Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968) is a musical version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. More directly, it owes its roots to Lionel Bart’s Broadway-bound spectacular. Oliver! also holds the dubious distinction of being the last G-rated motion picture to win Best Picture. With songs like Consider Yourself, Boy For Sale’ and ‘Food, Glorious Food’ the original stage run was a resounding critical and financial success. Yet, in translating the play to the big screen – and despite superlative production values – the film version is something of a confined studio bound cliche. In truth (and with a few exceptions) Dickens has consistently translated rather poorly to the big screen. But Oliver! seems particularly problematic. This is a titanic lumbering road show movie musical made at the height of such nonsensical tripe. It's too big for its own good and much too big for the subtle tale its attempting to tell - rather awkwardly and at times with a thoroughly leaden thud.
Oliver! stars precocious Mark Lester as the irrepressible street urchin, suckered into the lair of a vagabond con artist by The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) and forced into a life of crime by Fagin (Ron Moody). However, when Oliver is salvaged from the slums by a benevolent philanthropist, the murderous reprobate Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) decides to make a quick buck off the trade. Sikes forces his girlfriend, Nancy (Shani Willis) to lure Oliver back to the slums where he is kidnapped and held prisoner for ransom. But Nancy eventually has a change of heart – one that will cost her dearly.
Carol Reed was one of Britain's most celebrated film directors, whose career will forever be anchored to two films: this one and the much more memorable The Third Man. The musical was not Reed’s forte and he proves it with pacing that is turgid and stagy. Even the musical numbers only seem to come to life in sporadic fits and sparks. Onna White's choreography is salvageable, if only Reed and cinematographer Oswald Morris would stay on it long enough. Instead, we get a sort of precursor to today's modern music video - a chop job of various angles of the same dance routine clumsily strung together. Oliver! is really more of a terribly faithful photographing of the stage show than it is a movie musical. It never excites us the way movie musicals ought, but relishes extolling the Dickensian atmosphere which is quite palpable thanks to John Box's lavish production design.
While Oliver! is chocked full of stellar talent, it nevertheless lacks the luster of a major star attraction to push it over the top. Originally, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were briefly considered for Nancy and Bill. For whatever reasons, this deal was never made. In fact, Oliver Reed’s performance is the best thing about this film. The worst is Mark Lester’s blond moppet – left to theatrically cringe and coo at varying intervals without really understanding the inner strengths of his character. His performance is so close to pantomime it hurts. No really - it does!
Sony Home Entertainment has repackaged Oliver! several times – always with the identical and very impressive widescreen transfer. Colors are solid, rich, vibrant and bold. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are incredibly deep. Fine detail is fully realized. Age related artifacts are present but do not distract. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and has a remarkable spread across all five channels of the sound field. The film is divided across two sides of a single 'flipper' disc. The break comes at the point of intermission. There are no extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)