75 Years of Film: 1948–Oliver Twist

This is a continuing series exploring history and film by watching one movie from each release year from 1941-2016. For a full list of movies/years examined so far, click here

And now we’re on to 1948, where I don’t have a proper intro…let’s just do this.

Adapted from the Charles Dickens novel, this film chronicles the adventures of a young boy who grew up in an orphanage, but ran away to London to escape his hard life. He gets caught up in a world of thieves and cutthroats while also tasting fine living from a kindly old man. But there are forces at play Oliver doesn’t understand, forces that could unveil his origins and promise him a great future or hide his identity and doom him to a life on the streets.

I’d say so. There’s a lot of strong camerawork and acting by the likes of Alec Guinness and Robert Newton. It’s a rather frightening adaptation that’s shot like a horror movie or a mystery, and it works very well. 3.5/5 stars.

You know…people just had to try harder back then. The tools they had were not as shiny as the ones they have now, so they had to give it everything they had. In most modern movies, it seems like the camera is there to sit still and make the actors look good. In Oliver Twist, the camera is an active force which is there to make the whole shot and every scene look fantastic.

As you remember from my post on Gilda (you read that…right?), I said that film noir could only make so many stories. It appears I may have been wrong because this film is shot just like a noir. There’s terror, mystery, depth, and intrigue all thanks to the power of camera play.

Light and darkness worked so much better with black and white. So much of this film is shot in the dark, giving it a haunting, foreboding atmosphere. For the most part, this is perfect because Oliver’s world is dark and frightening, especially to the boy himself. Contrast this with the house of the wealthy man who takes a shine to Oliver. The house is brightly lit, an explosion of whiteness showing all that is good in the world: love, family, and safety.

It’s not just for Oliver, either. One great scene is when a man kills a woman in the darkness of night. When morning comes, he’s still there, staring at her dead body. He tries to cover the blinding light of day with the curtains, but the light pierces through anyway, a symbol that he cannot hide from what he’s done, and that things look different in the morning. The close-ups of his shifty eyes and the whispers of people he knows convey the image of a man going mad with questions. Did I do the right thing? Was I mislead? What do I do now?

Do you see much of that in modern movies? Do you see strong lightning choices, creative shots, and pitch-perfect portrayals of darkness, madness, and villainy?

Or better yet…sound choices? I’d estimate a good 30-40% of this movie is silent. So much is said in pictures, shots, and acting. Silence can show lonesomeness and foreboding, two things Oliver Twist needed for this adaptation. Now compare that to the end when an entire crowd is shouting for the destruction of the villains and chasing them all over London. Or the scene where a man kills a woman and her screams are drowned out by a panicked dog’s yelps. The noise conveys terror and chaos. The right sound–or lack thereof–can perfectly cast a movie in a person’s head.

Want proof? How about the shower scene music from Psycho? The voice of the possessed girl in The Exorcist? The howl of The Wolfman? The laugh of Cruella de Vil? Even if you’ve never seen these movies, you know those sounds. Why? Because they’re amazing.

I fear that the further I get into this study of film, the less creativity I’ll see. I hope I’m wrong, but we’ll find out.

HISTORIC EVENTS IN 1948 (source):
Jan 30–Mahatma Gandhi assassinated.
Jun 13–Baseball legend Babe Ruth’s final farewell to Yankee Stadium (died in August).
Jun 18–UN adopts the International Declaration of Human Rights.
Jul 7–First women sworn into US navy.
Jul 15–Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) founded in Britain.
Jul 24–USSR blockades Berlin from the west.
Sep 24–Honda Motor Company founded.
Nov 2–US President Harry Truman re-elected.
Nov 4–Poet T.S. Elliot receives Nobel Prize in literature.
Nov 26–First Polaroid camera sold.

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet
Disney’s Melody Time
The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Bicycle Thieves

PREVIOUS: 1947–Miracle on 34th Street

NEXT: 1949–The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

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