Musical adaptation about an orphan who runs away from an orphanage and hooks up with a group of boys trained to be pickpockets by an elderly mentor.
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OSCAR winner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Music, Best Sound
Movie musicals used to be popular, and why not? They’re tuneful, nice to look at, and really, a movie ticket is cheaper than a theatre ticket. Of course, not every movie musical is a total delight; some are frankly intolerable. But there are some masterpieces out there, those that most successfully rework the original play for the screen, upping the ante and coming out with the best, most ambitious adaptations possible. More importantly, at the heart of all the flair, these films don’t forget to tell a good story about memorable characters. It’s that human element, more so even than the music and visuals, that makes the likes of Carol Reed’s 1968 movie “Oliver!” so brilliant. Adapted from composer-lyricist Lionel Bart’s West End musical, which was in turn based on Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel “Oliver Twist,” Reed’s film features spectacular production numbers and sets, but keeps the warmth and cleverness of Bart’s original work.
The film opens in a workhouse, where an orphan named Oliver Twist comes under fire for requesting a second helping of his daily gruel. Sold to an undertaker, the boy runs into trouble again when he defends his late mother’s honour. Escaping to London, Oliver takes up with an old pickpocket named Fagin and his band of thieving young street urchins. We eventually learn that Oliver comes from a wealthy family, and when fate intervenes, he has a chance to live in comfort with his mother’s kindly uncle. But there’s a serious obstacle: Bill Sikes, a sadistic thief who stands between Oliver and his only chance of happiness. It falls to Nancy, Sikes’ long-suffering lover, to help the boy find the home for which he has always longed.
This film’s tone is so charming that it’s easy to forget how bleak the story really is. This is due in part to the classic songs, which are incredibly catchy. It’s hard to watch this movie without humming “Be Back Soon” or “It’s a Fine Life” for hours afterward, but it’s such good music that it isn’t a terrible price to pay. Bart’s lyrics are also some of the most inspired in musical theatre. For example, he rhymes “duchesses” with “as much as is,” and even comes up with a rhyme for “Fagin” (“bring the plague in”). The film doesn’t contain all the music from the original stage play, but the most important songs are retained. In fact, one omission makes a world of difference: the song “My Name,” Bill Sikes’ solo number. The villain sings this song when he first appears, and gives the audience a list of all the dastardly things he’s done in his time. The tune still shows up in the film, playing at a slower, more ominous tempo to emphasize the character’s menace. Sikes’ introduction is particularly well-handled in this respect; rather than singing about how fearsome he is, he remains silent while the instrumental and his glare tell you all you need to know.
Also keeping the story from getting too grim are the colourful characters, all of whom are wonderfully played. As our young hero, Mark Lester (aided by singing double Kathe Green) is a sympathetic but feisty little waif, while the incredibly talented Jack Wild makes a cheeky Artful Dodger. What really works about these kids is the absolute honesty of their performances. They aren’t putting on an act; they just behave like the children they are. For instance, keep an eye on Mark Lester: there are times when he just appears to be in his own world, daydreaming like kids do. Lester and Wild, and all the children for that matter, are so genuine that they never seem too precious to be true.
As for the adults, they are all excellent, but a few in particular stand out. Harry Secombe makes an amusingly pompous Mr. Bumble, who rules the workhouse with an iron fist but bows to the will of his wife. His haunting rendition of “Boy For Sale” is a highlight, particularly when it comes to that sustained final note.
With his hulking frame and ice-blue eyes, Oliver Reed is simply terrifying as Bill Sikes. The frightening thing about Sikes is that nobody realizes how dangerous he really is. Fagin tries to cheat him, the boys all aspire to be a big-time thief like him, and even a slap across the face isn’t enough to make Nancy appreciate her lover’s true nature. Accompanied at all times by his dog Bulls eye, Sikes will trample anyone – women, children, and old men alike – who stands between him and his loot. The actor rarely resorts to shouting to get his point across, as his low, growling voice is more than enough to give the audience chills. Of particular note is the scene in which Sikes threatens Fagin’s life. With his hands fastened around the older man’s throat, Reed almost conversationally asks him if he’s ever heard the sound of chicken being strangled. It’s in this moment that the audience – not to mention Fagin – sees at last that Sikes is too unhinged to be dismissed as a mere bully.
