Alec Guinness and John Howard Davies in Oliver Twist (1948)

Artful

I curse the British education system especially that of the 80s because I find myself not only lacking in some historical knowledge but also a distinct lack of knowledge when it comes to the classics such as Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist". Like most people I have heard of "Oliver Twist" and thanks to cinema knew a couple of things about it but as I sat down to watch David Lean's 1948 version of Dickens' story I realised I didn't actually know the story. And that ends up huge because whilst David Lean has undoubtedly crafted one of the most striking black & white movies in history I have no idea as to how affective the adaptation is, by general opinion it is first rate. And in truth, and call me a philistine if you like, the story of Oliver, Fagin, Nancy and Bill Sykes did little for me where as I am sure if I had been lead to read it at a younger age I would be more charmed by it.

Having struggled through a storm to the Parish Workhouse a woman gives birth to a son before dying. The boy is named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) and like other foundlings is raised in the Workhouse, shipped out to businesses to work and basically lives a dog's life. But having had enough of it all Oliver runs away after 7 days of walking finds himself in London where the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley - Doctor Dolittle) discovers him and takes him to Fagin (Alec Guinness - A Handful of Dust) who tries to teach him to be one of his pick-pockets.

Anthony Newley as Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist (1948)

Let me says this again, if I had been given Dickens' "Oliver Twist" to read and study when I was a teen I am sure I would love the story of Oliver, the criminal machinations of Fagin, Sykes and the boys as well as the story of Oliver's connection to Mr. Brownlow. Not only that I am sure I would be impressed with David Lean's vision of Dickens' story and would be able to appreciate how close to the book he sticks as I have read that is the case. But in the end yes "Oliver Twist" is a solid story with nice amounts of drama and intrigue but it did little for me.

What did a lot for me was David Lean's direction and "Oliver Twists" is visually one of the most exceptional movies I have seen. The opening alone is astonishing as we witness Oliver's mother struggling across a stormy moor to the Workhouse to give birth and through out the entire movie the use of contrast, shadows, camera angles and positions of height all work together to deliver something truly special. Even now 60 plus years after it was made "Oliver Twist" is still a visually brilliant movie and it makes me all the more annoyed at my lack of knowledge and love for the story.

What is also exceptional are the performances with John Howard Davies, Anthony Newley, Robert Newton and Kay Walsh amongst many others delivering first rate performances. But unsurprisingly they are all over shadowed by Alec Guinness whose characterisation of Fagin is something quite extraordinary, making him amusing yet sinister in a blink of an eye. Part of what makes it so good is the work of the make-up department to really build the character of Fagin with his beak of a nose but still Guinness is astonishing.

What this all boils down to is that whilst the story of "Oliver Twist" didn't do much for me David Lean's direction and the acting especially from Alec Guinness was something very special. This version of "Oliver Twist" is well worth a watch to see how great black & white movies can be with Lean's craftsmanship making it something extraordinary.