Oliver Twist is the great tradition of restoration and revenge stories that include The Count of Monte Cristo, Cinderella, Robin Hood, and many other myths. The aristocrat born in squalor, abused, betrayed and otherwise forced to live as a member of the lower orders never fails his blood. Dickens used this theme in other works such as Nicholas Nickelby and Great Expectation, but Oliver Twist remains the most satisfying of these excursions into the lower depths.
David Lean's version of the book is one of the great post-war British films. Shot in expressionist black and white, Oliver Twist doesn't shy away from the nasty bits of the underworld life that Oliver is forced into. Robert Newton's Sykes gleams with a psychotic edge, and Anthony Newley's Dodger leaps from the screen like Dicken's makes him rise from the page. James Newton Howard, as the poor but blonde lad, looks wan, pathetic, and suitably aristocratic among the unwashed. (Howard survived the experience and grew up to produce the well-beloved Monty Python)
The sets are spectactular and well-detailed. I should like you to notice the street band that appears in several scenes looking moldy and playing with resigned anger. The claustrophic slums of London are dark, dusty, and muddy all once, and when the sun pentrates the mire, it is so strange that it transforms the squalor into beauty. This is Lean's black and white masterpiece. The sequence where Sykes beats Nancy to death is one of Lean's best. The terror of Bulldog is moving, and after the beating, when Sykes opens the window and the morning sun bursts in is filmmaking at its best.
Lean also manages to cut the book without losing the essense of the story: the plot against Oliver by a userper who stands to inheirit Brown's estate if Oliver is surpressed. This greedy man conspires with the Beadle and with Fagan to get rid of the Oliver. Lean compresses this material well; the best scenes remain. The fall of Bumble and his wife is still one of the great scenes of all times. "The Law, sir, is an ass. The law, sir, is a bachelor."
Now to Alec Guiness's Fagan. Anti-semiticism was so ingrained in Britian that neither Lean nor Guiness saw anything wrong with making Fagan into a Nazi's dream of a Jew. Made up in a fright wig and a nose that longer than anything outside of a puppet show, Guiness presents Fagan's charm and evil as he would have played Shylock, the uncious cheat, liar, and villian, corrupter of children and receiver of stolen goods. Indeed, in the catalog of villians in English literature Fagan is second only to Shylock. So outrageous did post-Holocaust audiences find this Fagan, the film's distributor cut some of the more disturbing close-ups for American audiences.
Even Dickens realized he had gone too far back in the 1830's: he wrote wholly good, kind, and emasculated Jewish characters in later books, but the damage was done. Fagan is at no time presented as a relious Jew; even as he awaits hanging, he refuses to see Rabbis who come to him. Fagan is also somewhat psychotic, and collapses mentally the night before he hangs. To many people in the Europe Fagan and Shylock represented the Jewish People, not Moses, Albert Einstein or Moses Montefiore. This is a legacy of misunderstanding and hate with with we Red Sea Pedestrians must deal with every day.
This is great filmmaking and one of my favorite films. "Oliver Twist" is one of Lean's great films, and certainly the finest interpretation of Dickens on-screen, but the sorrow, the pity, the death camps, the suicide bombers, and 2000 years of violence against my people cannot be ignored simply because this is a work of art.
I watch it and weep.