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Oliver! (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on July 14, 2014

I’m calling this a rewatch, but it was basically like a first viewing.  I have a very dim memory of going to see it in a theater for a class field trip (or maybe a day camp trip) when I was very young.  Actually, now I’m wondering if I just saw the trailer for it before some other movie (no, I wasn’t born yet in 1968… it would have been mid-70’s or maybe even early 80’s, but they used to re-release movies a lot more back then).  But whatever, I’m calling it a rewatch anyway because who cares?

So, this is a pretty grim setting for a musical.  There are probably earlier examples of such juxtaposition between tone and setting for the genre, but none are coming to mind at the moment.  The Sound of Music is about Nazi persecution, but it’s pretty easy to forget that for the most part.  Marat/Sade, from the previous year, is very dark indeed, but calling it a musical may be a stretch.  But here we have child exploitation and domestic violence and crushing poverty amidst joyful dancing and giddy songs.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor is the cognitive dissonance it produces, but it is hard to tell how much irony is involved.  Is it sugar-coated, or is it tongue-in-cheek?  It’s such a loony idea that it’s not immediately apparent what they’re going for.

It’s disquieting — and this is more Dickens’s fault than anyone else’s — that the story is really about restoring Oliver to his “proper” place in society.  Never mind the other kids… Oliver isn’t supposed to be poor!  The revelation that he is meant to be with this wealthy family is there to make his situation seem more tragic.  Now it’s even more important that he be rescued!  It’s kind of fucked up.  And as I mentioned in my review of David Lean’s Oliver Twist, the title character does almost nothing in the whole story.  Except for the choice to run away from the undertaker, he has almost no agency.  Of course, that’s how it would be for a small child with no support system and no assets, but it’s hard to root for a person who doesn’t get much of a chance to display any particular character traits.

It’s the supporting characters who are far more interesting, and the three main baddies are the highlights of this movie.  From least villainous to most, we have The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), Fagin (Ron Moody) and Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed).  The first two were both nominated for Supporting Oscars and I have no problem with that.  I’d love to watch a movie just about Dodger and Fagin, which could either go light (their wacky pickpocketing adventures!) or dark (the exploitative and possibly abusive nature of their relationship).  Wild feels like a natural for the screen even at his young age and Moody is a weaselly delight.  And Reed simply dominates… he’s not just intimidating, he’s downright terrifying.  I also liked Harry Secombe as Bumble.  As is often the case, it’s the bad guys who bring the most compelling performances… baby-faced Mark Lester in the lead is mere wallpaper next to them.

Of course, a musical largely lives on the strengths of its numbers, and it’s here where the movie didn’t quite ring my bells.  The production design is lavish (and appropriately grimy) and there’s some marvelous cinematography.  But a lot of the songs didn’t grab me, and some of them seem to go on forever.  “Who Will Buy” is an epic, wearying display of roadshow excess.  Just when you think it’s finally going to end, here comes another 50 guys high-stepping down the avenue.  I also found some of the choreography throughout the film to be somewhat clichéd and uninspired, too… well, musical-ish.  Like kicking-up-your-heels kinda stuff.  However, “Consider Yourself” is an absolute joy, and it’s hard to resist the classic “Food, Glorious Food” (although it can be hard the make out the lyrics when you’ve got so many people trying to sing in unison).  While I didn’t hate any of the songs, a lot of them just wore out their welcome.

So now I find myself in this wishy-washy place again.  Some stuff I liked, some stuff I didn’t like, nothing to sway me too far in either direction.  I must admit the incongruity between tone and content is a bit interesting, but it’s not enough to chew on for very long.  I can see why the movie has its fans — it certainly puts in some work to be entertaining — but it didn’t connect much with me.  Rating: Good (71)




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