When I was quite young, Oliver! (1968) was a smash hit – and rightly so! I remember all the songs were hugely popular – we sang some of ’em in grammar school music class – and I think they hold up amazingly well all these years later.
This is an interesting musical.
In many ways, it’s as bright and cheery in some parts (mostly the songs) as one could ever expect. Yet there’s a darkness to it as well.
In the area where the vagabonds (Fagan, “The Artful Dodger”, Bill Sikes, and others) live, one could hardly assume the film was shot in Technicolor. Everything was a dreary, bland gray. It matched the dreary, bland gray lives of the people who lived there.
And Bill Sikes (played remarkably by Oliver Reed) is genuinely intimidating and utterly without any trace of moral compass. Definitely not the type of character you’d expect to see in a big musical! More in line with what I’d say was a more traditional musical approach to villainy was Fagan, the leader of the pickpockets. He had a dark side as well, but also could emote genuine cheer and good-will. A very interesting character – and played spot-on perfectly by Ron Moody. It’s hard to imagine anyone making such a rogue so utterly likable (“You’ve got to pick a pocket or two!”). And his numerous re-evaluations of his villainy vs. turning over a new leaf – only to be almost literally pulled back to his life of crime – was flawless.
Also worthy of note was Shani Wallis’ portrayal of Nancy, so thoroughly devoted to Bill Sikes that she can delude herself into thinking just about anything to justify her unrequited love. I piteous character – and what a voice!
Truly, this casting was inspired.
As was the film. One really is on a roller-coaster ride of emotions throughout: from very high highs to very low lows. Even if you’re not a fan of musicals, I think this one might be worth your time.