"Who will buy" this wonderful DVD version of this classic movie musical? Judge Bill Gibron hopes the answer is every fan of good old-fashioned cinematic entertainment.
"Much, Much More Than a Musical!"
Born into poverty, Oliver Twist (Mark Lester, Who Slew Auntie Roo?) grows up an orphan in a squalid workhouse. When a request for an additional helping of gruel is seen as rebellion, Oliver is "sold" to a local undertaker. He eventually escapes and heads off to London to seek his fortune. Upon his first day in the city, he meets up with Jack Dawkins, a.k.a. The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild, H.R. Pufnstuf). Promising to help him, Dodger brings Oliver to his benefactor and overseer, a grizzled greedy man named Fagin (Ron Moody, The Twelve Chairs). Turns out, Fagin "employs" lots of little boys, teaching them the fine art of robbery and profitable possibilities of pickpocketing. This gang terrorizes the swells of England, stealing from them to scrape out a living.
One of Fagin's more "notorious" accomplices is Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed, Burnt Offerings), a hard-drinking, violent thief with a significantly sinister swagger. Along with his pert prostitute girlfriend, Nancy (Shani Wallis, Terror in the Wax Museum), they rule the slums and sewers of London. When Oliver is arrested during one of his apprentice missions, he is sent before the judge. Eventually, the wealthy gentleman who was victimized takes him in. This makes Fagin and Sikes nervous. Oliver might spill all the information he knows about the pickpocket/burglary ring, and they will be arrested and severely punished. Soon, they hatch a plot to get the orphan back.
Arguably the last great old-fashioned movie musical to receive near-universal critical acclaim, Oliver! has not aged all that badly since it first hit screens more than 37 years ago. The winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1969, and a timeless West End and Broadway show before then, Lionel Bart's astonishing theatrical accomplishment (as composer, he could neither read nor write music—he used to hum or whistle his tunes to an accompanist who would then transcribe them) stands as kind of anomaly in the world of song-and-dance cinema. Incredibly faithful to the classic work of literature by Charles Dickens (though a few main characters are missing, and some of the narrative has been moved about for dramatic license) and equally dank and dark, this is a film of many facets, much more than just memorable songs and a warts-and-all view of Victorian London. Director Carol Reed has made a movie that works both as an adaptation of a classic novel, a salient slice of significant social commentary, and rip-roaring tune-filled toe tapper to boot.
Oddly enough, it is not a faithful recreation of Bart's original show. There are a few songs from the original ("I Shall Scream," "That's Your Funeral," and the Bill Sikes ballad "My Name") that don't make it into the big-screen edition, and certain plot elements have been "shrunk" to fit a non-theatrical running time. Still, what we have here is moviemaking at its highest levels. Director Reed and his amazingly complex cast deliver a film that works both as a tragedy and as a comedy. As a filmmaker, Reed avoids glamorizing the world of Oliver Twist, keeping his 19th Century London big, loud, and tactile. The slums sit over sewers stagnant with filth, while the streets hum and bustle with people of various position and import. Characters are dirty, desperate, and crude, while sets stay buried in soot-stained earth tones and pre-industrial age patinas.
Aside from some minor issues with Oliver himself, all the other actors here are absolutely perfect. Though admittedly the perkiest whore in all of London, Shani Wallis can sure sell a song, and she makes Nancy a natural heroine in a realm thick with thieves. Oliver Reed (Carol's nephew) has never been more menacing than he is here. He gives Bill Sikes a sickening desperation that is drenched in so much evil that he becomes an instant icon of all that is heinous. Jack Wild, an original member of the London stage cast, essays the Artful Dodger with a cheek and a chumminess that's hard to resist, and ancillary entities like Mr. Bumble or Undertaker Sowerberry all have a creative cartoonishness to their appearance. Sadly, Mark Lester sort of sticks out here. Director Reed obviously envisioned his Oliver Twist as an angelic innocent in a world awash in vice and wickedness. But Lester may be too effete to be believable. His wistful boy's choir voice and flawless feminine features can occasionally be distracting. Thankfully, Oliver! is more about the sum than the occasionally incomplete individual pieces.
