by Allan Fish
(UK 1948 116m) DVD1/2
What right have you to butcher me?
p Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allen d David Lean w David Lean, Stanley Haynes novel Charles Dickens ph Guy Green ed Jack Harris m Arnold Bax art John Bryan cos Margaret Furse
Alec Guinness (Fagin), Robert Newton (Bill Sikes), Kay Walsh (Nancy), Anthony Newley (The Artful Dodger), John Howard Davies (Oliver), Henry Stephenson (Robert Brownlow), Francis L.Sullivan (Mr Bumble), Mary Clare (Mrs Corney), Gibb McLaughlin (Mr Sowerberry), Kathleen Harrison (Mrs Sowerberry), Michael Dear (Noah Claypole), Amy Veness (Mrs Bedwin), Ralph Truman (Monks), Diana Dors (Charlotte), Josephine Stuart (Agnes Fleming), Ivor Barnard (Chairman), Frederick Lloyd (Mr Grimwig), Edie Martin (Annie), Graveley Edwards (Mr Fang), Michael Ripper, Deidre Doyle, Fay Middleton, Peter Bull, W.G.Fay, Maurice Denham, Henry Edwards, Hattie Jacques,
So speaks Fagin prior to capture in David Lean’s once seminal Dickensian film. I say once seminal because somehow it isn’t rated as highly as Great Expectations, made two years earlier. Yet the fact remains that, in this reviewer’s eyes, it’s an even greater achievement than its illustrious predecessor.
So why is it so overlooked? And when I say overlooked I don’t really mean in film guides, which generally give it maximum points, but rather in terms of approbation in the broader scheme of things. The musical remake, Oliver!, can’t have helped and, though technically excellent, Oliver! has nothing to do with Dickens at all, or at least the spirit of Dickens. Another reason may simply be that Great Expectations came first and therefore seemed more innovative and created a bigger splash. To this add the fact that American audiences only saw a butchered version which removed any potentially offensive material to American Jews. This leads to the fourth reason, the slur of Guinness’ Fagin being anti-Semitic. Whether it was or it wasn’t is open to question, but when Fagin cries out “what right have you to butcher me?” no more prophetic word was spoken, for his performance and thus, the film, was butchered. Leslie Halliwell had championed it for years, David Thomson also praises it highly, but having grown up in the UK they had been privy to the uncut version that shows in the UK. Maybe the US Criterion DVD release will help it gain equal recognition (at least) with the earlier film.
So we come to what makes Oliver Twist great and there are many factors. The greatest for me is the fact that, when I think of Dickens, and I’ve read all his novels, I think of grimy streets, social comment and rich characters. Oliver Twist has all this and is set entirely in urban areas, either in the poverty of the town workhouse or in the London streets. Great Expectations, on the other hand, was set largely in rural locales. Credit here must go to Green and Bryan (both constants from the earlier film), whose photography and set design (the fake perspective in the workhouse) are wonderfully authentic (Dickens would have recognised Lean’s capital). And then we have the cast; McLaughlin and Harrison ideal as the Sowerberrys, Stephenson and Veness merely perfect, Davies and Newley spot on as Oliver and the Dodger, with Dear, Truman, Clare, Barnard, Lloyd and young Diana Dors all indispensable in small roles. If Walsh is too old as Nancy, she’s still superb and her death scene is superbly done from the dog’s point of view. However, three performances stand out, Newton’s terrifying yet pathetic Sikes (impersonated by Andy ‘Gollum’ Serkis in the recent TV version), Sullivan’s Mr Bumble (a role he was born to play) and Guinness’ Fagin, a truly hideous creation for all time.
Yet in spite of all this, it’s the opening scenes I remember most, of poor Josephine Stuart hovering between life and death, lightness and dark, trudging her way to the workhouse. The life in the balance symbolism is plain to see, right up to her sad demise (“same old story” says the doctor spying no wedding ring). For me, it’s the most atmospheric scene Lean ever directed in his greatest film. All lives are like candles in the wind (ask T.H.White and Elton John), but Agnes Fleming’s really was.