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  • Documentaries - A Profile of Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist

Roadshow Entertainment/Roadshow Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 112 mins . G . PAL


After one has experienced it, it's hard to think of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist in any other context than how the tale is presented here in David Lean's masterful interpretation. Though Carol Reed's fantastical re-telling through Oliver! in 1968 is also a wonderful and much loved (and deservedly so) version of the tale, one has to wonder what exactly there was to sing and dance about in Oliver's world.

Born on a dark and stormy night that claims the life of his mother merely hours after his delivery, Oliver (John Howard Davies) is dumped into an orphanage under the 'care' of the loathsome and pompous Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan) and his wife. He largely slaves his early childhood away washing floors in the work house under the fear of god and the strict caning regime of those who run it. After daring to ask for more gruel one fateful day, Oliver is unloaded into the care of an undertaker whose mistreatment of the boy results in him running away to London. Upon arriving in the hustle and bustle, Oliver falls in with a group of child thieves led by the feral and mercurial Fagin (Alec Guinness) and the young criminal prodigy, the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley).

The hefty dose of grim reality injected into Oliver Twist by Lean is still as effective today as it was upon its release. There was to be no tip-toeing around the facts of the story; here was a boy who literally saw no justice in his childhood, forced into a life of extreme poverty and coached into a life of meaningless existence. Subsequently, when the boy is punished for his outburst against comments made about his deceased mother, it is a heartbreaking injustice within a film that is already filled with despair. When a glimmer of hope finally arrives for Oliver in the form of Mr. Brownlow, however, it is a relief of ethereal proportions.

"I hope you say your prayers every night, boy?"

Largely bleak David Lean's Oliver Twist may be, but that doesn't stop it from being a magnificent film on almost all levels. The haunting cinematography, meticulously captured by Guy Green, has seldom been matched to this day. The opening 'storm' sequence alone is still one of the most ominous montages in the history of cinema. It was Lean's intention to convey cinematic emotion through the use of unconventional framing techniques and original camera movements. It was a technique that worked brilliantly and resulted in cinematic expression that was unrivalled in its day.

Of course all of David Lean's masterful touches would have been for nothing were the assembled cast not up to scratch. History dictates of course, not to mention the inclusion of Alec Guinness, that this is indeed a magnificent cast. Each and every member was perfectly suited to his or her role. Alec Guinness's unbelievable transformation into Fagin was the first role that cemented his reputation as the chameleon of cinema, where as Robert Newton's astute delivery of the vile Bill Sykes added another exceptional villain notch on his belt. Of course the remainder of the cast is equally impressive, however John Howard Davies' fragile and tortured portrayal of Oliver remains pure genius.


Despite the claims of a digitally remastered print, the transfer here still has a lot of problems. While there is no doubt that efforts have been made to restore the picture, one feels that they could have gone a lot further, especially considering that there are much older films available on DVD with far better image quality.

The most obvious effort in restoring this picture has been the removal of a large amount of film artefacts. The film still has a lot of them remaining, but they are mostly only minute examples and don't distract greatly from the viewing experience.

Though the above efforts are welcome, one is left wanting for improvement of the general lack of stability within the image. At times the image will look excellent, however the big problem is that it tends to fluctuate rather frequently, resulting in varying levels of clarity. The main culprit is the differing levels of contrast, which in turn also affects detail within areas such as general surface definition and shadow detail.

Certainly more could have been delivered in this area, however the general level of quality should satisfy most.

The film is presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.33:1, full frame.


The audio is unfortunately problematic at best. While a lot of the unnatural background noise has been eliminated from the source, the soundtrack is still left a little too thin overall.

Problems arise in the form of muddied dialogue (although the sheer nature of the cockney dialect will naturally have many reaching for the subtitles button anyway), while the soundtrack lacks definition throughout. The biggest issue here, however, is the large amount of distortion, in particular the pub scene with its drunken sing-along is almost too harsh to listen to.

There are also many cracks and pops that accompany the soundtrack, however they are fairly natural considering the film's age.


Documentary - Entitled A Profile of Oliver Twist, this 24-minute piece features plenty of interviews with crew members involved in the production of the film. It contains some interesting information as well as some refreshingly frank accounts of problems that occurred during the period.

Photo Gallery - There are actually three separate galleries contained on this DVD.
First is a behind the scenes section that runs as a two-minute reel. There are some interesting shots within, but it is a little short.
A poster presentation makes up the second photo gallery. It consists of remarkable original promotional drawings for the film profiling characters such as Fagin, Nancy, Oliver, the Artful Dodger and Mr. Bumble, as well as some original theatrical posters. It is again presented as a motion reel and runs for just under a minute.
Last of all there are four original concept sketches detailing the sets that the film would truly do justice.

Biographies - Standard cast and crew details in text form with a generous level of detail.

Theatrical Trailer - The original theatrical trailer for Oliver Twist clocking in at just under two minutes. They certainly don't make them like this anymore.


Despite the image quality on this DVD, Oliver Twist is still an essential piece of classic cinema and deserves a place in any respectable collection. A big bonus for this release are the satisfying extras, which is a bonus over the barren Region 1 Criterion Collection version.

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      And I quote...
    "...an essential piece of classic cinema. "
    - Ben Pollock
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