FILM MARATHON: Movie Musicals #5: Oliver! [1968]

“Who will buy my sweet red roses?”

While I’m reasonably sure I have never seen Carol Reed’s Oscar winning Oliver!, I do recall attending a live performance of it during elementary school. If you asked me two and a half hours ago to give a summation or describe my favorite moments, I would have returned the question with a blank stare of ignorance. I couldn’t even really fake it since my only connection to the source material—I never had to read Dickens in school—is Roman Polanski’s successful adaptation from a few years back, and I’d have no clue how far screenwriter Vernon Harris veered plot-wise. Having now witnessed this memorable spectacular of song, art direction, and especially choreography, (great work, Onna White), I don’t think I’ll have trouble anymore rehashing a version of Oliver Twist. And I don’t see any other take on the tale supplanting this film from topping my list for no other reason than how the memories of it from that performance over a decade ago came flooding back. Lionel Bart’s songs are unforgettable and the actors singing them perfect incarnations of the characters.

Starting, almost back to back, with “Food, Glorious Food” and “Where Is Love”, I was struck with my familiarity to the music—those two being used elsewhere in my memory, the former utilized in a fantastic commercial for Labatt Blue years ago. And then there is the second act’s opening track of “Who Will Buy?”, a hauntingly beautiful beginning that makes way into overlapping melodies from the rest of the village salespeople, spiraling out to the film’s largest dance sequence of pure frivolity and fun. That entire piece really only serves to portray young Oliver’s (Mark Lester) newfound life with Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Conor), a wealthy man with enough honor to take in a homeless boy he falsely accused of theft, trying to make amends—let alone the later revelation of a stronger bond than merely conscience. It is the first time in Oliver’s life that he is able to simply look out the window on a sunny day and bask in the glory of existence and the electricity of joy. A distinct difference from the squalor of filth and neglect before the short intermission—retained cinematically, along with a score lead-in to a resumption of action—this one song fully embodies what could be, right before he’s dragged away again.

The preceding events were a whirlwind from the boy’s unfortunate loss of a bet in the orphanage to ask for more gruel, to making the acquaintance of The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) and his promises of kinship and ‘family’, to an introduction with Fagin (Ron Moody) and his clan of small-handed, ‘innocent’ boys, ripe for pick-pocketing. Just one day into this new life in London, conned by the kindly older gentleman into thinking the pretty things around his lair were made by the boys and not stolen, he becomes the fall guy on a botched job, finding his way into the arms of Brownlow and in the worries of master thief Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed). Seeing Fagin’s frailty and penchant of out-of-place reverence for the boys he employs, one is quick to think there must be another force keeping them in line, a more villainous villain, if you will, that Reed fits wonderfully. Stern-faced and serious, his Sikes is hot-tempered, dangerous, and willing to do anything in order to save his own neck, even if it means risking the wellbeing of his girlfriend and Fagin-regular, Nancy (Shani Wallis). She is the connection between the two men—Sikes the thief and Fagin the fence—in their combustible criminal relationship.

Their lives are turned upside down by Oliver, though, a surprising boy full of love despite the dirty, tough exterior of a troublemaking runaway. He has courage to stand up for what he thinks is right and is never afraid to back down from someone talking ill of his mother nor one who threatens his health. A voice like an angel and the mettle to keep quiet during court about the new friends who took him in make an indelible impression on Nancy and Fagin, giving the latter a reason to smile and act almost fatherly in his care before sheepish cowardice overtakes all other feelings when confronted by the scowl of Sikes. It is these performances that make Oliver! such a magnificent film as we watch Moody’s ability to go from conniving happiness to uncontrollable fear at the drop of a hat. The hold Reed’s antagonist has on him is understandable considering the volatility in his temperament and the masked compassion of the old man. Fagin tries so hard to do the right thing, but as the song states, once you’re a villain, you’re a villain to the end—although I’d like to call him more antihero than anything else. It is only in Reed’s cold-hearted, soulless role that we sense the true danger for Oliver in a lifestyle where trust is hard to come by.

Besides those singled out above, I also need to mention both Wallis and Wild as standouts in what is really an ensemble work. Hers’ is quite possibly the most complex of all the characters, even more than Moody’s. Knowing what her boyfriend does and seeing the darkness within him still won’t erase her love. Strong enough to go against his wishes when the time becomes more dire than she can handle, Nancy is an integral part of the story and the performance includes both an authentic range of emotion necessary for the dialogue and an vibrantly exciting use of song and dance. And Wild is just a fantastically written role I will credit to Dickens above his adapters. Very much in the mold of his guardian Fagin, the boy has a mix of innocence and amorality that simply shouldn’t be possible. You almost can’t be angry at what he does, no matter how wrong, because he cares for those around him. A true friend to Oliver, he shows what can occur if you have the stomach to straddle the line of good and bad. But as we gather from Lester’s portrayal of the titular character, we know it’ll never be his life. Oliver was always meant for more and thankfully the nefarious creatures he meets are willing to help him find his way.

Oliver! 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

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