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.



Popular posts from this blog

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.