After George Cukor's 1935 David Copperfield, I think this is my favorite adaptation of Dickens for film or TV, and god knows there have been plenty of them. What Lean does right is to treat the Dickens book as a fable, not a novel. A novel takes its characters seriously as human beings; a fable sees them as embodiments of good and evil. And there's plenty of evil on display in Oliver Twist, from the brute evil of Bill Sikes (Robert Newton) to the venal evil of Fagin (Alec Guinness) to the stupid evil of Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan) and Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare). Oliver (John Howard Davies) is innocently good, whereas Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson) is a man of good will. Nancy (Kay Walsh) and, to a lesser extent, the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) are potentially good people who have been corrupted by evil. We need fables like this from time to time, just to keep ourselves from despair. The performers are all beautifully cast, especially Davies as Oliver: He's just real-looking enough in the role that he doesn't become saccharine, the way some prettier Olivers do. This is Lean in what I think of as his great period, when he was making beautifully filmed movies with just the right measure of sentiment: Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946) in addition to this one. But he would be bit by the epic bug while working on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and its success would betray him into bigger but not necessarily better movies: Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and the rest of his later oeuvre would have the same attention to visual detail that make his early movies so rich, but they seem to me chilly in comparison. Here he benefits not only from a perfect cast, but also from Guy Green's photography of John Bryan's set designs. There are probably few more terrifying scenes in movies than Sikes's murder of Nancy, which sends Sikes's dog (one of the most impressive performances by an animal in movies) into a frenzy. Running it a close second is Sikes's death, seen from a vertiginous rooftop angle. We don't actually see the death, but only the swift tautening of the rope as he plunges, punctuated by a sudden snap. The film is not as well known in America as in Great Britain, where it engendered controversy: Guinness's portrayal of Fagin elicited charges of anti-Semitism, especially since the film appeared so soon after the world learned about the Holocaust. The truth is, Guinness doesn't play to Jewish stereotypes, but Fagin's absurdly exaggerated nose (which makeup artist Stuart Freeborn copied from George Cruikshank's illustrations for the novel) does evoke some of the caricatures in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer. The film was edited to remove some of the shots of Fagin in profile, and was held from release in the United States until 1951.
A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews
"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude