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Monday, 16 July 2007

Oliver! (1968) Carol Reed

Back in the days when I was a young 'un who naturally hated the sight of musicals, there were two that seemed to always count as exceptions to the rule: Paint Your Wagon and Oliver! Nowadays, I've seen a lot more and enjoyed a lot more but still hate the sight of most. Now TCM and the annoying Tom Kenny have given me a long overdue opportunity to revisit the film for the first time in probably 25 years. So what were my initial impressions?

The opening scenes in the workhouse remind very much of Pink Floyd's The Wall, which they probably seriously influenced. I'm thinking especially of the visuals but as the music continues that counts too. Roger Waters must have been paying a lot of attention indeed. It's overplayed for sure and very stagy, though it's equally sure that much of it was done for effect. I don't buy that it works entirely but it's consistent at least. I don't buy the genius of all the music (plenty, I'll admit, but not all) though the fact that I remember a surprising amount after a quarter of a century speaks volumes all on its own. For instance I could have done without Boy for Sale and Where is Love?, but Consider Yourself and You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two are pretty hard to beat.

What I didn't remember was the cast, though I'm not sure why. Maybe I just didn't have a clue who Sir Harry Secombe was, not that he was a Sir this far back when Highway was a decade and a half away and he was best known for his revolutionary work as one of the Goons. I wouldn't have seen Leonard Rossiter before either, though I must have found Reggie Perrin soon afterwards. I wouldn't have known Ron Moody for a long while, as I'm only recently finding him becoming a favourite, but I doubt I even knew Oliver Reed drank. That's how green I must have been.

Now I know all of these people and more, though it became very obvious very quickly that I don't know Jack Wild nearly well enough and his Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the Artful Dodger was well deserved, as his first couple of scenes merely served to show up everyone who had appeared up until then. I think the film only survives for the first half hour and change because Mark Lester as the title character manages to keep up with him. Wild gives the impression of being the most natural child actor since probably Jackie Coogan almost half a century earlier. I might allow Shirley Temple too but that's a stretch.

Ron Moody was also nominated as Best Actor but he lost to Cliff Robertson in Charly, another peach of a role. His Fagin has a lot of depth, though is less overtly Jewish than Alec Guinness's version back in 1948 (Reviewing the Situation notwithstanding), thus avoiding a lot of unfair criticism. He's dominant and to be honest, anyone who can take a role previously played by Alec Guinness and make it his own deserves any praise offered. That achievement in itself says more than an Oscar because there's an Oscar dished out every year and this was something that nobody else has ever managed to do.

Beyond the pair of them, people like Oliver Reed (the director's nephew) and Shani Wallis do solid work, but I can't help but feel that they suffer from the film being too long and inflated and the fact that there gave better performances elsewhere. Reed is good here but his Bill Sikes isn't a patch on Robert Newton's reading of it or even on his own performances in things like The Devils. Director Carol Reed did far better work elsewhere, notably on The Third Man but even on something like Our Man in Havana. His film doesn't stand up like it used to when I didn't know better. It's a good film, no mistake, but it's no Oscar winner to beat 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or The Producers. At least not in the world I live in. Apparently the Academy live somewhere else.

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