Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Oliver Twist (1948)

Not What I Was Expecting, Part 2: How is it that, until now, I've been unaware of how truly fucked-up the story of Oliver Twist is? On the evidence here, David Lean certainly realized this -- where his adaptation of Great Expectations kept a spirited tone and made no bones about its literary origins via an everpresent voiceover, this subsequent Dickens adaptation seems more image than word, more mood than story. And what a horrifying mood it is; with its sharp cutting (I love the montage of shocked faces that follows the famed "may I have some more" line), its harsh shadow-heavy lighting and its extreme, stylized angles (a couple shots, notably the long overhead shot that occurs when Nancy and Bill are dragging Oliver back to Fagin's hideout, look like fucking De Chirico paintings), this seems less Great Literature and more paranoid noir phantasmagoria. Adding to that feel is the grotesquerie of the villains -- Robert Newton shows us Bill Sykes as a sweaty, pop-eyed nightmare brute, while Alec Guinness's scheming haggard crone getup, edging up on supernatural proportions, makes Fagin almost as frightening. Fagin is also, unfortunately, heavily coded as Hasidim, which gives an odd, ill charge to many of Guinness's scenes; still, it's telling that the one scene with Fagin that stands out more than any other is the bit near the end where Guinness howls impotently, "What right have you to butcher me?" Surprisingly, the weakest thing about Oliver Twist is the story itself, hinging far too much on coincidence as it does, but then that's the fault of Dickens and not Lean. Besides, if you can work past the implausibilities and chance occurances, this is at heart a ripper of a yarn, with its propulsive final half hour among the creepiest things ever portrayed in a narrative ostensibly intended for children. It comes off as Baby's First Noir, and I think I like it verily.

Grade: B+


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