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Oliver Twist (1948)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Oliver Twist (1948)
35mm, black and white, 116 mins
Directed byDavid Lean
Production CompaniesCineguild, Independent Producers
Produced byRonald Neame
Screenplay byDavid Lean, Stanley Haynes
Original novelCharles Dickens
PhotographyGuy Green

Cast: John Howard Davies (Oliver Twist); Alec Guinness (Fagin); Robert Newton (Bill Sykes); Kay Walsh (Nancy); Anthony Newley (Artful Dodger); Henry Stephenson (Mr Brownlow); Francis L. Sullivan (Mr Bumble)

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Orphaned Oliver Twist runs away from the harsh workhouse to seek his fortune in London, but quickly gets caught up in a gang of pickpockets led by the sinister Fagin.

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David Lean's second attempt to bring Dickens to the screen is no less detailed in terms of sheer cinematic craft than its predecessor, Great Expectations (1946). Oliver Twist (1948) is a visually lavish spectacle which demonstrates a meticulous sense of planning and foresight. Occasionally, however, Lean's attention to clear visual storytelling, and his skilful composition of each shot, is at the expense of the kind of pictorial characterisation which Dickens revelled in.

However, other strengths make the film a classic of British cinema. Chief among these is Alec Guinness's performance as Fagin. Guinness balances a powerfully theatrical performance of looks and gestures with the pathos of his carefully pitched dialogue. He is almost alone in the cast in capturing the spirit of irony that began to be such a feature of Dickens' work with the publication of Oliver Twist. This was an irony that was evidently lost on many overseas spectators: in the US the film was initially banned on the grounds of 'anti-semitism'.

Oliver Twist was only Dickens' second novel - less monumental than much of his later prose, like Bleak House or Little Dorrit. Consequently, there is less of a risk for Lean in bypassing any mention of the Maylie family, for example, or cutting out disturbing scenes of the condemned Fagin in his cell. These are significant omissions if we are interested in judging the film solely by its faithfulness to the book. But they are entirely justifiable to maintain the force of the central narrative in a medium that requires more economy than did a lengthy Victorian novel.

John Howard Davies is still perhaps the most memorable and affective Oliver yet seen on screen; the delicacy of his speech, and his muted, often awkward movements perfectly capture the sense of confinement that define the character. Robert Newton's Bill Sikes is another highlight; the most relaxed performance Lean ever let slip through his directorial net.

The depiction of London is also a key factor in this film's success. The stark lighting is somewhat softened by the sooty feel of London, and this makes for a perilous atmosphere whenever the story takes us onto the streets. It is the first of Lean's films to attempt an epic scale with real confidence and assurance. When set against some of the overblown visuality of the later work, Oliver Twist may be the very best of Lean's 'big' films.

David Parker

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Video Clips
1. To the workhouse (3:10)
2. 'I want some more' (2:35)
Casting Appeal film (0:56)
Production stills
Publicity materials
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Bryan, John (1911-1969)
Davies, John Howard (1939-2011)
Denham, Maurice (1909-2002)
Dors, Diana (1931-1984)
Edwards, Henry (1883-1952)
Green, Guy (1913-2005)
Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)
Harris, Jack (1905-1971)
Lean, David (1908-1991)
Morris, Oswald (1915-)
Cineguild Productions
Children on Film
Dickens on Film
Literary Adaptation