Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
United Kingdom, 1968. Romulus Films, Warwick Film Productions. Screenplay by Vernon Harris, based on the musical book by Lionel Bart, freely adapted from the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Cinematography by Oswald Morris. Produced by John Woolf. Music by Johnny Green. Production Design by John Box. Costume Design by Phyllis Dalton. Film Editing by Ralph Kemplen. Academy Awards 1968. Golden Globe Awards 1968.
Preposterously loud and long adaptations of hit Broadway musicals were a staple of sixties films and, while this one threatens to be another soulless experience like My Fair Lady or The Music Man, it is not, mainly thanks to the wise decision to hire a director of the caliber of Carol Reed to make it so much more. Freely adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens, it tells the tale of Oliver Twist (Mark Lester, his singing dubbed by musical director Johnny Green’s daughter), the unfortunate orphan who endures the cruelty of 1830s England, growing up in an orphanage before running away and becoming a member of a band of thieves in the capital city. His tutelage as a pickpocket under shady Fagin (a star turn by Ron Moody) and friendship with the charismatic Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) is cut short when a kindly old man takes him home to raise him as his own. The vengeful and greedy underworld villain Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed, nephew to the director) is never far behind and has no compunctions about abusing his kindly mistress Nancy (Shani Wallis) to get the boy back in the slums. Most of the beloved songs of the stage show are on display (if in some cases rearranged in the story), the best of them those sung by the golden-voiced Wallis, while Onna White’s choreography, which deservedly earned her an Honorary Oscar, brings a vital energy and organic strength to the musical scenes that doesn’t feel like the usual clockwork mechanics that musicals tend to display. Elements of David Lean’s 1948 version are also liberally included, so much so that Lean was upset about this production and demanded an apology from Reed.