Dickens published Oliver Twist in installments in 1837, 1838 and 1839. It was his second novel. In 1948, David Lean directed this, his second translation of Dickens to the screen, with some of the same people he’d worked with before on Great Expectations, including Ronald Neame as producer, Guy Green as photographer, and John Bryan as set designer. Critic David Thomson writes “John Bryan and Guy Green found a nearly operatic noir style that is a beautiful partner to Dickens’s visual descriptions…(there was) a kind of squalid energy in the textures of walls, streets, and clothes (call it dirt) that left MGM costume films of the same kind looking very laundered. Even David Copperfield suffers in comparison.” Billy Stevenson, in his blog A Film Canon, writes “Lean’s freedom from Dickens’ episodic, serialistic imperative allows him to simplify, and further beautify, Oliver Twist’s narrative and structural ingenuity – in this case, with a series of eloquent montage sequences and summative images, which not only refrain from Dickens’ wordiness, but often occur exactly when that wordiness might be expected to be foregrounded.”
Alec Guinness plays Fagin in makeup, created by Stuart Freeborn, that Stevenson calls “hyperbolic Jewish” and which was criticized at the time for that appearance. Thomson writes, “I don’t agree. Fagin on the page is over the top because he playacts all the time for an audience of children. Alec Guinness got close to the illustrations, and he believed he was playing an inky villain without compromise or reflection upon Jewishness.” The movie was not released in the U.S. for three years, and then with cuts, because of the criticism. Thomson writes Robert Newton as Bill Sikes is “frightening,” and calls John Howard Davies “a fine Oliver, and again it’s worth noting that he had many attributes of the real child—shyness, awkwardness, numbness—compared with the excessive, voluble articulation of the (previous) generation” of child stars, such as Freddie Bartholomew as David Copperfield. Francis L. Sullivan, who played the lawyer Jaggers in Great Expectations, returns here as the beadle, Mr. Bumble. The Artful Dodger was played by a young Anthony Newley, later a pop singer-songwriter in the 60s. Bill Sikes’ dog plays a major role as well.
The scenes in this film are maybe the most truthful reconstruction of Victorian London in any of the movies we’ve seen in this series. The crowd scenes near the end of the picture are truly phenomenal, as wonderful in their way as Frank Capra’s depiction of bank runs in American Madness in 1932. No Oscars for this picture. Hollywood saved them all for the musical Oliver! in 1968. I hope you enjoy watching Oliver Twist with me tonight.