By Thomas Griffiths (Cardiff)
One of my all-time favorite movies is Carol Reed’s Oliver. There’s a certain phrase that certain critics have trouble saying, and that is that a certain movie is one of the greatest movies of all time. I have no fear in saying that Oliver is one of the best movies ever made. The movie is based on the ingenious novel by Charles Dickens – which is one of the oldest classical novels of all time as well as one of Dickens’s best, the only competition really is Great Expectations. Anyway, I’d like to talk about the film in-depth. There’s going to be spoilers in this review – you have been warned.
The opening sequences of the film are really great: the title sequence is upbeat and iconic, and it has so many Victorian elements in it. Then we get this opening song, which describes the thoughts of the orphans in this workhouse, that they are starving and tired and are so, so overworked. That’s the ingenious thing about this movie: pretty much every single song in this movie is a soliloquy for a certain character. Then we get to meet our first villain – we get to meet the great Harry Secombe as the formidable Mr. Bumble. Harry Secombe, though he only appears for a few minutes in the movie at all, is so impactful in this movie. I got chills when we see him and his wife walking towards the dinner tables, you get the sense that he is an authority figure, a formidable man, the top of the food chain. There’s this scene where he says ‘If that’s the law, sir, then the law’s an ass. If that be the eyes of the law, sir, then the law’s a bachelor!’ and I looked at him and said ‘There…that’s great acting’.
We get this scene where the orphans are drawing lots, and this kid called Oliver pulls the long string, so he picks up his bowl and walks up to Mr. Bumble, and I have to say that I was on the edge of my seat in this scene. All eyes were on him, and the look on Bumble’s face is just classic. Then he straight up says ‘Please, sir…I want some more’. I have always loved the way that Mr. Bumble screams ‘Mooooooore!’, and then we get treated to our next great song, Oliver, and Oliver is sold on the street to the local undertaker – I have to say that the sequence where Bumble sells him was actually very heartfelt for me. I have to talk about Oliver Twist as a character – he is so innocent in this movie, the whole time he’s a victim of circumstance, or of what other people do with him. Hardly anything is his own choice, and still his character is so relatable.
The section of the film where he sells Oliver to that undertaker chap, you get so much stuff about Mr. Bumble. You understand that this guy is powerful and a real force to be reckoned with. He raises his voice a lot, but when others run, he walks. When others scream and cry, he whispers. He is such a pragmatist, and when people say Oliver’s gone mad, Bumble says ‘It’s not madness, ma’am, it’s meat! You’ve overfed the boy, this would never happen if you kept him on gruel.’ And, when he takes Oliver out of that coffin, he just explodes into rage and picks him off the ground, then puts him in the cellar. This is where Oliver gets his only solo song in the entire movie, and it is….tear-jerking. I nearly cried, cos his voice was so sweet. He was so innocent, so sad, it was so real. Then we get a part where he travels to London, Dick Whittington style, and runs into this kid called the Artful Dodger, and this guy looks like a Pride and Prejudice extra. We get a really well-done song, and then he takes Oliver through the slums of London to this nest of pickpockets, where we meet Fagin.
Ron Moody is incredible as Fagin – so funny, so likeable. His character is fantastic, he’s really iconic. In fact, he is one of the few people to look truly awesome emerging from smoke in his first scene. In fact, throughout the film, you start to doubt that he’s even a villain at all, his character is so fantastically portrayed. His first personal number, ‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’, is one of my favorite musical songs of all time. Throughout the film, he has these moments where he makes such points that you suddenly understand why he does what he does. But, then, he goes down to this pub, and suddenly he looks terrified. ‘Is he…here. Mister Sikes. Is he coming?’ And you get that there’s something, or someone, he’s afraid of. That’s another impressive piece of the movie, the aversion between light and dark, and this scene is really dark. We meet Bill Sikes, and he looks just…so malevolent, so scary, people doubt that he fits in with this movie. He is the only main character with no likeable qualities in the entire film, which just tells you that this guy is the main villain. He is the cat among the pigeons, he is the Lord Voldemort of this movie. Oliver Reed does an amazing job at acting out this character as the villain.
The character of Nancy is possibly meant as a breath of fresh air in the movie, because she acts and looks like a very normal person – she’s not a cunning thief, not a violent psychopath, not a runaway orphan. She’s a perfectly normal character. She looks like she doesn’t fit in with the likes of Fagin and Bill, but still she is caught between them. And she’s an optimist. Throughout the film, she’s an optimist, her songs are really happy. There’s only ever one song she’s a part of where she’s on the edge of tears, and that’s what makes her character so powerful. The thing is, Nancy and Oliver and Oliver’s grandfather are the only human beings in the movie, when all is said and done. They all do what they do because they are trying to do something good. And they’re all attracted to each other, trying to help each other, but it all revolves, in the end, around Oliver. They are all trying to protect him from the brutal world that they all live in.
Another thing I love about this movie is that it is impeccably dark, in the long run. Nothing is easy in this movie, everyone is trying to escape or achieve something the hard way. Bill Sikes is trying to rob a house, Nancy is trying to protect Oliver from him, Mr. Brownlow is trying to protect him. And they all have inner demons. They all have regrets. There’s this one scene where Nancy complains that she’s been doing Fagin’s dirty work since she was a kid, and you understand that she’s a very hardened young woman underneath it all. This is so brilliantly done that, when you find songs that are breathtakingly optimistic, they all become so emotional – it shows that there are two sides to almost every character, especially Nancy (One side where she’s happy-go-lucky and enjoys life, and another where she’s hardened and sharpened by the hardships that she has experienced in her life). There was one song where it’s an early morning and Oliver starts this song that everyone joins in, and I mean everyone. Then there’s this really great shot where it pans in on Bill Sikes, and he’s glowering up at Oliver from the shadows. That’s another thing – Bill Sikes brings an amount of gloom that the film really needs, which makes it such a realistic film. Everything about Bill Sikes is dark as hell.
The one scene that always terrified me in the film was at the climax, when Nancy tries to escape with Oliver and Bill chases them. Before that, Fagin even calls out, ‘Careful, Bill, please, no violence!’ and the rest of the scene is completely without music. It’s like Jaws without music, because you know that Bill will do something terrible and are just terrified by not seeing what it is. They get to London Bridge, and Nancy tries to get Oliver to cross the bridge, when Bill just *explodes* on to the screen and drags her out of sight and beats her to death. This is the one time you feel like you’re in Oliver’s body, watching it all happen, because the movie pans between Bill, out of sight, beating Nancy to death, and Oliver’s terrified little face. That is one of the most powerful death scenes in a movie, and you don’t even see most of it happen! But then you get this really unexpected scene where Bill Sikes stands over her body, looks at his hands and realizes what he’s done. From that moment on, Bill has completely lost the plot. Fagin and Oliver and everyone are terrified of him. Not only that, but Bill himself is absolutely in pieces about it, he’s stammering, he’s lashing out, he’s doing so many things that you haven’t seen him do at all in the past.
Then we cut to what is possibly my favourite part of the entire movie – the climax. We get this silent argument between Bill and Fagin, and suddenly the police arrive with an angry mob and Fagin just screams ‘Quick! Boys! All of you! We’re changing lodgings!’ it’s awesome. It’s really exciting, actually. I still enjoy the entire finale of the film. We get Fagin escaping his lodgings, but then he drops his treasures in the mud and we get him fishing desperately for it, and we get the despair that he feels, the despair of a thief. But the best part of this movie, by far is Bill Sikes’ death. He takes Oliver as a hostage as he battles the police, and there’s the final part where he has to Tarzan to another rooftop. The stunt work in that scene is just riveting! All of the stunt work in this movie is amazing – especially the scene where Oliver nearly gets run over by a train – but this, the way its portrayed, the actors’ reactions to everything, that is the way the climax of a movie should play out. The musical score is magnificent, because it builds, it intensifies, it gets so much fiercer when Bill is suddenly hit by a bullet and everything just…stops. There’s no music after that, just Bullseye the dog’s whining and Bill Sikes swinging lifelessly on a rope. That was just….epic.
And now we get our final scene with Fagin and Dodger, and we get a reprise of ‘Reviewing the Situation’, which is surprisingly insightful into his character, and implies that he might be close to changing his ways…when Dodger turns up, and the two of them become thieves for life, as partners in crime, like the Batman and the Robin of thievery. Then we cut to the final scene in the film, which involves Oliver being returned to his family with Mr. Brownlow and you can’t help but feel elated at such a happy ending.
I adore this movie, obviously. I think it’s one of the best movies ever made, certainly one of the best 20th century movies ever made.