Set in mid-19th century England, Oliver! is the deceptively jaunty tale of an orphan boy named Oliver Twist (endearing played by Mark Lester, all of eight years old when cast in the role). Despite the lively song score by Lionel Bart (arranged and conducted for the film by John Green), Oliver’s journey includes child trafficking, domestic abuse, larceny, and even murder. We first meet the boy at an oppressive orphanage, where asking for a second serving of porridge can land a hungry kid in solitary confinement. Sold as a piece of property to a funeral director, Oliver is forced to lead the procession in children’s funerals. Grim stuff, indeed, and it only gets grimmer.
After things don’t work out at the funeral home, Oliver falls under the care of what amounts to an organized crime unit. Fagin (Ron Moody) reigns over a group of boys that specialize in picking pockets, including the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). One of Fagin’s chief associates, Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), is a poor influence on Oliver, who manages to retain his innocence despite this unsavory crew’s best efforts. Bill’s girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis) suffers through abuse, doled out right in front of the children. She develops a strong liking for Oliver. Luckily, Oliver finds a suitable home (and family ties) with the aristocratic Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Conor), but he can’t shake the intrusions of Fagin and Sikes.
Though at times seemingly incongruous, the generally cheery musical numbers help offset the doom and gloom (softened significantly from Dickens’ original conception). Malnourished children sing “Food, Glorious Food.” The thieving Fagin implores his young charges to “Pick a Pocket or Two.” Co-dependent Nancy justifies her dead-end relationship with Bill through “As Long as He Needs Me.” The songs are well performed and the choreography is well staged. But for anyone who appreciates the gritty realism of Tom Hooper’s 2012 Les Misérables will likely feel the same sense from director Carol Reed’s dirty, dingy atmosphere in Oliver!. The sense of authentic downtroddenness helps counterbalance the pizzazz of the production numbers.
Though its plot-heavy final half-hour bows slightly under the pressure of having to tie up a lot of threads, Reed’s Oscar-winning direction and Vernon Harris’ Oscar-nominated screenplay are sure-handed. Keep in mind, the film opens with several minutes of overture playing against a black screen. Combined with the opening credits, nothing actually happens until about eight minutes in. Though nowadays filmmakers wouldn’t dream of interrupting a 153-minute film with an intermission, that’s exactly what they did in Oliver!. The silent “intermission” screen (about 90 minutes in) is followed by several more minutes of unaccompanied overture music. Totally unnecessary, but also pleasingly authentic as far as the presentation is concerned. And you always have your fast-forward button if you grow impatient.
I saw nothing to gripe about regarding the 1080p, AVC-encoded visual presentation. Framed at 2.35:1, Oliver! looks fresh and vibrant despite its age. Osward Morris was Oscar-nominated for his cinematography, which has been preserved with all the natural grain you’d expect from a film of this vintage. Clarity is unwaveringly strong. While not the most colorful film, the colors are realistic and vivid. Audio is offered as a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that works well, expanding the music to relatively immersive effect. The songs are the stars, and thankfully they sound great with the singing ringing out with exceptional crispness.
Fans of the film’s score will be happy to find Twilight Time’s customary DTS-HD isolated score track, this time 4.0 rather than their more typical 2.0. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray comes equipped with a fair amount of additional special features. There’s a vintage promotional featurette, but more interesting are the more recent (and high definition) interviews with the actors who portrayed Oliver and Fagin, Mark Lester (15 minutes) and Ron Moody (13 minutes), respectively. Less valuable are the karaoke sing-alongs (basically just subtitles for the songs) and video-based dance tutorials with an unnamed female instructor (for “Be Back Soon,” “Food, Glorious Food,” and “I’d Do Anything”).
Julie Kirgo contributes another informative essay in the Blu-ray booklet. This edition of Oliver! is strictly limited to 3,000 copies and is available via the Screen Archives website.