Strangely enough, during the turbulent and rebellious 1960s, when civil rights protests, political and social unrest, and anti-establishment views pervaded our culture, the innocuous movie musical dominated the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture a whopping four times over the course of the decade. (Even more incredible, that's just one award shy of the total number of top honors the musical received in the preceding 33 years of Oscar history.) 'West Side Story' (1961), 'My Fair Lady' (1964), 'The Sound of Music' (1965), and 'Oliver!' all took home the coveted gold statuette, and such noteworthy favorites as 'The Music Man' (1962), 'Mary Poppins' (1964), 'Doctor Dolittle' (1967), 'Funny Girl' (1968), and 'Hello, Dolly!' (1969) also nabbed Best Picture nominations. That's quite a haul for a genre often dismissed as insipid and shallow. Yet the musical has always bolstered audience morale by providing escapist entertainment during such trying times as the Depression and World War II, so maybe it was fitting to finally acknowledge the form's contributions during one of our nation's most difficult periods. Unfortunately, all the adulation may have incited a backlash, for after the victory of 'Oliver!,' 34 years would pass before another musical - 'Chicago' - would be named Best Picture. Such are the fickle ways of Oscar.
Still, in a year when the Vietnam War raged out of control and assassins gunned down both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, selecting the largely cheery 'Oliver!' as Best Picture seems at once odd and understandable. Odd because its singing street urchins, cartoon villains (Fagin and Mr. Bumble), and heart-of-gold prostitutes paint a rose-colored portrait of society's underbelly at a time when tolerance for such sugar-coating was at a particularly low ebb, yet understandable because the film distracted the public from the serious issues of the day and, through its ebullient musical numbers and inspirational story, gave us hope that good really could triumph over evil. Sir Carol Reed's film certainly brandishes a dark and disturbing edge during its second half, with the horrifically menacing Bill Sikes symbolizing the distrust, paranoia, anger, and violence that permeated both mid-19th century England and mid-20th century America, lending 'Oliver!' a relevance its fellow nominees - 'Funny Girl,' 'The Lion in Winter,' 'Rachel, Rachel,' and 'Romeo and Juliet' - lacked.
Oliver Twist is arguably the most renowned orphan in all of literature, and his signature line - "Please, sir, I want some more" - is legendary. Yet after he makes that audacious request to the austere and sadistic wardens of the workhouse where he's incarcerated, Charles Dickens' plucky, pint-sized hero begins an arduous journey to find some semblance of home and family. A chance encounter with a spritely pickpocket named The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) leads Oliver (Mark Lester) deep into London's bowels and into servitude to Fagin (Ron Moody), the patriarchal leader of a youthful gang of thieves. After a spell in the trenches, a bit of coincidence and serendipity - this is Dickens, after all - changes Oliver's fortune, but his newfound prosperity doesn't sit well with Fagin's grown-up henchman, the maniacal and sociopathic Bill (Oliver Reed), who fears exposure. Bill conspires to kidnap Oliver to keep him from talking, which outrages his devoted girlfriend, the maternal Nancy (Shani Wallis), who risks her own safety to protect and rescue the young boy.
Dickens wrote 'Oliver Twist' as an indictment of the exploitation and abuse of underprivileged children, who were often treated as slaves in deplorable workhouses and victimized and ignored by a society that refused to take responsibility for them. Reed's film touches upon these potent themes, but the musical nature of the piece softens the sting. A nostalgic quaintness defines this vision of London at the dawn of the Victorian Era, as the movie concentrates more on the fairy tale aspects of Dickens' novel than its social commentary. Though it's impossible to ignore the undercurrent of depravity that courses through 'Oliver!,' there's something innately cute and endearing about dirty-faced ragamuffins picking the pockets of gentleman dandies, and the film does little to quash such an attitude.
Composer Lionel Bart, whose infectious score includes several classic melodies ('Where Is Love,' 'As Long as He Needs Me,' 'Food Glorious Food,' and 'Who Will Buy?' among them), often diffuses the gravity of these situations ('Sweeney Todd' this is definitely not!), and his bouncy tunes tend to derail the narrative rather than expound upon it. Abuse and violence still had to be dealt with delicately in 1968, and the screenplay by Vernon Harris integrates them into the musical's rigid confines as well as it can. If produced today, 'Oliver!' would undoubtedly adopt a more serious air, but the production wins points for its shift toward darkness during its latter stages. Reed, whose best known movies are thrillers, such as the immortal 'The Third Man,' infuses 'Oliver!' with plenty of effective film noir accents that heighten tension as the drama nears its climax. He also eschews any sort of musical finale in favor of a low-key ending that wisely spotlights character and thematic elements, and gives the movie a lovely resonance.
The use of unknown actors adds authenticity to the film, and all involved file vivid, dimensional portrayals. Moody, who received a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination, especially impresses as the greedy, manipulative Fagin, who grooms his orphan charges into criminals. Yet much like Dr. Frankenstein, Fagin unwittingly creates Bill Sikes, an out-of-control, rotten-to-the-core monster, played with explosive menace by a young Oliver Reed, nephew of the movie's director. As the benevolent, masochistic Nancy, Wallis is both tough and tender, and her rendition of the show's signature song, 'As Long as He Needs Me,' radiates with power and warmth.
