September 13, 2009

Bax, Newton Still Steal Show in Lean's 'Twist'

After watching David Lean's sinewy 1948 masterpiece Oliver Twist last night, I was struck by the fact that it seemed somewhat more heavily cut than Lean's other post-war Dickens adaptation, 1946's Great Expectations--a work of remarkable economy, especially considering the length of the original book. Strangely, I hadn't felt that way about Twist on previous viewings; I have never read the source material (as opposed to GE) and am admittedly ignorant about the full scope of the tale.

This time, however, Twist seemed more choppy than it had before...though not on account of its quality. As an atmospheric piece depicting 19th-century England, the film has few competitors: the production design is impeccable, and the casting--from the epic Francis L. Sullivan as the pompous Mr. Bumble to the wild-eyed Robert Newton (in the film's best and most frightening performance) as the evil Bill Sikes--is nearly perfect. (The criticism of anti-Semitism levied against Alec Guinness' performance as the schnoz-enhanced Fagin may be somewhat valid, owing in part to the ludicrousness of the appendage, but Guinness has finely tuned the character, and my question is: Is Fagin really any more villainous than Sikes, Bumble, Monks or any of the other nasties in the story? I say no.) Plus, the score, by Sir Arnold Bax, is eerie, brassy and very English, striking all the right notes of menace and innocence at the appropriate times.

Lean, though an accomplished editor, apparently did not work his magic on this version of Twist, and perhaps it would've been a very different film if he had. Still, there's a lot to like, from the scary opening sequence involving Twist's mother in the storm to Sikes' terrifying entrance. From a technical perspective, all is very high quality, but from a literary one, it seems there's something missing. Perhaps I'm lamenting the lack of gilding on this wouldn't be the first time--or, for that matter, the last.

1 comment:

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