Carol Reed gained an international reputation as a director on the basis of three post-war films that took as their focus the problematic lives of orphans and outcasts - Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). But by the time Carol Reed came to direct Oliver! (1968) he was considered by many to be "a talent in irreversible decline". So it is perhaps fitting that this narrative, also concerned with an orphaned boy, resulted in an Oscar.
As Oliver, eight-year-old Mark Lester delivers an understated, natural pathos well suited to the role. Reed partners this raw performance with Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, and while his professional performance has more of the stage school about it, this somehow seems appropriate for a young felon with such street-smarts.
Carol Reed's nephew, Oliver Reed, was cast as Bill Sikes. Although Reed's portrayal is rather lightweight when compared with the dark and permanently scowling Robert Newton in the David Lean version of Oliver Twist (1948), it can still shock at times, especially when he brutally murders Nancy (Shani Wallis) in the shadow of London Bridge. Reed, legendary for his off-screen lifestyle, successfully conveys a Sikes who is decisive, brutal and yet plagued by a faint sense of guilt which seems to dilute his misanthropy.
In fact, the director pulled together a quality ensemble cast, bypassing the pressure from the studio to include a star. Peter Sellers, who had wanted to play Fagin, had committed to other projects by the time production began and so Ron Moody, who had played the role on stage, reprised his performance. What is created from Reed's crafted direction and Moody's magician-like performance is a broadly enjoyable, burlesque version of the famous villain. The hard edges of Fagin, which are felt more keenly in Dickens' novel, are rounded off somewhat. Moody's interpretation makes Fagin as much a clown as a hardened criminal.
While the songs could easily prevent an audience from suspending disbelief, Reed manages to keep the artificiality in check just enough to maintain a human interest to the story. The slums and streets of London are a little too picture-book to be convincing, but the essential theatricality of this musical mean that the exuberance and brightness of the sets seems entirely in keeping with the spirit of the original stage-show.