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Oliver Twist: The Criterion Collection

Charles Dickens, the foremost popular writer of the Victorian age, wrote a lot of fat books that most people nowadays won't read from cover to cover. If that's a bit of a shame, at least David Lean has been interested enough to bring Dickens' novels to the screen, in particular Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, both on DVD from Criterion. Twist has always been amongst Dickens most-celebrated tales, and Lean's 1948 version is a swift, dramatic account that may not have the flash of the Oscar-winning musical Oliver!, but more than makes up for it with a solid cast and good directorial choices. John Howard Davies stars as the young Oliver Twist, who is born in a local workhouse where his destitute mother has taken refuge. After her death, Oliver becomes a ward of the state, initially as a child laborer but then sold as an apprentice to the Sowerberry household, where he tangles with the older bully Noah Claypole (Michael Dear). Escaping his servitude and soon in London, Oliver meets adolescent pick-pocket The Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley), and then his petty-crime mentor Fagin (Alec Guinness). But there is a secret to Oliver's past, pursuing him almost as fast as local crook Bill Sikes (Robert Newton), who will stop at nothing to evade the long arm of the law. As is the case with all of Lean's films, the cast is uniformly strong — Newton's performance as Sikes is pure venom, while Newley (in his first screen role) would go on to enjoy a popular career as an actor and singer. Young John Howard Davies, asked to carry the bulk of the scenes, is appropriately meek and downtrodden, but he rarely strikes a false note. However, Oliver Twist is perhaps best-remembered for Guinness's controversial portrayal of Fagin, with his hooked nose and hunched-over gait. Was it needlessly anti-Semitic? Depends on your point-of-view — the film was banned in Israel upon release because of the scurrilous Fagin character, while Egypt banned it because they thought the elderly Jew was too sympathetic. Criterion's DVD edition of Oliver Twist offers a clean transfer from a very good black-and-white source print that is showing some inevitable wear but still retains strong low-contrast details. Audio is in the original mono (DD 1.0), and the original theatrical trailer (which also looks very good) is on board as well. Keep-case.

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