I couldn’t say for certain, not being a staunch devotee 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 holds up. 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 didn’t come about, I’d hazard, 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.