Directed by David Lean
Produced by Ronald Neame
Written by David Lean
Based on Oliver Twist
by Charles Dickens
Starring Alec Guinness
John Howard Davies
Music by Arnold Bax
Cinematography Guy Green
Edited by Jack Harris
Distributed by General Film Distributors (UK),
Eagle-Lion, United Artists (USA, 1951)
30 June 1948 (UK)
116 minutes (UK)
Country United Kingdom
Oliver Twist (1948) is the second of David Lean’s two film adaptations of Charles Dickens novels. Following the success of his 1946 version of Great Expectations, Lean re-assembled much of the same team for his adaptation of Dickens’ 1838 novel, including producers Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan, cinematographer Guy Green, designer John Bryan and editor Jack Harris. Lean’s then-wife, Kay Walsh, who had collaborated on the screenplay for Great Expectations, played the role of Nancy. John Howard Davies was cast as Oliver, while Alec Guinness portrayed Fagin.
In 1999, the British Film Institute placed it at 46th in its list of the top 100 British films.
A young woman in labour makes her way to a parish workhouse and dies after giving birth to a boy, who is systematically named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) by the workhouse authorities. As the years go by, Oliver and the rest of the child inmates suffer from the callous indifference of the officials in charge: beadle Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan) and matron Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare). At the age of nine, the hungry children draw straws; Oliver loses and has to ask for a second helping of gruel (“Please sir, I want some more”).
For his impudence, he is promptly apprenticed to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Gibb McLaughlin), from whom he receives somewhat better treatment. However, when another worker maligns his dead mother, Oliver flies into a rage and attacks him, earning the orphan a whipping.
Oliver runs away to London. The Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley), a skilled young pickpocket, notices him and takes him to Fagin (Alec Guinness), an old man who trains children to be pickpockets. Fagin sends Oliver to watch and learn as the Dodger and another boy try to rob Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), a rich, elderly gentleman. Their attempt is detected, but it is Oliver who is chased through the streets by a mob and arrested. Fortunately, a witness clears him. Mr. Brownlow takes a liking to the boy, and gives him a home. Oliver experiences the kind of happy life he has never had before, under the care of Mr. Brownlow and the loving housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin (Amy Veness).
Meanwhile, Fagin is visited by the mysterious Monks (Ralph Truman), who has a strong interest in Oliver. He sends Monks to Bumble and Mrs. Corney (now Bumble’s domineering wife); Monks buys from them the only thing that can identify Oliver’s parentage, a locket containing his mother’s portrait.
By chance, Fagin’s associate, the vicious Bill Sykes (Robert Newton), and Sykes’ kind-hearted prostitute girlfriend (and former Fagin pupil) Nancy (Kay Walsh) run into Oliver on the street and forcibly take him back to Fagin. Nancy feels pangs of guilt and, seeing a poster in which Mr. Brownlow offers a reward for Oliver’s return, contacts the gentleman and promises to deliver Oliver the next day. The suspicious Fagin, however, has had the Dodger follow her. When Fagin informs Sykes, the latter becomes enraged and murders her, mistakenly believing that she has betrayed him.
The killing brings down the wrath of the public on the gang. Mr. Brownlow and the authorities rescue Oliver, while Sykes is shot and, because the rope is still around his neck, accidentally hangs himself trying to escape over the rooftop. Fagin and his other associates are rounded up. Monks’ part in the proceedings is discovered, and he is arrested. He was trying to ensure his inheritance; Oliver, it turns out, is Mr. Brownlow’s grandson. For their involvement in Monks’ scheme, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble lose their jobs at the workhouse. Oliver is happily reunited with his newly found grandfather and Mrs. Bedwin, his search for love ending in fulfilment.