Skip to main content

This would never have happened if you'd kept him on gruel.

Oliver!
(1968)

(SPOILERS) I couldn’t say for certain, not being an enormous fan of the genre, but I suspect a key ingredient of a great movie musical isn’t only the quality of the songs, but also their presentation. If the latter is distinctive and captivating, the chances surely increase for the movie as a whole to be too. Oliver! has more than its fair share of memorable songs, but what it lacks is their memorable presentation or performance. It arrived towards the end of a glut of 1960s adaptations, during which time studios were keen to milk every last potential property for all it was worth; it was duly successful and duly feted (winning an undeserved Best Picture Oscar), but it remains rather bereft of inspiration. One thing it can boast in spades, though, are sets. Oliver! gives good sets.

Ever eager to strike an internally discordant note, to swim against any consensus of one’s expectation of her take – unless it’s a De Palma movie – Pauline Kael came out singing this adaptation of the 1960 stage musical’s praises from the Victorian rooftops. In her review The Concealed Art of Carol Reed, she called Oliver!a civilised motion picture, not only emotionally satisfying but so satisfyingly crafted that we can sit back and enjoy what is going on, secure in the knowledge that the camera isn’t going to attack us and the editor isn’t going to give us an electric shock”. I suspect you can see where this is going. In Oliver! there is always a reason for the camera to be where it is”. It is not left “rotting on the screen, like My Fair Lady”. She proceeded to justify the artifice and anodising of Dickens, rather unconvincingly asserting that Reed “sustains the tone that tells us it’s all theatre” while transforming a stage production that offered a “detestable kind of mediocre respectability”.

Kael concluded, like a reactionary curmudgeon, surprisingly so, given many of those she would fete during the subsequent decade, that “In this context of a search for new ways of integrating material on the screen, the unostentatious work of a man like Carol Reed may be both behind and ahead of what is now exhaustingly fashionable”. Really, her take on Oliver! comes across as a laboured attempt to justify an adaption that is frequently plain and inert, short on the verve and spark and brio found in the very best of its genre and saved, as much as it is saved, largely by the art department. Who knows why she was so partial to the picture; if one were to have taken a guess as to her response, it would have been that she’d savage it.

Upon revisiting musicals I haven’t seen since childhood, it quickly becomes evident that my formative response tended to be one that carries holds out. There’s a reason The Sound of Music or West Side Story (the latter to a point) or How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying are every bit as engaging as they once were, and why Oliver! elicits the same grudging indifference. Not the songs: Food, Glorious Food, Consider Yourself, Pick a Pocket or Two and I’d Do Anything are just a few that are first rate. But the performances thereof and the framing – the choreography is fine, and often, with something like Who Will Buy? highly impressive – are never more than serviceable. There’s no sense of enthusiasm. Carol Reed’s second musical, I’d hazard, didn’t come about because he really wanted to return to the form, but because Columbia gave him a licence to print money.

Oliver! won six Oscars (with another Honorary Academy Award going to choreographer Onna White). They included Best Picture, Director, Score and Sound. The one it undoubtedly deserved is Art Direction. Oliver! is a huge production, with huge sets rendering an extraordinarily huge vision of a dilapidated – yet cosy – Victorian London. Well, when we aren’t in the posh neighbourhood of Oliver’s uncle Mr Brownlow (Joseph O’Connor), at which point Reed confusingly reverts to natural locations, rather breaking the spell and mood. Generally, as you might expect from the director of The Third Man, Reed seems much more comfortable establishing his environment than tucking in to the insistent musical numbers.

Done well, Oliver Twist makes for a compelling adaptation, but Reed lets it drift. It isn’t as paddle-less as the following year’s Dr. Dolittle, but on the other hand, at least Dr. Dolittle is wilfully oddball at times. You wish there was a little of the atmosphere of David Lean’s Oliver Twist, or the gritty edge of the 1980s BBC Sunday classic serial. It was suggested during The Movies That Made Me podcast that Reed was copying his shots from the Lean version. If this was the case, I can’t say I was aware (certainly, I’m doubtful all those Dutch angles were David’s). However, if Oliver! appropriates several plot points – Sikes kidnapping Oliver, Brownlow as a relative – Reed fails to take inspiration where it counts.

