Oliver Reed, Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Harry Secombe, Shani Wallis, and Jack Wild in Oliver! (1968)


(director: Carol Reed; screenwriters: Vernon Gilbert Harris/ Lionel Bart/from the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: Ralph Kemplen; music: Eric Rogers; cast: Ron Moody (Fagin); Shani Wallis (Nancy Sikes ); Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes); Harry Secombe (Mr. Bumble); Clive Moss (Charlie Bates); Mark Lester (Oliver Twist), Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger), Hugh Griffith (The Magistrate), Leonard Rossiter (Mr. Sowerberry), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypole), Joseph O’Conor (Mr. Brownlow); Runtime: 153; MPAA Rating: G; producer: John Woolf; Columbia; 1968-UK)
“Has little bite.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sir Carol Reed (“Bank Holiday”/”The Third Man”/”Odd Man Out”), a renown director in decline in his later years, bases this sugary version of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist (one of many film versions since the silent one in 1909, with David Lean’s straight dramatic version by far the best of Dickens) on composer Lionel Bart’s 1960 witty English musical stage version and later Broadway hit. It’s a lighthearted musical romp that covers such topics as child labor exploitation and disappoints mostly because it has little bite. But that didn’t stop this crowd-pleaser from winning six Oscars including ones for Best Picture and Best Director, and a special award to choreographer Onna White.

The many songs include the following: “Food, Glorious Food,” “Oliver!” “Boy for Sale,” “Where Is Love?” “Consider Yourself,” “Pick a Pocket or Two,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Be Back Soon,” “As Long as He Needs Me,” “Who Will Buy?” “It’s a Fine Life,” “Reviewing the Situation” and “Oom-Pah-Pah.” Though the score is not great, it’s lively and well performed–with the tune of “Who Will Buy?”, that opens the second part, being the most memorable, most visually pleasing and the best arranged number. It takes place on the West End square, and features one of the many impressive sets designed by John Box in the Shepperton Studios in London. The film was budgeted for ten million dollars and did a smashing box office business.

The film, through mostly songs, follows the trajectory of the familiar storyline of Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a 19th-century, 9-year-old, English orphan who is a lad of noble birth but finds himself in the cheerless workhouse for orphans. Oliver irks one of the workhouse factory owners, the self-righteous Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe), by asking for another serving of gruel and he sells the lad as an apprentice to the miserly undertaker Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter). When Sowerberry’s assistant, Noah Claypole (Kenneth Cranham), disses Oliver’s mum, the lad runs away and heads for the streets of London to make his fortune. There Oliver meets the 15-year-old Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), and he offers him lodging in a dilapidated, abandoned building. Artful introduces Oliver to the ruthless Fagin (Ron Moody), a sly old thief who trains and uses homeless boys to be pickpockets for his East-End gang.

When Fagin gang members attempt to lift the rich Mr. Brownlow’s (Joseph O’Conor) wallet, the innocent Oliver is caught and the real culprits escape. At Oliver’s trial, Brownlow is touched by the boy’s earnest pleas of innocence and brings him home to live at his big house in Bloomsbury. Fagin fears that Oliver will rat him out to the police, and thereby sics Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), a villainous associate, to bring the lad back to him. Sikes has his common-law tart wife, Nancy (Shani Wallis), lure Oliver into a trap.

The film settles into being safe family entertainment by sugarcoating most of Dickens’ bitter digs at English society and whitewashes most of the noted Dickens’ poisonous satirical dialogue; the limited screenplay by Harris is stagy and shies away from the noted hard-hitting Dickens look at poverty and squalor. But the acting is adequate: Moody makes for a properly sinister Fagin, as he plays him as a somewhat likeable scoundrel in a musical-hall manner; the English gal who went to America to get her break, Shani Wallis, plays her whore-with-a-heart-of-gold role to the hilt; Oliver Reed’s malevolent gruff heavy has the right balance between charisma and menace; Lester’s angelic looking Oliver is sweet and with enough pathos to make his plight believable and Wild’s Artful Dodger, a spirited wise-guy kid with street-smarts, plays off well as a contrast against the innocent and soft Oliver.