Nancy, played with strength and compassion by Shani Wallis, is one of the most interesting female characters in musical theatre. In a genre full of one-dimensional heroines, Nancy is a tough, good-hearted woman whose greatest weakness is her loyalty to an abusive man. Not only does that make her highly sympathetic, it also makes her an eternally relevant character. At first her devotion to Sikes is unwavering, but it is finally challenged by her need to help Oliver. She is determined to make sure the boy doesn’t grow up like she did, thieving for others and struggling to survive. Apart from being a fascinating character, Nancy has four major songs in this film, including the famous ballad “As Long as He Needs Me,” so the audience has plenty of opportunities to enjoy Wallis’ powerful voice.
Arguably, the real star of “Oliver!” is Ron Moody, who is a force of nature as the wily, aging pickpocket Fagin. Moody originated the role on stage, and received a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal in the film. Even today, it’s quite difficult to accept anyone else in the part, since Moody inhabits it so completely. The actor takes what could have easily been a caricature and turns him into a surprisingly complex, endearing character. He excels as the comic relief, but oddly enough, toward the end of the film, the audience is almost more interested in Fagin than in Oliver. That might sound like a bad sign, but that isn’t the case. It’s just that Fagin is a more interesting character than Oliver, and besides, the old man’s future is far less secure than the boy’s. Whereas Fagin goes to the gallows in Dickens’ novel, he is fortunately spared here, leading to a crowd-pleasing final duet between Ron Moody and Jack Wild.
Although both are outlaws, the film makes a clear distinction between a man like Fagin and a man like Sikes. In the song “Reviewing the Situation,” Fagin explains his moral code, confessing that “[he’s] finding it hard to be really as black as they paint,” and that “it’s wrong to be a rogue in every way.” Although he employs children to pick pockets for him, it’s easy to see the old man’s affection for the kids. There’s no denying he and the Artful Dodger are perfect partners-in-crime, and Fagin quickly develops a special place in his heart for the innocent Oliver. Seeing something remarkable in the boy, Fagin offers up one of the most memorable lines in the film: “If you go on the way you started, you will be the greatest man of all time.” In these words, we can sense the same hopes that Nancy has for Oliver: that he can have a bright future. Fagin doesn’t see, as Nancy does, that the boy has a real chance to live a good life, but he can still appreciate the purity he sees in him. It’s a beautiful moment, and it occurs mere moments after the riotous “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.” Moody does a phenomenal job of incorporating all the facets of Fagin into his performance, so his more sombre scenes seem just as natural as his comedic ones. From his first appearance up until his triumphant exit, the actor captivates the audience and creates one of cinema’s most memorable characters.
Carol Reed manages to keep all these actors working successfully together, so that each character gets a satisfying amount of screen time. The director also handles the pacing very well, keeping the plot moving along without short-changing the story or the music. The production numbers, “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?” are nothing short of breathtaking. Although each scene looks like it must have been a nightmare to shoot, they are both well worth it. Their complexity and precision are just remarkable, and they’re a perfect example of talent meeting ambition. The smaller numbers are excellent as well, and range from raucous group efforts (“Food, Glorious Food,” “ I’d Do Anything,” “Oom-Pah-Pah”) to moving solos (“As Long as He Needs Me,” “Where Is Love?”). There are plenty of scenes without songs, such as Sikes’ desperate escape attempt. Thankfully, these don’t drag in comparison to the exciting musical sequences. Everything fits seamlessly together and keeps the story moving forward, whether it’s through song or dialogue.
“Oliver!” took home eight Oscars, including Best Picture and an honorary award for Best Choreography (Onna White). Today, it remains one of the best-loved musicals of all time, and that isn’t just because it’s so nostalgic. It’s just a brilliant adaptation of a wonderful stage show, and continues to win new fans to this day. With the success of some recent movie musicals, it seems the genre is on the rebound. Still, it won’t be easy to measure up to the standard set by “Oliver!”