Oliver Twist (1948)

Directed by David Lean
Written by David Lean & Stanley Haynes

Everybody knows the story of Oliver Twist, at least somewhat. I had actually never seen an adaptation of it however, and I didn’t know what to expect from this one by famed English director David Lean. The story has never much fascinated me: an orphan kid struggles, runs away to London, and gets involved in the wrong ring of pickpockets. It is entertaining enough, but it never fully catches me and brings me in, it never really strikes a nerve, at least with me.

What was strong about the film were the performances and the imagery. Starting with the best performance, the kid that played little Oliver Twist himself. He was so soft spoken and so broken, yet so strong willed and independent. His drive and desire to survive were impressive and the kid plays him so well. Everyone else gave strong performances, but a word on Alec Guinness. His character, Fagin, is why this film is in this marathon. He portrays the Jewish man in such a stereotypical and negative manner that it is offensive. Whether they knew what they were doing or not is irrelevant. Now the performance itself was alright, but the character that Fagin becomes is what is offensive. Now a word on the look of the film, as it was my favorite part of it. The shot composition was beautiful. Every shot was clearly thought about and it looked great on the restored Criterion Collection black and white. A beautiful film to behold in that regard.

My response to the film, apart from its implications in my paper, was mild. The story held me enough to get through it, but not enough to really involve me, the same can be said of the performances. What I found most impressive was the steady hand of the camera, which captured the story in all of its beauty. I would say that the adaptation could be done better, and I did notice that Roman Polanski recently did one, maybe that one is better, but overall a decent film, but not a great one.

Commentary on Anti-Semitism

I don’t know who is to blame. Is it Dickens? Is it Lean? Or is it simply Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Fagin? Fagin is a ridiculous character. Sure, there needs to be a man who controls these kids and is the evil guy, but why must religion come into play? Why must he have the biggest nose I have ever seen? And the most animalistic, greedy tendencies? Why must he be the caricature of a Jewish man and not simply a Jewish man, or better yet just a man? Whichever way you look at it, the character is anti-Semitic and unnecessarily so.

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