Kael attempted to sell it as a positive, but there’s next to no sense of danger in Oliver! Only the director’s nephew, cast as Bill Sikes, kindles any sense of urgency or drama (Oliver Reed reportedly terrified the young cast by remaining in character throughout). Ron Moody, reprising his stage performance, is a very likeable, wholly unthreatening Fagin, kvetching up the Jewishness when he breaks into song (Pick a Pocket or Two, notably), but otherwise remarkably indifferent and unremarkable. Fitting to his ineffectuality, he also escapes the gallows to embark upon further criminal adventures with the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Wild is very good – albeit he’s side lined in the third act – but Mark Lester is a woefully winsome cypher, buffeted from scene to scene like an inconsequential football and only ever making an impression when Kathe Green takes over to provide his cherubic singing voice.

Harry Secombe and Peggy Mount are fine as Mr and Mrs Bumble. Leonard Rossiter is a standout in an early scene as undertaker Sowerberry (you yearn for more of that kind of expertly comic exaggeration). Good performances too by the bulldog and the owl. Unfortunately, Shani Wallis is an utterly unmemorable Nancy, so creating a significant imbalance when it comes to climactic events.

Unlike Kael, I can well see why Oliver! remains an evergreen stage musical. It has the songs for a start, and by its nature, it welcomes a younger audience. As a movie, though, its gargantuan appetite is at the expense of the virtues of economic delivery: the kind of thing that often got the better of an otherwise decent director during the period. This is a two-and-a-half-hour musical that devoutly resists flying by.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Just a little whiplash is all.

Duel (1971) (SPOILERS) I don’t know if it’s just me, but Spielberg’s ’70s efforts seem, perversely, much more mature, or “adult” at any rate, than his subsequent phase – from the mid-’80s onwards – of straining tremulously for critical acceptance. Perhaps because there’s less thrall to sentiment on display, or indulgence in character exploration that veered into unswerving melodrama. Duel , famously made for TV but more than good enough to garner a European cinema release the following year after the raves came flooding in, is the starkest, most undiluted example of the director as a purveyor of pure technical expertise, honed as it is to essentials in terms of narrative and plotting. Consequently, that’s both Duel ’s strength and weakness.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

You are not brought upon this world to get it!

John Carpenter  Ranked For anyone’s formative film viewing experience during the 1980s, certain directors held undeniable, persuasive genre (SF/fantasy/horror genre) cachet. James Cameron. Ridley Scott ( when he was tackling genre). Joe Dante. David Cronenberg. John Carpenter. Thanks to Halloween , Carpenter’s name became synonymous with horror, but he made relatively few undiluted movies in that vein (the aforementioned, The Fog , Christine , Prince of Darkness (although it has an SF/fantasy streak), In the Mouth of Madness , The Ward ). Certainly, the pictures that cemented my appreciation for his work – Dark Star , The Thing – had only a foot or not at all in that mode.

Sleep well, my friend, and forget us. Tomorrow you will wake up a new man.

The Prisoner 13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling We want information. In an effort to locate Professor Seltzman, a scientist who has perfected a means of transferring one person’s mind to another person’s body, Number Two has Number Six’s mind installed in the body of the Colonel (a loyal servant of the Powers that Be). Six was the last person to have contact with Seltzman and, if he is to stand any chance of being returned to his own body, he must find him (the Village possesses only the means to make the switch, they cannot reverse the process). Awaking in London, Six encounters old acquaintances including his fiancée and her father Sir Charles Portland (Six’s superior and shown in the teaser sequence fretting over how to find Seltzman). Six discovers Seltzman’s hideout by decoding a series of photographs, and sets off to find him in Austria. He achieves this, but both men are captured and returned to the Village. Restoring Six and the Colonel to their respective bodie

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.