It is with some relief that I turn away from the rise of Nazism, the horrors of the trenches, and anti-semitic pogroms in the last days of Tsarist Russia, and instead apply my attention to musical which is – everyone agrees – almost completely charming and lovely, provided you overlook a few minor elements of the story, such as widescale exploitation of children, violent crime, and an abusive relationship ending in someone being battered to death. At least the anti-semitism this time around is fairly low-key, probably because the gentleman who wrote all the music and lyrics was himself Jewish.
I speak of course of Carol Reed’s 1968 film Oliver!, the last musical for nearly 35 years to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and the last British film to do so until Chariots of Fire in 1981. Despite this, and the fact it has a British cast and director, it still feels like an oddly Americanised version of Charles Dickens, on whose novel Oliver Twist it is obviously based.
The film admits to being a ‘free adaptation’ of Dickens, but most of the bits you probably know from the book are still here (yes, both of them). Oliver Twist (Mark Lester, consistently moist throughout and frequently downright wet) has grown up in a workhouse in Dunstable, but is thrown out when he dares to ask for second helpings after dinner one day. After a brief interval working for an undertaker, he hitch-hikes down to London.
Here he falls into arguably very bad company, primarily that of Fagin (Ron Moody) and his gang of child pickpockets, including the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Amongst Fagin’s connections is the rather more brutal criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), whose devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis) nevertheless takes a shine to the small damp waif. When Oliver falls back into the hands of the authorities, Sikes and Fagin are deeply concerned he may be about to snitch on the lot of them, and their scheme to get him back results in tragedy, as well as a few top-rate song and dance numbers…
Mmm, yes, about those song and dance numbers – there is surely the argument to be made that when it comes to musical films, the overall quality of the actual piece is fundamentally linked to how good the songs are – the tunes are, essentially, the sine qua non of a musical, right? If this is the case, then Oliver! is surely one of the greatest musicals of all time, for the killer-to-filler ratio is so good as to lend credence to the suggestion that Lionel Bart (writer of same) was some kind of musical genius. The problem, such as it is, is really that the film-makers know how good the songs are and possibly milk them just a bit too much. The film’s huge set-piece numbers, primarily ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy?’, seem to go on forever, with more and more dancers turning up as the choruses repeat. And I find it just a bit draining, not to mention the fact that it’s a Disney-picture-book-ish portrait of Victorian London (I can’t quite shake the suspicion everyone involved was sneakily looking at Mary Poppins and working out how to go one bigger and better).
It’s all a bit at odds with the main thrust of the tale, which (as noted) is an essentially dark one (the climactic chase puts me rather in mind of how some Hammer movies conclude, although this may be down to Reed’s long-standing connection to the House of Horror). The most engaging characters in the film, Fagin and the Dodger, are at best amoral rogues, and the scenes in the criminal netherworld are a good deal more interesting than the ones in ‘respectable’ London. But the songs aren’t really about this world, apart from perhaps ‘You Got To Pick A Pocket or Two’, and even this is another cheery little number. Cut from the film, quite possibly because Oliver Reed couldn’t sing, was Bill Sikes’ song ‘My Name’, and as a result Reed has to rely on sheer charisma to make an impression (needless to say, he manages it effortlessly).
The odd tension at the heart of Oliver! is that the theme of what’s quite a dark story is one of belonging and camaraderie – most of the songs are either about the pleasure and comfort of being part of a gang, or part of a world (most obviously ‘Consider Yourself’), or the other side of the coin, feeling lonely and abandoned (‘Where is Love’, ‘As Long As He Needs Me’). Even the utterly brilliant comic character song, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ (which, as performed by Moody, is just about as perfect a marriage of actor and material as anything in the history of musical cinema) has a brief moment of pathos as Fagin contemplates his own mortality and lonely old age.
In the end, though, this is ultimately cinema as grand entertainment, mounted on a lavish scale (complete with overture, entr’acte, and exit music on its original release), and the songs from the original much more intimate stage version of the show thrive here surprisingly well, helped by a very strong cast and great performances (even if, these days, you can’t really watch Jack Wild here without being reminded of everything else that came later in his life). For me there just a bit too much emphasis on jolly spectacle at the expense of the story for Oliver! to qualify as a movie absolutely of the first rank, but it’s still a great piece of entertainment.