The sort of film that most of us have slept through a few times. No, not the one with “Consider Yourself” and all those other fabulous Lionel Bart songs. Instead, it’s the David Lean version of Dickens’s story of a nice young lad all at sea in bad old London, completely song-free and freighted with baggage – Alec Guinness’s Semitic schnozz for starters, his wheedling manner for another – as thiefmaster Fagin. But beneath Fagin’s hard shell and stereotyped Jewish image (based on the Cruickshank drawings, that’s Lean’s and Guinness’s defence) there beats a heart of gold, while around him operates his gang of reasonably well-cared-for ne’er-do-well pickpockets. It’s Robert Newton’s Bill Sykes who’s the real villain here, as it was in Charles Dickens’s original story. So, having snoozed through, why bother to watch it again? Because the remastered version reveals Guy Green’s beautiful cinematography, a feast of rich blacks and brilliant whites and barely a half-tone to be seen. It’s the perfect visual counterpoint to the stygian performance of Newton and the lilywhite prissiness of John Howard Davies as Oliver. Gorgeously chiaroscuro and with crazily tilting sets, this is Lean grabbing at the revival of Expressionism that was sweeping through cinema in the 1940s. Naturalistic? Not even slightly. Consider yourself well served.
© Steve Morrissey 2013