Based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, this is a musical adaptation of an orphan who flees an orphanage. After asking for more gruel at dinner, Oliver (Mark Lester) is sold to an undertaker. Fleeing to London, he falls in with a group of boys raised by a man called Fagin (Ron Moody) who uses them to pickpockets. Falsely accused of a theft, he meets a kind man who takes him in, not to pick a pocket or two, but simply because he wants to help him. And this is much to the dismay of one of Fagin’s old pupils, one of the most bloodthirsty men in London, Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed). Stuck in the middle is Nancy (Shani Wallis), a woman who Oliver has begun to trust.
Ever since I was small child when I first read the book and when I was eleven years when we did the musical at school, I’ve loved the story of Oliver Twist. I even managed to see a stage version in London as well. It’s a favourite of mine. From the songs to the narrative to the characters, I love everything about it. It’s one of those stories that has been and will be adapted time and time again. In this version, director Carol Reed brings this classic stage musical to life on the movie screen with the magic and personality a novel of this calibre is worthy of. Oliver! is no The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins but it’s a flipping great musical and an enjoyable adaptation nonetheless.
The transition from play to film is not always an easy one. Even now in 2017 where films are adapted from such and are criticised for doing so. Denzel Washington’s Fences is one that encouraged much of that heat. Yet, there are films like Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire who got it right. And it helps that it stars Marlon Brando (On The Waterfront) and Vivian Leigh (Gone With The Wind). Both Oliver! and A Streetcar Named Desire look like they were written for the screen and not based on an original play at all. Adapting another script is nothing like adapting a novel, a short story or even a poem, and when they get it wrong, it breaks my heart.
Our story takes place in the Victorian streets of gutter London, where the poorest of the poor live not so far from the richest folk. This is where our characters go to free aristocrats of their wallets, watches and anything else of value. Oliver manages to work his way out of an orphanage, finding himself in London where meets a group of juvenile thieves headed by Dodger (Jack Wild), a sharp-tongued pickpocket. The leader of this gang is Fagin (Ron Moody), a scary-looking chap with a liking for all things shiny and he sells these these stolen shiny things for money. He and Bill Sykes reap all the rewards whilst the pickpockets see nothing for their labour.
All is not well in the East End of London town. Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed) and Nancy (Shani Wallis) get entangled with Oliver, Fagin and his band of thieves, and the magistrates. What happens afterwards is an intriguing tale of love, hope, dark goings-on and fantastic musical numbers. Whether you like musicals or not, this tale based on the Dickensian classic is a must watch. From ‘I’d do Anything’ to ‘Food Glorious Food’ to ‘Consider Yourself’ to ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’, Carol Reed’s Oliver! is necessary viewing and it’s based on one of the most naturalist novels in the history of the novel, as well as being true work of art.
Not all is light and happy in this musical, as it mirrors the realist story of Dickens. The bleaker aspects of it are quite graphic, although the performances are really good including Ron Moody as Fagin and Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes. But honestly, Shani Wallis as Nancy was my favourite performance and she was always my favourite character growing up. Despite the scenes involving Sykes’ demise being very melodramatic, I would not expect anything less from a film made in the 60s, even if it is the tail end. Melodramatic death scenes in films like this and James Bond movies of the era are all part of that well-known movie magic of the time.
Oliver! is living proof that British film studios of the 1960s could keep up with Hollywood and provide high quality films. It showed that lots of talent began on the stage, and I think today’s generation of youths could a learn a thing or two from these musicals. Some of the greatest actors today started on stage and going to the theatre is not only for the fifty-something, high art high culture-lovers. With excellent performances, wonderful songs and a story with high naturalist leanings, Oliver! should be on every film fan’s watchlist, if it isn’t already.