Those unfamiliar with David Leans 1948 version of the story of Oliver Twist, written by Charles Dickens in 1837, may ask what makes this version different from all other productions of the same name. The answer is that it is the most haunting of all versions with dark dingy lodgings as worn out as the characters themselves. It shows Victorian poverty at its worse, it emphasises a cut throat society through wretched characters that literally stand in the shadows, conniving and waiting for opportunities which otherwise may not come their way.
In the opening scene a figure (Josephine Stuart) stumbles across the moor beneath a full moon wincing in pain needing a place to rest to give birth to her baby. Lean introduces her pain with a shot of a branch of thorns which sway above her symbolising not only her physical, but emotional pain of being alone and desolate in the world. Eventually we see a light from the workhouse in the distance, standing alone it symbolises the isolation of Victorian poor. Eventually Oliver’s mother reaches the workhouse gates and the next scene is one of heartbreaking realism as she lies in a cold damp room after giving birth to Oliver who lies beside her on the floor. When his mother dies Oliver is snatched away into the lower levels of the workhouse where we see `God is love` and `God is good` on each wall in case each miserable wretch that enters forgets the message of Victorian hypocrisy.
This film is well cast throughout. Francis L. Sullivan plays the torturous and undignified Mr Bumble with extraordinary greed and self indulgence. As Oliver (John Howard Davies) is delivered by Bumble to the home of Mr and Mrs Sowerberry we are drawn into further personalities superbly acted including that of the intolerant Mrs Sowerberry (Kathleen Harrison). This of course is great casting which opposes the personality of the timid Mr Sowerberry (Gibb McLaughlin).
John Howard Davies is well cast as Oliver Twist with his naïve but hardened face and the characterisation hardens as we meet the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) and Fagin (Alec Guinness). These characters convince us of the squalid life they lead as we feel their desperation and their ability for cut throat survival emanates off the screen. Guinness is physically unrecognisable in his role and acts like a weasel which society tires of avoiding with his manipulative and extortionist ways. He gives a superb performance and certainly adds to the long suffering existence of some in the class divided society they called Victorian London. Newley also looks the part with his rough distorted features, and he is certainly worthy of playing opposite Guinness in every scene.
In this production everything is worked out to its finest detail. The handkerchiefs used for `the game`, as popular in every version of a production of Oliver Twist, when Oliver first arrives at Fagin’s abode, are black with dirt and soot, giving an even more realistic visual touch to the squalor and pollution associated with the era. Lean makes sure nothing is hidden from the viewer; all is visually repulsive and unbearably ruthless in the world of the vagrants and their master.
The character which gives a softer touch to the film is the character of Nancy (Kay Walsh). Although still portrayed as a survivor of the streets as with the other characters, Walsh plays Nancy as we would expect a woman who has wised up to the scheming ways of those surround her. She has a hardened attitude and strength of character. Nancy with every gesture of defiance is definitely her own person and Walsh gives the most outstanding performance of all the actors. Playing opposite Robert Newton as Bill Sykes, Newton appears at times to fade against Walsh’s assertive portrayal of Nancy, although Newton does make Sikes his own, he still brings out a man possessed with inner demons, and, like all characters in this film, obsessed with his own survival.
The scenes of the mob as they pursue Sikes to the rooftops is particularly impressive and we are drawn into the suspense and fear of Fagin and his gang who barricade their den and self preservation is rife. Lean makes the most of the haunting alleyways as a climax to the suspense as the viewer is subject to haunting shadows of the mob, giving this production of the story of Oliver Twist an atmosphere unlike any other.
This film opens a door to the lives of the Victorian miserable as well as a film which depicts a haunting story of Dickens tale of child slavery, poverty and crime. If the viewer prefers to see a portrayal of Victorian London as a piece of realism then this film is one for the collection.