BR: Oliver! (1968)

April 10, 2014 | By

 

Oliver_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent / Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  November 12, 2013

Genre:  Musical / Drama

Synopsis: Vivid film version of Lionel Bart’s hit stage musical, itself a free adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel about a boy encountering crime and poverty in grimy London.

Special Features:  Isolated stereo score track / 1968 behind-the-scenes featurette / Interviews: Mark Lester in “Meeting Oliver!” + Ron Moody in “Meeting Fagin!” / 7 Sing-Alongs / 3 Dance Instructions / 3 Dance & Sing ALongs / Original Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively at Screen Archives Entertainment.

 

 


 

Review:

Best-known for his sleek espionage and suspense films (Odd Man Out, The Third Man, The Man Between), Carol Reed pulled off a career high with this fluid adaptation of the award-winning musical that was ‘freely’ adapted from Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist.

Featuring music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, Oliver! debuted in 1960 before moving from Britain to the States in 1962, where it was frequently revived for audiences never tiring of its popular songs. Bart’s lyrics are extremely witty, and many of the songs became pop culture classics, especially “Food Glorious Food” with its flowing melody and dynamic harmonics (not to mention chorus ideally suited for TV ads), and the jovial “Consider Yourself.”

In 1948, Reed directed the classic British suspense film The Fallen Idol (1948) in which a boy witnesses the death of a butler’s wife. It’s an affecting story told from the vantage of an impressionable child, capturing the boy’s confusion with overt and secretive adult behaviour, and being manipulated for selfish, dangerous motivations – elements extant in Dickens’ grim tale of child abuse and poverty in over-packed London.

Bart’s adaptation of Dickens’ original tale is fairly straightforward: Oliver (Mark Lester) is sold to a coffin maker after being too disruptive at a workhouse orphanage, but surrounded by the undertaker’s abusive family, Oliver flees for the road, hitching rides until he gets to magical London.

No sooner has he arrived does the boy encounter The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), an ace pickpocket who brings him to Fagin (Ron Moody), a den father who oversees the welfare of a band of young boys and teaches them fun tricks like pickpocketing and breaking into homes to abscond with things silver and gold.

Oliver is entranced by his new friends and home, but through inexperience runs afoul of the law and is arrested. His mark, a wealthy businessman named Brownlow (Joseph O’Conor), takes pity and gives him a home, but Fagin and his combustible lieutenant Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) attempt to snatch Oliver back to ensure the boy doesn’t unmask their criminal activities. With the aid of Bill’s wench Nancy (Shani Wallis), Oliver returns to Fagin’s fold, but becomes the spark which makes many of the surrounding characters question their moral decisions and associations, and reveals the truth about his murky family roots.

Carol Reed spent 6 months prepping and rehearsing with his huge cast to get every scene and shot right, expanding some areas (including choreography) and exploiting the scale of the production by building some extraordinary sets, especially a town centre (which could be redressed for a ‘different’ section of London) and the grungy lairs of Fagin and Nancy’s workplace – a watering hole packed with colourful characters.

Moody reprised the role he developed in the original London stage production, and young Lester brought a strong vulnerability to the central role on an impressionable, sensitive boy who remains likeable in spite of the dark characters that affect his ‘freer’ life outside of the orphanage. Wild is especially strong as Fagin’s smaller but highly influential right-hand-boy, and Oliver Reed is effectively menacing using his physical presence and minimal dialogue to keep everyone in line with hints of the cruelty he’s capable of meting to adults and children.

Two grey areas remain in the musical, though: Nancy’s love for Bill, which is a classic abusive relationship that can’t (and doesn’t) end well; and Fagin being a clichéd portrait of the scheming, criminally minded Jew (which is present in Dickens’ novel).

Fagin’s background is never detailed, but Moody switch from a London accent when delivering dialogue to an ethnically inflected delivery of his songs (“Reviewing the Situation” being the most overt) is a bit jarring, and yet using song to infer the character’s ethnicity without peppering the dialogue without the novel’s pejorative words is quite clever.

The question for viewers, though, is whether Moody’s able to transcend residual clichés, and transform Fagin into a resourceful man whose drive stems from a natural need to safeguard his future by building a small makeshift pension by holding onto the most valuable goods snatched from the group’s victims. In the Blu-ray’s bonus interview, Moody describes Fagin as a clown, with broad behaviour that certainly subjugates traces of distinct ethnicity with a kind of vaudevillian glee for self-attention and audience manipulation. It’s an effective approach that softens Fagin’s history as one f Dickens’ more controversial characters.

Next is Nancy, who expresses her love for the vicious Bill through song. As lovely as “As Long As he Needs Me” may be, it’s a song in which a character justifies her decision to support an abusive lover, and admits no matter how violent things will become, she’ll stay in the relationship in the hope her love will soften and maybe save him from his wicked ways. The lengthy musical sequence is a little tough to watch because while it may have been designed to foreshadow Nancy’s death and explain her decision to remain close to a monster, to contemporary audiences it’s tough swallow because it also shows Nancy as delusional, if not deeply dependent on Bill due to a lack of self-esteem; her determination is therefore more maddening than tragic to modern viewers.

