- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

Filmmakers who reach back for well-known source material — as director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have done, with dismal results, in their new movie version of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” — face an additional sort of jeopardy in the DVD era.Every unsatisfactory replica risks prompt comparison with the superior adaptations that remain close at hand in the video market.

Mr. Harwood was foolish enough to badmouth one of his predecessors, David Lean, whose 1948 version of “Oliver Twist” included Alec Guinness, Robert Newton, Kay Walsh and 8-year-old John Howard Davies in the principal roles. It takes little effort to reassure yourself that Mr. Lean’s picture and Carol Reed’s Academy Award-winning 1968 movie version of Lionel Bart’s musical “Oliver!” remain durably accomplished and entertaining rebukes to the unfortunate upstart.

Mr. Harwood boasted for publication that he intended to remedy the purportedly slow pace and sentimental tone of the Lean production. Those shortcomings must be figments of his imagination. There are so many electrifying sequences in the Lean movie that it can grow awkward trying to keep a tally. They start with a superbly eerie, expressionistic prologue that depicts Oliver’s mother struggling to reach what proves to be the fatal sanctuary of a workhouse on a stormy night.

This virtuoso stretch of atmospherics and pantomime became a textbook example of how to get an immediate grip on the audience. Impressive follow-throughs accumulate for the next two hours.For example, brilliantly stylized terror as engraved in the images of Bill Sikes’ dog scrambling to get out of the room in which his owner, played by Robert Newton, is in a homicidal rage while victimizing his consort Nancy (Kay Walsh, a memorably tough cookie).

The aftermath knots you up all over again: a calmly deranged Bill sitting near the corpse hours later, at daylight, while the dog shivers nearby, awaiting the chance for a getaway.

The Harwood-Polanski adaptation plays tediously from the outset and never acquires a sprightly, let alone gravely powerful, tread. On paper, one would find it credible that Roman Polanski, an abandoned orphan while a Polish child during World War II, feels a special affinity for “Oliver Twist.” Problem is, that link is never persuasively forged in the movie itself.Somehow, Mr. Polanski has settled for a re-enactment that proves a chore instead of a revelation.

Movie versions of the novel, Dickens’ second, a byzantine saga of London criminal lowlife that became a serialized sensation of 1837-38, began to attract notice as early as 1909. The first plausible keeper:a 1922 production co-starring Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods who trains delinquent boys to be pickpockets. One could envision Chaney as Fagin or his cutthroat partner Sikes. Evidently, he settled for Fagin alone.

The fact that Dickens had gone out of his way to identify the wretched Fagin as a Jew gave the novel extra topical incendiary impact. Many of Dickens’ admirers called attention to the anti-Semitic recoil, anticipating grievous social misunderstandings. Over a century later, the Lean movie coincided with the backlash from a political conflict:the enmity between Zionists and the British during the Israeli fight for statehood in the late 1940s.

Zionist pressure groups in both England and the United States claimed that Alec Guinness’ Fagin was an anti-Semitic caricature.Their accusation seems to have astonished the filmmakers, despite the history of the novel itself.Following on the heels of Mr. Lean’s superlative movie version of “Great Expectations” in 1947, “Oliver Twist” was also a success in the U.K., but protests in the U.S. kept it out of release until 1951.Eventually, it was shown in a cut that supposedly trimmed the most offensive elements in the Guinness impersonation.

Half a century later, watching the unexpurgated version on a DVD copy, it’s predictably difficult to account for the uproar. Fagin has a frightful, eagle-beaked, scraggly bearded look, but no one alludes to him as a Jew. Such reminders were constant, and sinister, in the novel.

While re-creating his theatrical performance in Carol Reed’s affectionate and beautifully crafted movie, Ron Moody became the custodian of so many showstoppers that it would have been churlish to punish his Fagin as Dickens punished the original. Obviously a superior performer and capable of at least contemplating reform, the song-and-dance Fagin was permitted a getaway and a fresh start, hoofing into the sunset with Jack Wild as his juvenile sidekick, the Artful Dodger.

The musical version did remove some distasteful encrustation from the source material.An expertly ominous “Twist” was joined by an expertly lyricized “Oliver!” in which song highlights loomed larger than corruption or dread. Fagin and Nancy, though not Bill, could establish a heartfelt melodic rapport with the audience while singing.

The terrors weren’t completely softened.Nancy, adorably robust and tenderhearted in the person of Shani Wallis, still got throttled by her Bill.As the killer, Oliver Reed (the director’s nephew, and a swell argument for nepotism on this occasion) seemed the most potent and intimidating Sikes in movie annals.

Nevertheless, it had become possible to savor another kind of “Oliver Twist”: a predominantly humorous and captivating musical spectacle that dispensed with many aspects of the original while compensating generously in other ways.

TITLE: “Oliver Twist”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (made in 1948, decades before the advent of a rating system; sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional graphic violence)

CREDITS:Directed by David Lean.Screenplay by Mr. Lean and Stanley Haynes, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Cinematography by Guy Green. Music by Sir Arnold Bax.

RUNNING TIME:116 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE:www.criterion co.com

TITLE: “Oliver!”


CREDITS: Directed by Carol Reed.Screenplay by Vernon Harris, based on Lionel Bart’s musical version of “Oliver Twist.” Cinematography by Oswald Morris. Music and lyrics by Mr. Bart.

RUNNING TIME:155 minutes

DVD EDITION:Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment

WEB SITE:www.sonypictures.com/homevideo.

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