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Oliver! Movie Review

moody reed ron awards

1968 – Carol Reed –

Most people have heard of Charles Dickens and his famous fictional orphan Oliver Twist, but few realize that the 26-year-old writer was one of the first men to explore the link between poverty, ignorance, and crime. Victorians looked upon criminals (children or adult) as morally depraved and innately bad, and more than forty crimes were punishable by death during that century. Enter Dickens, and his picture of a young boy, delicate and naturally kind, starved and beaten and sold by a system that denies his essential humanity in London of 1830. This same boy finds the first kindness and care of his life in a den of thieves. They are cynical, of course, hoping to transform him into a pickpocket, but Oliver is torn between following the impulses of right and being loyal to the gang. Add a touch of passion, several kidnappings, a housebreaking, and a gory murder, and you have the plot of Oliver Twist.

What is remarkable about this musical is that it keeps the basic attitude of the novel. Yes, there are songs and dance numbers aplenty, many laced with rueful humor. Nancy (Shani Wallis) sings a comic ballad about being judged harshly by those who “don't have to sin to eat.” There is color and motion and choreography—but what a difference between the dark chaos of the pubs and alleys, and the light order and symmetry of the world of the rich. No wonder Oliver (Mark Lester) wants to buy and keep “this beautiful morning” when he supposes himself safe with kind Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O'Conor).

Repeating the role he first perfected on stage, Ron Moody as Fagin walks away with the picture, and renders the gang leader/fence so well that his portrayal supplants any imaginary one when the reader returns to the novel. He has that perfect blend of high spirits and self-interest, sneaky cruelty and sly humor—he sings his own motto when he reviews his situation and realizes “I'm a bad un and a bad un I will stay.” Even the horribly sinister Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) makes one stop and wonder what childhood formed him thus. And Dickens himself realized that the prostitute Nancy was the character best drawn from life: belonging to the streets from infancy, longing to escape, and yet bound by cords of emotion and loyalty to her dark world and its people. Musical and drama blend seamlessly here to create Hollywood storytelling at its best and truest to the spirit of the original. At least eight other versions of the tale have been filmed, including Disney's animated Oliver and Company, with the characters depicted as cats and dogs.

Songs: “Food, Glorious Food,” “Oliver,” “You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “I'd Do Anything,” “Be Back Soon,” “As Long As He Needs Me,” “Boys for Sale,” “Consider Yourself,” “It's a Fine Life,” “Oom Pah Pah,” “Reviewing the Situation,” “Where is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?”

Cast: Ron Moody (Fagin), Shani Wallis (Nancy), Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), Harry Secombe (Mr. Bumble), Mark Lester (Oliver), Jack Wild (Artful Dodger), Hugh Griffith (Magistrate), Sheila White (Bet), Peggy Mount (Mrs. Bumble), Joseph O'Conor (Mr. Brownlow), Wensley Pithey (Dr. Grimwig), Hylda Baker (Mrs. Sowerberry), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypole), Leonard Rossiter (Mr. Sowerberry), Fred Emney (Workhouse Chairman) Screenwriter: Lionel Bart, Vernon Harris Cinematographer: Oswald Morris Composer: Lionel Bart, Johnny Green Producer: Donald Albery and John Woolf for Columbia Running Time: 153 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1969: Adapted Score, Art Direction/Set Decoration, Director (Carol Reed), Picture, Sound, Score, Special Oscar to Onna White for choreography; Nominations: Actor (Ron Moody), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Supporting Actor (Jack Wild); Golden Globe Awards, 1969: Actor—Musical/Comedy (Ron Moody), Film—Musical/Comedy; National Board of Review Awards, 1968: 10 Best Films of the Year Budget: $10M.

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