Monday, February 7, 2011
The Best Picture Countdown #41: Oliver! (1968)
Director: Carol Reed
Starring: Ron Moody, Mark Lester, Jack Wild
Word of warning to anyone thinking about watching Oliver!, the screen version of the stage play based on Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist: those songs will be stuck in your head forever. Hand to God, I have been at work and suddenly caught myself humming the tune to “I’d Do Anything.” You’ve been warned.
Oliver! is the story of Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), an orphan whose short life unfolds in a series of adventures. He begins the story in a workhouse and then is sold to an undertaker, whom he escapes after being locked in a coffin. While living on the streets he meets the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), a charming pickpocket who invites Oliver to join his gang, run by the criminal Fagan (Ron Moody). Oliver is taught how to pick pockets and comes to know the other figures in these delinquent surroundings, including Nancy (Shani Wallis), the girlfriend of notoriously brutal burglar Bill Sikes (Joseph O’Connor).
After a robbery gone wrong, Oliver ends up being arrested but is quickly cleared and taken in by the victim, Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Connor), who takes pity on Oliver’s condition. However, Oliver is kidnapped back to the slums by Nancy and Sikes, who wants to make sure that Oliver can’t reveal the whereabouts of the gang’s hideout to the police. Meanwhile, Mr. Brownlow discovers that Oliver is his grandson thanks to a locket that had been owned by his long estranged and now dead daughter. As the story heads towards its climax, Nancy attempts to reunite Oliver with Mr. Brownlow, Sikes becomes increasingly desperate, and Fagin attempts to slip away unnoticed. Don’t worry, though, it all turns out okay (except for the characters who end up dying such violent deaths that it contradicts the notion that this is a “kids’ movie”).
First and foremost, Oliver! is an incredibly entertaining film. It is packed with charming and memorable music numbers. I’ve already mentioned “I’d Do Anything,” but there’s also “Pick a Pocket or Two,” “Where is Love?” and the euphemistic “Oom-Pah-Pah.” On a technical level, this is a great movie, its music, art direction, costumes and cinematography are all excellent (the music and art direction would both win Oscars) and the screenplay is very well-written. A big part of the story’s success is that it recognizes that Oliver is a blank, an innocent who pales in comparison to all the colourful characters who surround him. This trait makes him a great narrator in novel form, but making him the centre of a film would have been a mistake, one which doesn’t get made here. Oliver is pretty much established then gently pushed to the side to make way for the Artful Dodger, Fagin (both Wild and Moody would receive Oscar nominations as Supporting and Lead Actor, respectively) and everyone else.
As much as I enjoy Oliver! as a viewing experience, I must admit that it’s a somewhat odd choice as Best Picture, and not just because it comes between the wins of In the Heat of the Night and Midnight Cowboy. It won over Funny Girl, for which Barbara Streisand split the Best Actress Oscar with Katherine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter, also a Best Picture nominee; Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and Rachel, Rachel, a film whose title I can’t even think of without adding “a young girl’s erotic journey from Milan to Minsk” thanks to Seinfeld. It was also released in the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, If..., Once Upon A Time in the West, and Rosemary’s Baby. There were a lot of very exciting and challenging films that came out that year and choosing to reward Oliver! seems almost ridiculously safe. It’s a lovely movie and very watchable but I would personally be hard pressed to include it in 1968’s top five films let alone as the year’s very best.