With almost perfect casting, good singing, great dancing, and imaginative direction, Oliver! came to life on the big screen like never before.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Please, sir, I want some more."

Apparently, audiences wanted more, too, making "Oliver!" one of the most popular movie musicals of all time. Based on the stage hit, which in turn was based on the novel "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens, director Carol Reed's production won six Academy Awards in 1968: For Best Picture, Best Director, Best Musical Score, Best Art Direction, and Best Sound, plus an honorary Oscar to Onna White for outstanding achievement in choreography. Columbia TriStar's Thirtieth Anniversary Edition DVD is yet another tribute to a near-flawless film.

Mark Lester stars as Oliver, the youngster beset by a multitude of problems in early nineteenth-century England. Growing up an orphan, being sold for work to an undertaker, running away to London, and joining a band of thieves are all a part of poor Oliver's ordeals. Lester is a little too cute and precious for my idea of the hero, but with so much going on around him, it's hardly his story entirely, anyway.

More to the point is Ron Moody, deservedly nominated for a Best Actor Award as Fagin, the leader of the juvenile gang of London pickpockets with whom Oliver joins up. Moody is perfect in his combination of sly cunning, rapacious avarice, and crocodile remorse. Oliver Reed is also well cast as Bill Sikes, the sinister and treacherous villain of the piece. And British singer Shani Wallis is endearing as Bill's girlfriend, a woman of the streets with the proverbial heart of gold.

Along with its other familiar characters--the Artful Dodger, Mr. Bumble, and the rest--and a faithful recreation of old London, this largely British venture does a convincing job of bringing Mr. Dickens' world alive.

For those who may not be acquainted with the musical, songwriter Lionel Bart's tunes may not be great but they are memorably presented. They include, among others, "Food, Glorious Food," "Oliver," "Where Is Love," "Pick a Pocket or Two," "As Long As He Needs Me," and the show-stopping "Consider Yourself at Home," a huge production number that couldn't help reminding me of Monty Python's hilarious takeoff of it in "The Meaning of Life." Nevertheless, the whole film adds up to a major delight and can hardly be faulted for its becoming too widely known.

For the thirtieth anniversary of the film, Columbia TriStar have collaborated with Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Film Archive to fully restore the movie's images and sound. "Oliver!" is presented in its original Panavision screen ratio, approximately 2.35:1, a necessity considering the huge scope of its sets and scenery. The picture quality, however, is not always as well defined or vibrant as I remember it from my admittedly faulty recollections of thirty years ago. The first three-quarters of the movie are deliberately drawn in dark tones, browns and blacks, to convey the atmosphere of poverty and depression, but even some of the later, cheerier scenes seem just a little faded with age. I also observed several instances of line flicker in small areas of the screen, barely noticeable and hardly worth mentioning.

The sound, too, has its hits and misses. On the plus side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is extremely smooth and natural, a welcome change from the earsplitting brightness exhibited by some modern film soundtracks. On the minus side, it doesn't do a lot with the surround speakers, and it can be slightly muffled at times, especially in a few instances of dialogue. Even with perfectly clear audio, American audiences might have some minor difficulty with the inner-city English dialects of some of the movie's children, but I swear at times I could barely understand Jack Wild's lines as the Artful Dodger without turning the sound up. Fortunately, the aforementioned issues are not really very distracting, and most of the show comes up as enjoyably as we could want.

Of additional small concern, though, is that Columbia chose to remaster this lengthy film on two sides of a disc rather than use a dual layer on a single side. I suspect that couch potatoes will be annoyed at the necessity of a turnover, a split that at least comes during intermission. The break might even force starchy tubers of the davenport to get up and to go the refrigerator or use the bathroom at least once in the two-and-a-half-hour film, perhaps a benefit in itself. I was also a bit disappointed that Columbia did not provide more bonus materials on a commemorative edition of so important a film. The restored widescreen format and digital sound are nice, of course, but beyond the usual assortment of scene selections and language choices, there is only a brief, ten-minute, featurette on the making of the film and a short picture gallery of about a dozen movie stills. Maybe I have been spoiled by special edition DVDs with feature-length commentaries, extended documentaries, filmmaker profiles, interviews, and the like, and have come to expect them too often.

Parting Thoughts:
"Oliver!" is a good example of how well a respectable stage hit can be transformed into a superlative motion picture. With almost perfect casting, good singing, great dancing, and imaginative direction, "Oliver!" came to life on the big screen like never before. Now on DVD it comes to the small screen like never before.

"Please, sir, I want some more."


Film Value