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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that David Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist is a black-and-white adaptation of Charles Dickens' famed novel, which is also the source material of the musical Oliver! Lean doesn't shy from the cruelty against children and the suppression of women that were hallmarks of Dickens' times and his work. This is a grim world where the poor are discriminated against, where the comfort of a person's life is determined by class, education, and gender. Thievery, child labor, and murder seem ordinary events in this world. Excessive drinking is seen in a pub. Although Bill Sykes' girlfriend, Nancy, is a prostitute, the movie doesn't specifically state this. A raised club is seen, and later a partial view of a dead body, but neither the actual murder nor the bloody aftermath is shown. A woman dies following childbirth. Children, virtual slaves at the workhouse, work hard and are fed nothing but thin gruel. Oliver is whipped. A murderer is shot and falls off a roof. A previous scene shows he has a rope around his neck, but the fact that this accidentally hangs him isn't shown.
What's the story?
Charles Dickens' OLIVER TWIST is given a fairly faithful retelling by the master filmmaker David Lean in this black-and-white classic. Oliver (John Howard Davies) is the illegitimate child of a wealthy English woman who runs away to give birth in a parish workhouse. She dies after childbirth, leaving her son and an amulet behind. When the boy turns 9, he's sold by the workhouse proprietor, Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan), to a man who uses Oliver for child labor. Oliver escapes and runs off to London, where he's immediately spotted by the Artful Dodger (a prepubescent Anthony Newley), a well-trained pickpocket and general thief in the boys' army created by a London underworld criminal called Fagin (Alex Guinness). Coincidence plays a role when the Dodger takes Oliver on a job lifting a gentleman's wallet. The Dodger gets away but the police capture Oliver. When he faints from influenza, the wealthy and kindly pickpocket victim Brownlow (Henry Stephenson) takes the boy home, where he's nursed to health. An immediate kinship is felt by the boy and the generous old man, who turns out to be the boy's grandfather. When Oliver is kidnapped back into thievery by Fagin's troop, an unscrupulous Brownlow family member traces the amulet to the workhouse, which leads him to Oliver. If he can eliminate Oliver, the family inheritance will be his, but Brownlow never gives up. Fagin cohort Sykes murders his own girlfriend, Nancy (Kay Walsh who was then David Lean's wife), when Fagin persuades him that she's sold them all out in exchange for Oliver. The complexity and length of the story reminds viewers that Dickens was paid by the editors who serialized his fiction by the word.
Is it any good?
Lean was a master of the cinematic art, and every lighting trick, camera angle, set detail, costume, and sound effect on display bolsters the sharp storytelling in this film. The stunning black-and-white photography in Oliver Twist helps to underscore the dreary unseen worlds of oppression: in the workhouse, at the factory that abuses child workers, on the streets where orphaned urchins are slaves to unsavory gangs. The dark and the light tell the story here, too. Bad things happen in the darkness -- both metaphorical and actual -- and good things happen in the light -- of day and of the enlightened mind. It's at night that a man murders his girlfriend. But the murder is never actually shown. The low-angle view of a raised murder weapon predicts the terrible violence about to unfold.
Sir Alec Guinness, who had teamed up with Lean for an earlier Dickens adaptation, the 1946 Great Expectations, is done up in a dramatic makeup job that makes the great actor resemble Oz's Wicked Witch of the West. His overdone nose, beard, and wig would never work in a color film, and is barely tolerable in a black-and-white one. He is a man out of place and time, dressed more like Moses in tattered robes than the leader of a 19th-century London street gang. The film doesn't identify Fagin specifically as Jewish, but the exaggerated hooked nose Lean chose for Guinness to wear caused controversy and accusations of anti-Semitism, unsurprising given its release only three years after the Holocaust ended. Anti-Defamation League protests prevented the film from being released in the United States until 1951. The edited version then cut most of Fagin's profile shots. Those have since been restored.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how this version of Oliver Twist differs from the popular movie of the Broadway musical, Oliver! Does this make you want to read the original source material by Dickens, Oliver Twist?
Do you think that novels and movies about such social ills as child labor and the oppression of women and the poor may have helped change minds and policies governing children, women, and the poor? Why or why not?
What does the story tell us about the way children and women were treated in 19th-century England? What parts of the movie tell you that women weren't thought of as equals to men, and that cruelty to and exploitation of children were common?
- In theaters: June 28, 1948
- On DVD or streaming: January 12, 1999
- Cast: Alec Guinness, John Howard Davies, Anthony Newley, Kay Walsh, Henry Stephenson
- Director: David Lean
- Studio: Criterion Collection
- Genre: Drama
- Character Strengths: Integrity
- Run time: 116 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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