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Oliver! (1968)



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"Is it...gone?"

Oliver! is not the greatest film ever made -- but it's up there. And it also happens to be my personal favorite film of all time. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it won five, including Best Picture and Best Director (Carol Reed), and deserved every one.

Oliver! is a filmed version of the Broadway play of the same name, which is a musical version of Charles Dickens' literary classic, Oliver Twist. The spectacular cast includes the heartrending Mark Lester as Oliver Twist, Harry Secombe as the stuffy Mr. Bumble, Shani Wallis as Nancy, and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger. Oliver Reed makes one of the most chilling screen villains of all time out of his performance as Bill Sikes. And Ron Moody, the piece de resistance, is an unbridled delight as Fagin, a character that can be shifty, hilarious, menacing, or meek, and supremely convincing at all. His exaggerated eye rolls and snake-like hands are greatly entertaining mannerisms of his delicious scene-stealing performance.

In spite of the songs, the story is told faithfully, not just in what happens but in the way it happens. The recreation of old England is spectacular and expansive and, when the scene shifts to the poorer districts, not always pleasant. (Fagin's hideout is as slipshod and grimy as he is.) The harshness and poignancy of Oliver's troubles, and the sweetness and relief of the end of his quest for love are starkly vivid.

All the songs are good, and a great many are spectacular. Oliver's sweet rendition of Where Is Love? is downright heartbreaking. The grand scale Consider Yourself and the rejoiceful Who Will Buy? are so full and thriving with elaborate sets, costumes, props, and movement that there's as many fascinating things to see as there are to hear. Yet, consistent with the rest of the film, Fagin's songs are the most delightful and memorable. His nimble prancing is the highlight of Be Back Soon; clever tongue twisters that of Reviewing the Situation; and his humorous antics and anecdotes that of You've Got To Pick a Pocket Or Two.

This movie not only makes an effective use of music, though, but it also knows how to utilize sound during the non-musical portions, too. This is most evident in the scenes with Bill Sikes, where the film turns deathly silent. His cold introduction is a fine example: Fagin meets him in secret to receive stolen goods. Sikes is quiet. Fagin fidgets nervously underfoot in his presence -- his subdued praises and excuses and distant merrymaking are the only sounds we hear. The scene is powerful, both emotionally and with regard to characterization. After it, there is no question about the complex relationship between the two. Later on, Sikes makes Oliver help him with a burglary; there again, an ingenious use of silence and noise builds the tension up to the hilt.

And what of Oliver? All he wants to find is a little love, a place where he's accepted and life is good. He's young, naive to the ways of the world -- he looks in the wrong places, not knowing any better. We know what he's after and more importantly what he's going to find. Bouncing around in an unforgiving city, this character, with whom we are immediately and strongly sympathetic, arouses our utmost concern when he lands in with the wrong crowd, and it induces our utmost relief when he pulls through.

With such fascinating characters, great performances, the strength of Dickens' original story, fine musical numbers, skilled direction and editing, effective sets and costumes, and high production values, Oliver! is a truly wonderful film in every sense. It's a classic. See it right now.

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