Oliver! (1968)

1968 was an interesting movie year. It saw the release of Yates’s Bullit, Nelson’s Charly, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Mel Brooks’ original The Producers, Jewison’s original The Thomas Crown Affair, Schaffner’s original Planet of the Apes, and (probably most notably) Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I haven’t seen all of these films yet, personally, but they all have a reputation as being daring, groundbreaking, and/or excitingly, intelligently crowdpleasing. They all have one thing in common: none of them won Best Picture at the 41st Academy Awards. None of them, in fact, was even nominated. The film that won instead was Oliver!, the adaptation of a popular stage musical. And while it’s not a terrible movie, per se, it is neither daring nor groundbreaking, and while it may have been a crowd-pleaser, I’d hesitate to call it exciting or intelligent.

The reason for my hesitation is that the film can’t really seem to decide what its target audience is. Charles Dickens’ original novel is not a children’s book despite the multitude of film and television adaptations it has spawned that aim squarely at the kids. Oliver Twist covers very serious topics and very complicated, dark characters in a complicated and bleak world. There is humour, but it’s bitingly satirical.

Oliver! softens and streamlines Dickens’ plot, of course, but that’s not my main problem with the movie; all adaptations with a mind for mass consumption do that, including Roman Polanski’s recent version which I found to be quite successful. But in Oliver!, an acknowledgment of at least some of the murkiness and ambiguity inherent in the underworld setting exists side-by-side with literally show-stopping musical set pieces and slapstick and funny-face humour clearly aimed at a young audience. With a director like Carol Reed (most famous for The Third Man, 1949), it is perhaps no surprise that the film works best when it commits to the dark undercurrents present in the source material. Other sections of the film are less successful and tend to deflate any built-up tension or excitement.

I’m not usually one to complain about too many songs in a musical, but in this case I’m afraid that’s the most obvious reason for why the film as a whole just doesn’t gel: at about two-and-a-half hours, it’s simply too long. Some of the songs drive the plot forward or develop the characters further, which is how it should be, but there are a number of songs (and not just one or two) which seem to serve no purpose other than padding the film’s length. I don’t doubt they work on stage — the melodies, for the most part, are pleasant enough. And I’m not unimpressed by the coordination required to get hundreds of extras to dance on a fairly realistic-looking set in some of the bigger numbers. But all the spectacle can’t paper over the fact that many of these songs are narratively unnecessary and even a bit tepid. Oliver! doesn’t have one intermission, it has essentially half a dozen, and the sputtering pace breaks the film’s back. It’s gravely boring particularly in its first half because it never recovers from the constant starting and stopping.

It’s a pity, because I think a pared-down version of the movie which either highlighted the material’s light-hearted aspects or committed to its darker ones could have been quite successful. The adult actors are a bit hammy, maybe, but that’s okay with this kind of story; their performances are uniformly satisfactory. And I do find many of the songs catchy or at least not grating, but it’s an essential consideration with every successful adaptation to know when to cut even good material for the good of the final film. And Carol Reed (or, more likely, his producers at Columbia) didn’t.

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