Oliver Twist (1948)
Written by David Lean & Stanley Haynes
Directed by David Lean
David Lean’s second attempt at adapting Charles Dickens is even better, in my opinion. This time around, instead of relying on other screenwriters, Lean and Stanley Haynes worked out the script together and managed to keep most of the story’s high points. Lean was audacious enough to add to the story with two critical bits at the beginning and end that work beautifully and are some of the best scenes of the entire film. Even more so than Great Expectations, we find the director leaning into noir-ish Gothic production design and lighting, which leads to an incredibly memorable viewing experience.
A young woman struggles through a rainstorm to the gates of the workhouse, where she collapses. The woman is brought inside, where she gives birth to her child and dies moments later. The workhouse residents name him Oliver Twist, and he grows up never knowing love or affection. When he asks for more gruel, a meal meant to fill the belly and dissuade their hunger, Oliver is sent off to apprentice under Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker. His tenure comes to an end when his coworker Noah begins to malign Oliver’s mother.
Oliver runs away to London, where he meets The Artful Dodger, a young member of a gang of thieves overseen by the cunning Fagin (Alec Guinness). Fagin sends Oliver out to watch the other boys on a job, but the orphan is blamed for the theft and taken to court. To spare him, a kindly older gentleman named Mr. Brownlow brings Oliver in and begins to realize he may have a connection to the boy. Meanwhile, Fagin is worried Oliver will rat them all out, and when he tells his associate Bill Sykes the two men begin to hatch plans to abduct the boy back. Nancy, a prostitute, Bill’s lover, and a former gang member of Fagin’s, has sympathy for Oliver and secretly works to help him.
From the opening scene, Lean delivers everything we want from this story. His decision to show Oliver’s mother, making her way across the countryside to the workhouse, is gorgeous. You want to think it’s a green screen, but I don’t think the technology existed at the time to pull it off so well. The dark clouds gathering in the sky and the thick muddy road that the woman struggles to walk across just set the tone of struggle that Oliver will endure for most of his childhood. The emotional weight is there from the beginning and continues on through the whole film.
Lean did a decent job of highlight the many supporting characters that populate Dickens’s works in Great Expectations, but he does an even better job here. I think Oliver Twist has better characters, to begin with, and Lean makes them larger than life. Mr. Bumble is precisely how you imagine him, and Nancy is the right mix of coarse & kind.
The one performance that has rightfully gained ire and does mar the film is Alec Guinness as Fagin. From his first scene, it is clear Lean is going with the horrible anti-Semitic stereotype that has surrounded the character. Fagin is presented as a scummy, corrupting Jew, and it’s tough to get past that while watching. Even while filming, the Production Code (the precursor to the MPAA) warned Lean that he was veering into offensive, prejudiced territory with the makeup applied to Guinness. Lean argued that he was basing the makeup design on George Cruikshank’s classic illustrations in the text. Oliver Twist was kept out of the United States until 1951 due to numerous Jewish groups’ protests, and picketing occurred outside theaters in Germany.
Lean’s production of Oliver Twist, just like Great Expectations, would go on to inform all future productions of Dickens’s material. In fact, the musical Oliver! is more a direct adaptation of Lean’s movie than the Dickens novel itself. I agree as the musical follows all the same plot beats and characters in Lean’s picture without bringing in many other elements. I do think Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes is better than the actor in Lean’s production. Reed is just so much scummier and oozing sexual charm, so it makes sense why someone like Nancy would be with him. In Lean’s film, Sykes feels a little buffoonish and less of a threat than Reed.
For the next few years, David Lean would direct melodramas and period pieces, dipping his toes into co-productions with American studios. These films don’t get brought up very often when discussing his work and are considered adequate. But everything would change almost a decade after Oliver Twist when Lean made his first picture for Columbia, our next film & my favorite Lean movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai.