Oliver! (1968, Carol Reed)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
Of all the incomprehensible things you can do with Dickens as your source material, crafting a musical out of his purposely drab, cynical and next-to-hopeless chronicle of orphaned waif Oliver Twist ranks highly, but Lionel Bart — himself the leader of what would turn out to be a desperately sad life — made mass success out of the idea, and initially walked away with enough money to eat a lot more than gruel. I have not seen Oliver!, the stage musical, but as recently as my own childhood the film was a fair bit more fondly remembered than it seems to be now. And we can argue about the content of the show and movie, of its contextual and tonal appropriateness and whether the thing even makes a lick of sense, but it seems a bit of a waste of time when one disagrees so firmly with its very premise. Oliver Twist should not be rendered as a jolly and cutesy musical, and that’s that. Songs about going hungry, being unloved, being miserable; nefarious killings of good-natured characters; the uncompromising portrait of child labor and endangerment — these are all crucial to Dickens but dressing them up as a fine night out is a bizarre conceit, to say the least, and the movie never manages to justify it.
That’s in part because the matching up of songs to story is among the oddest in any famed musical — the songs don’t really advance the story, nor do they exist apart from it. In fact, they seem to celebrate whatever plot point is currently playing itself out. We open with the wildly discomforting sight of hundreds of children singing about the horrible food they’re being fed by their crooked bosses, in a choreography-suited atmosphere of vastness and dread. There’s nothing that isn’t ugly and horrific about it all, and Bart’s mental health is further called into question when you realize how fucked up even his happy songs are. The legendarily complicated “Who Will Buy?” is a minor key terror that’s more eerie than celebratory; “Oom-Pah-Pah” gives me a chill simply because of the horrifying and traumatic murder it immediately precedes; and “It’s a Fine Life,” source of the film’s sole charming sequence, is about drinking yourself to distraction from the emptiness of your life. Hooray! But that’s all cheerful by Bart’s standards; he’s more comfortable with tunes about artful dodging and picking pickets, lamenting the total absence of warmth from one’s existence, and expressing devotion to the violent asshole in your life.
It would all seem artificial and benign if it weren’t so disturbing, but the world director Carol Reed (of all people) captures is as teeming and scary as that of any horror picture, like Pinocchio‘s Pleasure Island spread to feature length — London is full of secrets, dangers, and monsters, and what makes it worse is the nonchalance of the film itself and all of its characters toward its shades of dark gray and brown, the sadness and strife that permeate everything. It’s not a fun place to visit, and I’m surprised people were so warmed up to it — its attempts to periodically appear chipper and silly fall flat. The film is one long gargoyle staring, grinning down at the families bold enough to try to survive it (two and a half hours, by the way).
The understatement, I suppose, is all quite British and well in keeping with Dickens’ humor, but all the music hall pretenses seem undercut by the story itself, and vice versa. The terrifying adult cast doesn’t help. Shani Wallis’ Nancy is immediately appealing, but Ron Moody’s Fagin is as nightmare-inducing as Paul Berry’s stop-motion Sandman. Worse yet is Oliver Reed’s violent, horribly one-dimensional Bill Sikes, a bastardly barbarian in the novel who’s humanized just enough by the film to become a disturbing portrait of a belligerent father figure, inevitably calling up images of domestic violence that aren’t nearly so dated and, well, quaint as such cheerful memories as child labor and the slums of London. But therein lies another central issue with the picture; we’re distant now from the problems Dickens once meant to enlighten readers about, so now there’s a genuinely unbecoming exoticism to this particular London, something Reed only too happily indulges. The human cost may all be fictional, but its callousness is nearly unbearable.
So this most nihilistic and nightmarish of all musicals comes from an unappealing bloody universe; and does fresh-faced and kind little Oliver himself, his body that of young Mark Lester and his singing voice that of the musical director’s daughter, give us some relief from all the constant unrelenting stress of this disaster? By no means, because in contrast to Dickens, Bart renders him such an empty vessel of no personality and scant appeal that we’re relieved to be rid of him, and have no sense of identification toward him nor burning need to protect him. He never stops feeling like a placeholder, and that’s a thin justification on which to hang all this. This violently unlovable film is one of many I absolutely dreaded revisiting for this project, because it really makes me feel like shit in a way I can’t handle, and on top of that it’s also one of the few that I can honestly say I will take pains not to revisit if I can help it. I don’t know what it triggers in me, deep down, but it’s not fun at all.