Sunday, February 15, 2009


Oliver Twist, after A Christmas Carol, has to be the most adapted of Dickens' novels, I should think. How many Olivers have I seen? How many Fagins? Ron Moody may have been my first Fagin, in the movie of the musical "Oliver!." Clive Revill the first I saw on stage, in a revival of the same. I've a recording of Stanley Holloway in the part. Who else? Jonathan Pryce? And in straight adaptations, George C. Scott, Ben Kingsley, Richard Dreyfuss, Alec Guinness...

I've seen Oliver Twist in South Africa, as a Canadian boy-hustler, and as an animated puppy...

While the musical holds a special place in my heart, there is for me no better version than David Lean's 1948 film. The black and white photography is exquisite, all the characters drawn to the life, the scenes set perfectly, and even the slightly tinny score seems thrillingly right. Alec Guinness may well be a caricature in his putty nose, but he is a brilliant and sinister Fagin, and too often contemporary actors, in avoidance of being charged with antisemitism one assumes, or having been influenced by the gentler kinder Fagin of the musical, seem disinclined to menace in the role. Not Guinness, his lisping, guttural croak when he prepares the gloriously explosive Bill of Robert Newton to hear the truth, that Nancy "peached," is as chilling as it ought to be, and ratchets up the tension as he sends Sykes out, urging him not to be "too violent." And it is Nancy's murder, in Lean's film, that captures the real horror of that most famous and famously horrible scene.

And Lean does it, that scene, with a dog. It's wonderfully cinematic, Bill's brute of dog, anticipating the blows, scratching wildly at the door to escape, the sound of the dog's whining and scratching building as Nancy screams. And after, with Newton shocked and sweating in a chair, haunted by voices, Lean cuts to the dog, shaking and cowering under the table that blocks the door. It's the dog, released into the streets when Sykes finally leaves the room, who first cries murder as he bolts away. None of this could be bettered.

I've only just watched Lean's movie again. Tonight on PBS, yet another version will be broadcast, this from 2007 and staring Timothy Spall as Fagin -- evidently, from the press, a rather plump, beardless, and crossdresing Fagin (!) and Tom Hardy, one of the most beautiful British actors now working, as Bill Sykes. I'll watch it, of course, how could I not? But it will be difficult, having watched Lean's movie just today, not to judge this new production by an almost impossibly high standard.

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