On a visual level, I can't imagine a better adaptation of Dickens. This might be the most gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of all time. It's consciously harking back twenty years to German Impressionism and the results are stunning. You couldn't do these visuals in colour. They'd look cartoonish and absurd. However drenched in shadows and shot almost like a silent film, as here, it becomes the perfect vehicle for Dickens's carnival of the grotesque and fantastic. I've never seen a better match of style and content. At times it even looks like a Hogarth engraving, which is perfect since the original novel had a Hogarthian subtitle: The Parish Boy's Progress.
The rest of the film's a bit so-so, but you can't have everything.
The biggest problem was always going to be the story. Oliver Twist was only Dickens's second novel, if you think The Pickwick Papers counts as a novel at all. It's written with such blazing energy that any possible flaws are blasted away like a butterfly in a nuclear reactor, but its plot is blatantly a cobbled-together string of brilliant chapters that meander wherever the hell Dickens felt like going at the time. It's founded on the world's biggest coincidence. Its lead character is mostly helpless in the face of forces greater than himself. For an adaptation, these are problems.
This film's solution is to embrace the original. The script is an intelligent but punctilious adaptation that does some pruning but hardly adds a thing. Despite what you might think, even gruesome stuff like the fate of Sikes comes straight from the novel. So, yes, Oliver gets a bit to do early on, but soon turns into a plot coupon. The resolution comes through the bad guys hitting the self-destruct button. Brownlow is so saintly that he hardly exists as a human being. Well, that's Dickens for you.
A related problem is the characterisation. It's easy to play a juicy baddie, but Dickens's heroes don't come off well here at all. Henry Stephenson is a lovable Brownlow, but he fails to add that extra dimension that's lacking on the page. Worse yet, John Howard Davies is downright annoying as Oliver. He's efficient enough at doing everything the script requires of him, but that's all. More specifically he's a scrawny whey-faced brat with the most ludicrous Little Lord Fauntleroy accent. It makes him look like a ponce while making no sense whatsoever. You can see why the filmmakers threw it in. Oliver's actually the descendant of an upper-class family and his accent's clearly meant to demonstrate that, but goodness knows where he managed to acquire it since he's been in the workhouse since the moment he was born. The actor would have been fine if it weren't for that.
That's not the end of it, though. The Artful Dodger looks like a twat and is forgettable. The Artful Dodger! For crying out loud, people! Can I go back in time and give David Lean a kicking? However I liked some of the villains. The Bumbles are glorious, Robert Newton is scary as Sikes and Kay Walsh gives the film's one great performance as Nancy. She's unstoppable in the role. As an aside, she was married to David Lean at the time and had helped write the adaptation of his previous classic Dickens adaptation, Great Expectations.
Then there's Alec Guinness. This might take some time.
For a start, just look at him. Check out that nose. It's ludicrous, but it's also a deliberate attempt to recreate George Cruikshank's illustrations in the first edition of the novel. Again they're being faithful to the original, but this was a time that was, to put it mildly, not particularly enlightened in matters of race. This film got banned both in Israel for being anti-Semitic and in Egypt for making Fagin too sympathetic. Meanwhile Jewish pressure groups managed to delay its release in America until 1951 and even then it was missing seven minutes. Bearing in mind historical events around then, both in Europe and America, it's hard to feel that they didn't have a point. Even Dickens himself ended up defending himself from criticism in the Jewish Chronicle some years after writing the book and took pains to include a sympathetic Jew in Our Mutual Friend. Mind you, it's also been said that he based Fagin on a real 19th century Jewish criminal whom he interviewed during his time as a journalist. The man was called Ikey Solomon and he ended up being transported to Australia.
However to me, Guinness's Fagin just looked a bit daft. For the most part he's a cartoon, although he gets a chilling scene when you realise that it's basically him who murders Nancy. Bill Sikes is simply his weapon.
My other problem is that the film isn't funny. The novel's first couple of hundred pages are an absolute scream, although I don't know if it would have been possible to lose the prose and yet keep the killing sarcasm. Nevertheless it seems wrong to see a Dickens adaptation without jokes, although I did laugh at Mr Bumble's damnation of the law. Marriage. There's a scary threat. This film has wonderful grotesques and can be sinister, both of which help to conjure up a world that feels Dickensian. There's real evil here, embodied both in murderous villains and in self-satisfied pompous asses. I loved all that. However I'd have liked to have laughed a bit more too.
There are some treats tucked away for the attentive viewer. Diana Dors has a minor role and Hattie Jacques gets a cameo as a pub singer. There's an almost subliminal flash of Kay Walsh's nipple after Bill Sikes pulls her out of bed. Yes, in a classic film from 1948. Awesome. During one chase scene, there's a brick wall that wobbles. However perhaps my favourite was Bill Sikes's frightened dog, who's damn right to be scared and ends up being one of the plot's most significant players.
This is unquestionably a great film, if only for the visuals. You'll never see a better Dickensian workhouse. Dark, filthy, hard-edged and yet gleefully grotesque, this is a London where the police shoot at Sikes without even trying to catch him first. Amazingly it's not sentimental, although its happy ending isn't even remotely believable. It also has some sequences with imagery so extreme as to be almost hallucinogenic, such as the murder of Nancy or Oliver's mother staggering across the moors to the workhouse. Those startled me. I never expected to see something so experimental in a film of that era. I'll be buying more David Lean at the earliest opportunity.