Which, of course, leads us to Ron Moody's Fagin. A lot has been written about the blatant anti-Semitism in the character, especially as depicted in the novel, and in David Lean's adaptation of 1948. Moody does not accentuate Fagin's Jewishness (no fake nose or Yiddish accent here) and you'd never know his heritage from looks or deeds alone. It is only when Bart's two solo numbers for the character arrive ("Pick a Pocket or Two" and "Reviewing the Situation") that hints of the Hebrew arrive. Bart uses old-world Eastern European folksong strategies for his complicated melodies, rendering both tunes like outtakes from Fiddler on the Roof (though Bart's show predates that musical by four years). Still, it is clear that Moody's portrayal is based in more individual, not ethnic, preoccupations. He is the sad old father figure to a group of boys that society has shunned or set aside. His avarice comes from a fear of being alone, not some stereotypical strategy.
Revisiting this show several decades after its release reveals a few other minor quibbles. Bart is an amazing melody maker, his tunes instantly memorable and hummable long after the final credits have disappeared. But his lyrics lack a little something. During "Oliver!," there's a line about a banister and cockroaches in a canister that sounds just plain stupid. Indeed, it sometimes appears that, desperate for a rhyme, Bart will throw in anything—kangaroo/bright blue, drop/pop/plop. This gives many of his couplets a sad singsong silliness. Also, around the time that Oliver arrives at Fagin's, the film goes a little wonky. This may have to do with the reconfiguration of the show, or due to the fact that, for a good 80-plus minutes, we've been witnessing a sort-of operetta, with most of the action and exposition sung by the cast. When the music dries up, the momentum seems to go askew as well. It does pick up at the point when "Who Will Buy?" creates its set-piece spectacle, but it's safe to say that the first part of Oliver! plays far better than its finale.
Fortunately, these are lesser issues in what is an otherwise thoroughly engaging big-screen festival of sight and sound. While some can argue over the decision to award Oliver! the Oscar in 1969 (considering the competition, it was the clear winner, though how 2001: A Space Odyssey failed to get a best picture nom is one of the medium's grandest mysteries), it's an entertainment that is as potent today as it was 40 years ago. While some musicals get mired in a dated, derivative ideal, Bart's baby stands out for the numerous risks it took and the many conventions it avoided. Considering how clever and concrete it is, it's miraculous that no one has decided to remake the movie, especially with the current trend of mining every possible past genre for redux fodder. Maybe it's a testament to Reed's talent and the impressive production he created that no one has stepped up to see Oliver! twist a second time. Thankfully, the original version is still a fantastically appealing cinematic experience. Fans of Dickens, and musicals, won't find a better example of both in this broad, blustery experience.
Previous DVD versions of this title have been pretty bare bones. Regrettably, Columbia Pictures still doesn't correct the lack of context this time around. We are treated to an ancient EPK from the film's making (it's interesting but very by-the-book and smarmy) and a trailer. Also included, in a DVD case no less, is a CD of the movie's original soundtrack. Though the cover art says that the songs are "not available ANYWHERE ELSE!," a quick trip over to Amazon.com proves that bit of ballyhoo wrong. Maybe they mean "not available ANYWHERE ELSE!…in such an oversized plastic keepcase that won't fit in with the rest of your music collection." While this is a nice added element, it's not something that significantly alters one's enjoyment of the actual film.
Thankfully, the rest of the technical issues are almost perfect. The sole setback here is the dreaded flip disc presentation of the film. While Oliver! was envisioned and released with an overture, an intermission, and a musical epilogue, having to manipulate the disc to enjoy the film feels very old school. Still, the visual and sonic situations preserved by such a two-sided strategy more than makes up for the irritation and inconvenience. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, crisp, and incredibly detailed. Little elements you may have missed the first time around—the griminess of the boys, the splits in Nancy's dress—are easily discernible now. So are the dialogue and the music. The newly remastered Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 does little with the channels when conversations are being had, but once the songs start it, the speakers explode to life. This is the best Oliver! has ever looked and sounded, perhaps in its entire cinematic life. If you don't care about the lack of bonus features, you'll find this DVD to be a wonderful addition to your collection.
It's strange, especially in this day and age of uneven movies providing portions of enjoyment interspersed with facets that just don't work, to witness something as wholly entertaining as Oliver! It is not without its faults, and certainly seems of a specific era in entertainment, but that doesn't mean the movie fails to function. Instead, Carol Reed's impressive direction compliments a crackerjack cast for something that truly transcends its tendencies. Instead of being dull and derivative, Oliver! is light and luxuriant. It truly is one of the best movie musicals of all time.
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