Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Oliver Twist (1948 film)
Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist is the story of an orphaned boy who joins a gang of pickpockets to escape a life of misery with the help of a criminal. Directed by David Lean and screenplay by Lean and Stanley Haynes, the film is a look of a boy trying to find a family and people to care for after leading a life of abuse of misery. Starring Alec Guinness, Robert Newton, Kay Walsh, John Howard Davies, and Anthony Newley. Oliver Twist is a touching and visually-astonishing film from David Lean.
The film follows the titular character (John Howard Davies) who is a young boy that had been raised in an orphanage as he would later join a gang of pickpockets where he learns the trade as a mean to survive and later finds kindness and compassion from an old rich man. It’s a film that explore a boy who had endured nothing but cruelty as he would escape these harsh environments and discover a world where there is this element of survival but also a world that can offer him so much more. The film’s screenplay by David Lean and Stanley Haynes, with contributions from Eric Ambler and Kay Walsh, follows this young boy who was born in an orphanage as his mother (Josephine Stuart) died just shortly after his birth asking an old woman to take care of the boy who would regretfully send him to an orphanage.
After being sent to work as an apprentice for the undertaker Mr. Sowberry (Gibb McLaughlin) and later running away after a period of abuse. Twist would go to London where he would meet a young pickpocket in the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) and an old man who trains them named Fagin (Alec Guinness). Fagin would provide Twist this need of companionship and brotherhood among these pickpockets until he is mistaken for a thief by an old rich man in Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson) who would take pity in the young boy and show him a world that has a lot to offer other than riches. Twist is torn between two worlds as an associate of Fagin in Bill Sikes (Robert Newton) discovers more about Twist’s identity and would use it for selfish reasons much to the dismay of his girlfriend in the kind-hearted prostitute Nancy (Kay Walsh).
David Lean’s direction is definitely mesmerizing for the images that he creates as well as some images that are striking such as a wide shot of London that Twist and Dodger would see from a bridge on the way to Fagin’s hideout. Shot on Pinewood Studios in London to recreate 19th Century London, Lean would use the wide shots to get a scope of London in those times as well as the world that is London which is huge for a young boy like Twist. Though it is shot on the full-frame 1:33:1 aspect ratio, Lean does manage to get enough coverage of the places that Twist would go into such as the orphanage, the home of the undertaker, Fagin’s hideout, and Mr. Brownlow’s home as it each represent this world that is full of complexities and wonders that would fascinate Twist. Lean’s direction does emphasize on close-ups and medium shots as it play into the wonderment of Twist in his surroundings as well as the sense of the unknown into who he is as well as some secrets about his mother. Lean would create some unique compositions that play into the drama but also in some of the suspense as well as images that represent elements of symbolism into the plight of the characters.
Lean’s direction also play into the contrast of the two different lifestyles that Twist would endure as the home at Mr. Brownlow is spacious and full of knowledge but there’s also a warmth to it that can give the boy a chance of a future. It’s something totally different than what Fagin’s world is in as it’s dirty, cramped, and decayed yet there is an air of excitement into that world. The film’s third act that relates to Sikes and those who had taken care of Twist in the past where it play into the discovery of his identity as well as who is mother was and who her father is. Even as Nancy would find out the truth as she is eager to make things right as it lead to a confrontation involving Fagin and Sikes over Twist’s fate. Overall, Lean crafts a riveting and heartfelt film about a boy’s journey to find hope and kindness in a cruel world.
Cinematographer Guy Green does brilliant work with the film’s black-and-white photography with its stylish usage of lighting and shadows for many of the interior scenes set in the day and night as well as some exterior scenes set at night as it’s a major highlight for the film. Editor Jack Harris does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with a few dissolves and some rhythmic cuts to play into the drama and suspense. Set decorators T. Hopewell Ash and Claude Momsay do incredible work with the look of the homes from the spacious home of Mr. Brownlow to the more decayed world of Fagin. Costume designer Margaret Furse does fantastic work with the look of the decayed clothes that Fagin and his gang wears as well as the more posh clothes of Mr. Brownlow
Makeup artist Stuart Freeborn does terrific work with the look of Fagin from his nose and ragged hair to play into his dirty yet charming look. Sound recordists Stanley Lambourne and Gordon K. McCallum do superb work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of the locations as well as in some of the sound effects in the film. The film’s music by Arnold Bax is amazing for its orchestral score that play into some suspense in some of the film’s bombastic string arrangements along with some low-key and playful pieces in the film.
The casting by Dennis Van Thal is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles from Hattie Jacques as a tavern singer, Josephine Stuart as Twist’s mother, Gibb McLaughlin as the undertaker Mr. Sowberry who takes Twist in as his apprentice, Michael Dear as a worker for the undertaker in Noah who insults Twist’s mother, Deidre Doyle as an old woman at the workhouse, Kathleen Harrison as the cruel Mrs. Sowberry who would keep a major secret from Twist in the hopes of great finances, Diana Dors as a maid for the Sowberrys in Charlotte, and Amy Veness as Mr. Brownlow’s warm housekeeper Mrs. Bedwin whom Twist becomes fond of. Ralph Truman and Francis L. Sullivan are terrific in their respective roles as Monks and Mr. Bumble as two men who both have selfish interests in Twist with Monks being a landlord of sorts for Fagin and Mr. Bumble being the one who sent Twist to Mr. Sowberry.
Anthony Newley is superb as the Artful Dodger as a young pickpocket who would introduce Twist to Fagin as well as be kind of an older brother of sorts to Twist as he also has an intense dislike towards Sikes. Kay Walsh is fantastic as the young prostitute Nancy who is also Sikes’ lover as someone that becomes concerned about Twist when she learns what Sikes is planning to do while discovering more about Twist’s true identity. Henry Stephenson is excellent as Mr. Brownlow as an elderly rich man who takes pity in Twist following a misunderstanding involving theft as he gets to know the boy where he has a realization about who the boy really is. Robert Newton is brilliant as Bill Sikes as this vicious criminal that is willing to use Twist for his own reasons as well as financial and such as he would learn more about Twist and where he comes from.
Alec Guinness is amazing as Fagin as this criminal who teaches young boys how to be pickpockets as he is a father figure of sorts for Twist despite his immorality towards the law while also being someone that does care about Twist. Finally, there’s John Howard Davies in an incredible performance as the titular role as a young boy who has known nothing but cruelty and abuse where he has enough of it and runs away where he learns how to survive through pickpocketing and later encountering a world of kindness and generosity where he’s torn between two ideals and two worlds only to realize that there are those that will use him for the worst kind of reasons.
Oliver Twist is a phenomenal film from David Lean. Featuring a great cast, gorgeous visuals, a rich music score, and a compelling story of family, survival, and kindness. It’s a film that definitely captures the spirit of Charles Dickens in his exploration of fate and identity. In the end, Oliver Twist is a sensational film from Charles Dickens.
Related: Oliver Twist (2005 film) - (The Auteurs #75: David Lean)
David Lean Films: In Which We Serve - This Happy Breed – Blithe Spirit - Brief Encounter - Great Expectations (1946 film) - The Passionate Friends - Madeleine (1950 film) – The Sound Barrier - Hobson's Choice - (Summertime (1955 film)) – The Bridge on the River Kwai - Lawrence of Arabia - Doctor Zhivago - Ryan's Daughter - (Lost and Found: The Story of Cook’s Anchor) – A Passage to India
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