As a director known for thrillers and suspenseful political dramas, it may be surprising to see how well Carol Reed was suited for a massive musical. Part of his success stems from his rapport with child actors, and his perfectionism which resulted in sequences where every movement within elaborate tracking and crane shots are exceptionally choreographed.

Had Oliver! been made today, there’s no doubt pressure to make the film more visually dynamic would’ve mandated the use of extensive cuts and crazy angles. Reed rehearsed and delivered extraordinary detail within single, fluid takes. Perhaps the best example is the finale of “Consider Yourself” which contains just a handful of cuts using masses of extras in the street, a merry-go-round, and a backdrop kept in deep focus.

 

The Extras & Wrap-Up

Like Lost Horizon (1973), Twilight Time’s release seems to be an elaborate special edition planned by Sony for Blu-ray, but unlike Sony’s decision to release that SE only as an MOD DVD in the U.S., Oliver! went through some odd hurdles before finally being released in HD at all.

The extras – the Richard Lester and Ron Moody interviews + sing-along / dance tutorials – are copyrighted 2007, and the European all-region Blu-ray was released in 2012 featuring only the interviews + vintage behind-the-scenes featurette. The sense is the extras were produced for a 2008 40th anniversary edition that was aborted just as studios started to reassess the release of further boxed sets, themed collections, and remastered editions of classic films as home video sales began to plummet.

While the fall European Blu-ray from 2012 was timed for the film’s 45th anniversary, TT’s extras-heavy edition apparently rescues all the completed extras plus adds an isolated score track.

TT’s disc reportedly features the same stellar HD transfer and cleaned up 5.1 soundtrack that’s robust in uncompressed DTS. It’s still a rather coarse mix, though; the songs and bridge material adapted by MGM veteran John Green are exquisite, but the music stems aren’t as clean as expected for a film made in 1968 and reportedly released in multi-track stereo. The isolated score track sounds a little cleaner, and gives fans the chance to hear the entire score.

As cited earlier, extras include separate interviews with Mark Lester (now an osteopath) and Ron Moody (still able to deliver lively renditions of his signature tunes), both of whom provide a strong making-of narrative, plus poignat impressions of the late Jack Wild. There’s also an odd collection of sing-along / dance instructions set so fans can learn some basic steps to the film’s main sequences. (This extra, plus the isolated score track, are not present on the European Blu-rays.)

A theatrical trailer (very sixties in its minimalist design) and the vintage behind-the-scenes featurette from Sony’s still in print (and very ancient) two-sided / flipper DVD from 1998 rounds out the Blu-ray’s extras.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide a sharp breakdown of the film’s main elements, and she addresses the film’s inherent oddness in being the most Oscar-bejeweled film in a year filled with political and war-waging events. (The answer may be quite simple: the musical’s traditional artifice provided badly needed escapism, not unlike the fluffy Technicolor musicals of WWII.) Kirgo also brilliantly sums up Shani Well’s “As Long As He Needs Me” as “a wrenching masterpiece of female masochism.” She also points out how cinematographer Oswald Morris was a camera operator on David Lean’s classic 1948 version of Dickens’ novel, his third-last film before graduating as full cinematographer. Morris would film a string of classics for demanding directors, including Stanley Kubrick (Lolita), and especially John Huston (including Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, The Roots of Heaven, The MacKintosh Man). From the late sixties, however, Morris would become involved with several huge musicals: Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969), Scrooge (1970), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and The Wiz (1978).

Oliver! is one of the classic musicals of the sixties, and arguably one of its last great successes among a wave of big budget old fashioned extravaganzas which studios bankrolled in the hope of swaying young audiences away from low budget indie hits  (Doctor Doolittle, Finian’s Rainbow, and Star!). The film also offered a temporary solution to the dilemma as to which musical studios should produce – award-winning stage hits rather than original concoctions reliant on pure star power, and grandiose production values. (It wasn’t a fool-proof solution, but at least ensured a musical with a prior history came with a built-in structure, audience familiarity, and a talent pool to upgrade name stars with little or no singing / dancing training.)

Reed would director only two more films before his death in 1976 – the little-seen Flap (1970) and Follow Me! (1972) – and in a serious error in judgment, Bart would eventually sell the rights to Oliver! and lose out on a tidy fortune until a 1994 revival in which he participated. Although he was able to support himself by writing theme songs, he also penned the musical numbers in Kirk Douglas’ TV version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1973) – a truly wretched endeavor in music and drama.

In the wake of his success, Mark Lester starred in a handful of films – Run Wild, Run Free (1969), Eyewitness (1970), Black Beauty (1971) Scalawag (1973) – plus a few obligatory shockers – Night Child / Diabolica malicia (1971), Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972) – but after the star-studded period drama Crossed Swords / The Prince and the Pauper (1977) which included Oliver! co-star Oliver Reed, Lester retired from acting and eventually became a osteopath.

Co-star Jack Wild would attain stardom in the classic kids series H.R. Puffnstuff (1970) and reteam with Lester in Melody (1971), but he too would find it tough being a former child actor trying to find work during Britain’s weakening film industry. After appearances in a few U.K. series, Wild would have just a handful of small role before passing away in 2006. Shani Wells would soon return to the stage, appearing in a few TV and film productions.

 

 

© 2014 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
IMDB  —  Soundtrack Album  — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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