David Lean completes his Dickens double, following 1946’s Great Expectations. Alec Guinness’ Fagin understandably attracts all the attention; “the Jew” is an extreme caricature, accentuated both in performance and make-up (which referenced the original illustrations for the novel). The controversy ensured the film was banned in Israel for being anti-Semitic (and didn’t get released in the US, in edited form, until 1951). Curiously, it was also banned in Egypt for being overly sympathetic to Jews.
But the real star is the beautiful, atmospheric monochrome cinematography from Guy Green; possibly even more lovely than his work on Great Expectations.
Robert Newton makes a convincingly shambling, violent, alcoholic mess of a Bill Sikes. The scene where he attacks Nancy (Kay Walsh) is chillingly rendered; Sikes' dog, scrabbling and yelping at the door of the room, trying to escape, as his master bludgeons her. Anthony Newley also makes an impression as the Artful Dodger.
John Howard Davies’ cherubic performance (and bafflingly RP delivery) is a bit too good to be true, and some of the choices for the adaptation leave threads or characters hanging (Monks’ relationship to Oliver is never spelled out). There is a sense of compression to the narrative too that makes Oliver’s encounters seem hurried at times. But it’s not as if Dickens’ tale is watertight anyway (it’s an extraordinary coincidence that Oliver should just happen to end up in the house of this grandfather; it’s not really any less so when he’s just the guardian of Oliver’s aunt as in the novel).