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Oliver! (Blu-ray Review)

16 Dec, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Available at
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Ron Moody, Mark Lester, Shani Wallis, Jack Wild, Oliver Reed.

Still a feel-great musical despite always being mindful of the Dickensian squalor at its source, Carol Reed’s brief comeback blockbuster has been aggressively back-bitten over the years for the same reason as John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley — a movie that will always rank among the best of all Oscar winners yet one that beat the even more deserving Citizen Kane for top honors. In Oliver!’s case, the year’s most historically pedigreed also-ran was Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey — which, by the way, wasn’t even nominated for best picture in a year when the mostly forgotten Rachel, Rachel was. Better we take it out on Rachel, Rachel.

Running 153 minutes without even a hint of any pacing lags, Oliver! looks terrific on Blu-ray in a Sony/Twilight Time rendering, despite the fact that much of it takes place (two expansive set-piece numbers are exceptions) in something less than House Beautiful indoor settings with limited light. Blu-ray is an ideal format for this kind of movie, in which colors tend to bleed when seen in a lesser home format. And speaking of the red stuff, Reed doesn’t shy away from the gruesome in the story’s extended wrap-up, where the director’s real-life nephew Oliver (amusing coincidence there) is easily the Bill Sikes equal of Robert Newton in David Lean’s more straight-on non-musical of Oliver Twist, in which Alec Guinness’s portrayal of pickpocket maestro Fagin was considered by some at the time to be anti-Semitic. I’m guessing Reed/Sikes must be the scariest portrayal of anyone ever seen in a screen musical — though both Reeds do let the singing and dancing to others: Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Jack Wild and Mark Lester (whose bonus points for cuteness in the title role outweigh his weak voice).

With its Columbia logo, brassy/sassy Johnny Green orchestrations and Onna White choreography, I always think of Oliver! as a companion piece to George Sidney’s movie of Bye Bye Birdie (a previous Twilight Time Blu-ray release) — ridiculous as the comparison might be in other regards. The musical numbers attain the same levels of exaltation (even Oliver!’s sometimes despairing ones) and remind me, as I had forgotten, that White also choreographed some great numbers for the movie version of The Music Man (“Marian the Librarian” is a killer). White got a special Oscar for Oliver!, and Reed took the best director award — an oasis after a protracted career stumble that still generates debate over which movie launched it (though as late as 1955, he did a movie I still love: A Kid for Two Farthings, which managed to find room for Celia Johnson, Diana Dors and Primo Carnera). Even with White’s help, Reed proved to be a masterful director of musicals, a time when a lot of lumbering reserved-seat giants were being foisted upon movie audiences in the wake of 1965’s The Sound of Music. This said, 1968’s crop belies the assertion that all of them were dogs: Oliver! and Funny Girl were commercial/critical smashes, while Finian’s Rainbow is underrated with a cult — though, yes, Star! and Half a Sixpence were pretty rough going.

So, alas, was the remainder of Reed’s career — and in 1970, he suffered the ignominy of going from winning a directorial Oscar to having his next picture (Flap) have its New York City premiere at a 42nd Street grindhouse not long after Midnight Cowboy had ground perceptions of them (and their men’s room milieu’s) into the minds of the general public. But for a short time, Reed returned to the top of the world — and personally, I’ll never be able to jettison my affection for a filmmaker who could have both Oliver! and The Third Man on his resume. And as far as the 2001 controversy goes, Man might be one of the few 1950 releases that betters All About Eve, though it, like, 2001 much later, wasn’t nominated for best picture, either.

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