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley).
Never was there a film so narratively cinematic in sequence or in whole. It would be impossible in this brief review to detail the innumerable touches of cinematic resource permeating Oliver Twist
; but a few examples: In an astonishing opening image, Oliver's turbulent path ahead is ominously portended by the most utterly persuasive studio-processed tempest ever achieved; the travail and unyielding will of Oliver's labor-wracked mother as she traverses the storm driven heath is exemplified by thorny briers which bend but do not break; the loneliness and helplessness of Oliver is seen in terms of his small, malnourished body against the cold expanses of workhouse brick; Oliver's escape from the cruel Mr. Sowerberry, where an almost lithographic image reminiscent of Atget gives way to an Eisensteinian montage as Oliver first encounters the bustling, suffocating streets of London; the unveiling of Old Sally's secret, played like an eerie mystery-detective suspenser; Bill Sykes' fearful comeuppance; and above all, Sykes' brutal murder of Nancy and it's aftermath--surely the most brilliant sequence in film history (of which Lean later admitted led him to obsess with the possibilities of filming thought
). Boldly and thoroughly jettisoning all of Dickens' literary devices to tell the story, Lean even manages to explain Oliver's kinship to the kindly Mr. Brownlow using only the magical cinematic property of editing! This is montage at it's most gleamingly sophisticated and texturally brilliant.
Bill Sykes (Robert Newton) threatens Oliver.
Never was there a film so outstanding in so many different aspects of its production. The writing (like Dickens) is alive in wit, character, drama, suspense, compassion, and humor; while at once remaining so fluently cinematic that it seems conceived in word-pictures. One of the outstanding examples of inspired casting, every last part is a triumph of performance. With two, in particular, contributing among the most memorable in cinema history: Alec Guinness, in the most difficult and brilliantly portrayed (and first starring!) role of his career, bringing Fagin to villainous and complex life; and Robert Newton, who was BORN to play Bill Sykes. The breathtaking cinematography, again the art of Guy Green (view an online interview
with this great artist), is the greatest ever achieved in its respective field (it tops my list of 10 Best Photographed B&W Films
); prompting one critic to declare, "If any film could convince an unbeliever of the virtues of black-and-white it is Oliver Twist
." The musical score--the only written for the screen in the distinguished career of Sir Arnold Bax--points up the action with stirring vivacity, wit, and emotion; and is, indeed, in the best class of opera libretti. The unparalled production design is an expressionistic triumph of imagination, detail, and studio resource (again, by a veteran Lean collaborator, John Bryan). Costuming and make-up are at once determinedly authentic and dramatically unreal. And above all, the astonishing direction by David Lean is nothing short of genius, distilling the Dickens classic into its purest cinematic essence with a unique epic vision, meticulous technique, graphic fluency, and sensitive handling. Or, in the telling words of critic Michael Sragow, "Lean elevates melodrama to poetry--and never lets it drop for the 116-minute running time." If cinema is the most immediate of our arts then surely David Lean has created its most exemplary specimen. (Sadly, accusations of anti-Semitism hurt its reputation and delayed it's release in the U.S. for four years. This, apparently due to the exaggerated proboscis given Fagin, although Lean never identifies the character as Jewish; and removes Dickens' reference to a shady Jewish peddling network.)
Sykes hears of Nancyís plot to deceive him from the Dodger, while Fagin (Alec Guinness) spurns him on.
With a transfer made from the original 35 mm fine-grain master, which is apparently still in excellent condition, Oliver Twist
looks to be one of the very best of itís kind. Only Itís a Wonderful Life
look better to this reviewer among all pre-1950 black-and-white films yet released on DVD. Images are about as crisp and sharp as could be, and gray values "pop" with a dazzlingly luminous prescence seldom equalled in any format. A few inconspicuous nicks and scratches appear, which is to be expected with a film of this age, and visible in two places are a break in the film and a large age spot. But these blemishes are very fleeting and do not distract at all from the viewing experience of an otherwise superb transfer. Sound is also an improvement on Great Expectations
, with very clear monoaural audio. Original British theatrical trailer is included.
***** out of *****. Very highly recommended!
(For the skeptical, here is an excellent external review
of Oliver Twist
This nonpareil Lean adaptation of the timeless Dickens classic is a masterpiece of the cinematic art (French auteur Rene Clement would pay later homage to it, and itís companion film Great Expectations
, in his masterful Gervaise
), and belongs in every DVD collector's library.
"Editing is crucial. Imagine James Stewart looking at a mother nursing her child. You see the child, then cut back to him. He smiles. Now Mr. Stewart is a benign old gentleman. Take away the middle piece of film and substitute a girl in a bikini. Now he's a dirty old man."
[This message has been edited by Sykes (edited December 01, 2000).]