Admittedly, 1968's Best Picture Oliver!—the film adaptation of Lionel Bart's smash 1960 West End musical—doesn't fully capture the menacing squalor of Charles Dickens' 1837 serial melodrama Oliver Twist (even the credits sheepishly concede that screenwriter Vernon Harris, working from Bart's book, only "loosely adapted" Dickens' novel). But lest we forget, the dark satirist often steered his stories to end well. Besides, if kids take Oliver!'s ripping yarn as optimistic, despite its clear depictions of domestic abuse and street "justice," adult viewers are free to speculate about the urchins who don't get off so easy.
Sir Carol Reed—the great director of The Third Man and Odd Man Out—reminds us of Oliver's ultimately lucky lot right from the opening scene of the picture. Yes, young orphan Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) famously swallows his fear, steps to the front of the workhouse dining room, and asks Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe), "Please sir, may I have some more?" But Oliver does so not out of an exceptional bravery, but because he has drawn the long straw from his goading tablemates. Any of the 70-odd other boys beneath the belied banner "GOD IS LOVE" might have found themselves in Oliver's bare footsteps.
Oliver proves his pluck many times over in the course of his many scrapes, but so do the exploited lost boys in the pickpocketing "employ" of clownish rogue Fagin (Ron Moody), particularly the street-smart Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). No, what finally distinguishes and saves Reed's Oliver is his high-born breeding. Oliver is the lucky lad to escape, but the rest of the orphans will, like it or not, continue in their ambiguous career as survivalists or monsters-in-training. Even a young viewer might cock an eyebrow at lines and lyrics about the boys emulating the terrifying, woman-and-child-beater Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed): "We can be like old Bill Sikes/If we pick a pocket or two."
Oliver!'s greatness isn't located, however, in its tactful but marginal discourse on dark themes. Rather, Reed applies his ingenuity to a potent orchestration of the movie musical. With a skill and energy on par with Robert Wise's treatment of West Side Story, Reed joins performance, music (arranged and conducted by John Green), choreography (Onna White), photography (Oswald Morris), editing (Ralph Kemplen), and production design (John Box) into a seamless whole. Like the three other Best Picture musicals of the 1960s (My Fair Lady and Wise's West Side Story and The Sound of Music), Oliver! makes an epic impact, fully exploiting cinema to chase the intensity of a live musical while also allowing time for intimate expression of character.
Box's extraordinary sets—including a mess of Market Streets, a huge recreation of Bloomsbury Square, and a rickety slum—comprise an amusement-park version of Dickens' 19th Century London, but disbelief willingly suspended, the design marvelously serves White's delightful choreography and Reed's expert staging and composition. Harris and Reed make inventive interpolations to the stage version of Oliver!: Oliver's escape from Mr. Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter) is cleverly timed and expanded upon, attack dogs heighten a home-invasion sequence, and the action climax makes the most of vertiginous practical effects and stunts.
Bart's songs are infectiously tuneful (perhaps to a fault) but two strike deep emotional chords: Oliver's plaintive plea "Where Is Love?" and "As Long As He Needs Me," the ironic, apostrophic declaration of love from Nancy (Shani Wallis) to her abuser Bill Sikes. Serving a polar-opposite purpose are "Consider Yourself" and "Who Will Buy?", both of which serve as panoramic tours-de-force of entertaining excess. Remarkably, neither infusion of joy amid the squalor comes across as absurd—one is a roguish expression of boy-bonding, the other a display of London bustle fit to tie a long-sheltered orphan.
It doesn't hurt Reed to have a top-notch cast. The angel-voiced Lester is a bit logy, but Jack Wild's expressive guile picks up the slack. Moody—reprising his stage role—delivers a superb seriocomic performance that borders the greedy-Jew archetype but smothers it with humanity; his intricately managed lifestyle, with trained owl and magpie-like boys, remains reliably fragile. Wallis's singing and acting chops are both of fine fettle, and Oliver Reed's non-singing performance need only be horrific, in spite of Fagin's yelped reminders of "No violence!": mission accomplished.
Sony's new Oliver!: Special DVD & CD Gift Set repackages the film's original DVD release with a fantastic new extra: the original 14-song soundtrack recording on CD. Each disc is packaged in its own keepcase. Sony presents the film (with Overture, Entr'Acte, and Exit Music intact) in an anamorphic transfer on both sides of a DVD-18 disc—the film is wisely divided at the Intermission (oddly, my copy is mislabeled: side "A" is actually side "B" and vice versa). The lackluster transfer, repeated here from the previous DVD edition, is grainy and soft; surely these issues owe much to the source material, which undoubtedly would benefit from a full restoration.
The film disc also includes three bonus materials: a 1968 Featurette (7:32), a post-Oscar Theatrical Trailer in nonanamorphic widescreen, and a captioned Photo Gallery depicting the poster, program cover, and 16 behind-the-scenes shots. The all-too-brief 1.33:1 featurette includes engrossing B-roll glimpses of the production and interview snippets in voice-over. Given the budget price and the inclusion of the exclusive, recently scarce motion picture soundtrack, Oliver! is a no-brainer purchase.
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