As a kid (I was 6 when I saw 'Oliver!' during its initial theatrical run), I remember loving the performances of both Lester and Wild. Wild's spirited work holds up well (the diminutive 15-year-old was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), but Lester's portrayal is wildly inconsistent. In the dramatic scenes, he's quite good, but his vapid expressions during his songs devoid them of impact and often break the movie's mood. From the outset, it's obvious Lester's vocals are dubbed (musical director John Green pronounced the actor "tone deaf" and "arrhythmic"), and the reason they sound so odd is because they were dubbed by Green's 24-year-old daughter! The girly intonations emanating from Lester's mouth may explain why the boy looks uncomfortable and disinterested, but such a demeanor in a musical is unfortunate, to say the least.
Yet despite such lapses, 'Oliver!' remains a terrifically entertaining, meticulously produced motion picture that brims with vitality and artistry, and features more than a dozen memorable tunes. Nominated for 11 Oscars, the film won six: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, Best Sound, and Best Score, as well as a special honor for its outstanding choreography. Commercial and critical success usually eludes musicals with serious themes, but Reed's production is that rare exception that pleases on a variety of levels and appeals to a wide range of ages. Though the tale of Oliver Twist has been filmed no less than nine times from 1922 to the present, this is the most beloved and revered version, and it's doubtful that opinion will ever change.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Oliver!' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet featuring photos from the movie and extensive liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A nice step up from the 30th anniversary DVD, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Twilight Time possesses a brighter, clearer picture than its standard-def counterpart, and the source material is much cleaner, too. Gone are the nicks and marks that dotted the DVD, leaving a crisp, well-detailed image that immerses us in 19th century London. Visible, but not overly intrusive grain preserves the film-like feel, and solid contrast provides marvelous depth to such large-scale numbers as 'Who Will Buy?' and 'Consider Yourself.' A muted color palette properly predominates during the movie's bleak first half, but when Oliver's prospects improve after the intermission, so does the liveliness of the picture. Though the green lettuce and orange carrots of the London market add welcome punch to the picture early on, the Bloomsbury Square sequence substantially ramps up the hue quotient, as the red roses carried by the flower girls, the green grass of the common, and the crystal blue sky all combine to create a vibrant mise-en-scene.
Black levels are quite good, especially in the dank hovel where Fagin and his minions reside. Whites, however, really impress, from the copious snow early in the film to the bright exteriors of the Bloomsbury Square townhouses. Fleshtones remain true and stable throughout, and close-ups spotlight fine facial details well. In addition, background elements are easy to discern, shadow delineation is good, and no anomalies like crush or noise could be detected.
This is by far the best 'Oliver!' has ever looked on home video, and those who own the previous DVD shouldn't hesitate to upgrade. If you're a fan of this musical, you'll be quite pleased with the quality of this release.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track infuses 'Oliver!' with more sonic oomph than it's ever had, thanks to excellent fidelity and a striking depth of tone that beautifully shades the warm vocals and robust, Oscar-winning orchestrations. Though a significant volume boost is necessary to maximize the audio's output, once a comfortable level is reached, the track's subtleties and accents really shine through. Unfortunately, despite the mix's multi-channel moniker, almost all the sound is front-based, yet excellent stereo separation (that's immediately noticeable during the overture's initial strains) nicely widens the soundscape and adds sufficient aural interest.
Dialogue is a little dicey; I had trouble understanding both conversations and lyrics due to some nagging muffling. (Cockney accents and mumbled line readings don't help comprehension either.) A bit of distortion during the musical numbers disrupts their purity, but the dynamic scale remains wide enough to handle the soaring John Green score, which easily fills the room. Ambient effects, such as the creaking gears of the grist mill and chirping birds outside Oliver's Bloomsbury Square window, come across well, and any age-related hiss, pops, and crackles have been erased.
Though far from a perfect mix, the 'Oliver!' track nevertheless impresses and provides a fine audio framework for this classic musical. An isolated audio track is also included for those who really want to immerse themselves in Lionel Bart's score.
Most of the supplements are high-def exclusives (see below), but one extra has been ported over from the 30th anniversary DVD.
Another Best Picture winner finally gets a Blu-ray release, and though 'Oliver!' may not be the finest movie musical ever made, it remains a stellar adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens tale. Distinguished by a terrific Lionel Bart score that features a number of instantly recognizable tunes and robust performances by a top-notch British cast, 'Oliver!' rightfully earns its exclamation point and continues to be grand family entertainment 45 years after its initial release. Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation does the film proud with a sparkling transfer that improves upon the previous DVD, solid lossless audio, and a varied array of supplements. Whether you're young or old, 'Oliver!' will wend its way into your heart, and this multi-Oscar winner comes highly recommended.