Directed By: Carol Reed
Starring: Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed
Tag line: "More of a Masterpiece Than a Musical!"
Trivia: As of 2013, this is the last G-rated, family film to win the Best Picture Academy Award
Winner of the 1968 Academy Award for Best Picture, director Carol Reed’s Oliver! is based on Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel, Oliver Twist, which follows the exploits of a young orphan as he struggles to survive on the streets of London. A lighthearted musical full of wit and charm, Oliver! shies away from the novel’s darker elements, giving audiences a version of this classic tale the whole family can enjoy.
One morning, in the workhouse where he lives, a hungry Oliver (Mark Lester) breaks the rules by asking for a second helping of food, causing the facility’s caretaker, Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe), to sell the “rebellious” youth to local undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter). After a short time with his new benefactor, Oliver runs away, getting as far as London where he meets a boy named Jack Dawkins (Jack Wild), also known as the “Artful Dodger”. An experienced pickpocket, The Artful Dodger is one of many homeless kids working for Fagin (Ron Moody), a professional thief. In exchange for food and lodgings, the Dodger and his friends walk the streets of London, stealing as much as they can, and turning their ill-gotten gains over to Fagin. Fagin then splits the loot with his partner, Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), a violent drunk who shares a flat with kindly girlfriend, Nancy (Shani Wallis). Since he has no place else to go, The Artful Dodger brings Oliver home with him. Fagin trains the boy in the finer points of picking pockets, but when Oliver is arrested his first time out, it leads to a chance encounter that could change his life forever.
While the story itself may have been toned down to appeal to a wider audience, the film’s various set pieces remind us that Oliver! takes place in an impoverished corner of England, where people cheat and steal in order to survive. From the dank workhouse to the back streets and alleys of London, each set is brilliantly detailed, bringing the old city’s seedier districts to life. As for the cast, Oliver Reed is flawlessly sinister as Bill Sikes, while the talented Shani Wallis belts out such memorable tunes as “Oom-Pah-Pah” and “As Long as He Needs Me”. But it’s Ron Moody who steals the film as the conniving Fagin, a performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Playing a character that’s equal parts hero and villain, Moody even gets a chance to show off his singing voice (which is much better than I expected). Strangely enough, the movie’s weakest turn is delivered by Oliver himself, Mark Lester, who’s fine as the wide-eyed youngster experiencing London for the first time, yet comes up short whenever the role demands a bit more.
Dickens’ Oliver Twist has been brought to the big screen a number of times, most recently in 2005 by director Roman Polanski. The majority of these adaptations focused on the story’s dramatic elements, whereas Oliver! took a more upbeat approach to the material, showing us that, even in the midst of abject poverty, you can usually find something to sing about.