Thursday, December 22, 2011

OLIVER! (1968)

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After acknowledging the civil rights movement still going on in the country at that time by awarding IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT in 1967, in 1968 the Academy went right back to what it did for most of the 60's, giving yet another Best Picture award to a film set entirely in Europe.  Which is not to say that OLIVER! is a poor choice; with it's lively, catchy score, energetic choreography and massive, gorgeous sets, it's a charming and delightful musical that never feels dull at two and half hours.
The 1838 novel by Charles Dickens was first adapted into a musical  in 1960 by Lionel Bart,  who wrote  the score and the book.  Premiering at London's West End theater, it came to Broadway to success and acclaim two years later.  Inevitably, film rights were bought by Romulus Films  and journeyman director Carol Reed was hired to direct; he would spend months rehearsing his cast of unknowns (thousands of boys were auditioned before Mark Lester was chosen for the title role) before even shooting.  The cavernous sets reportedly took up six sound stages, and weeks were spent shooting the bigger musical numbers.  The budget of ten million dollars was steep at the time, but the film returned over sixteen million in the US alone.
It tells the story of OLIVER TWIST, an orphaned boy who is thrown out of his work house/orphanage for asking for a second helping of gruel.  Eventually making his way to London, Oliver meets a slightly older boy named the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), who introduces him to Fagin (Ron Moody), who provides food and shelter to boys who are willing to steal for him.  After a pick pocketing attempt goes wrong, Oliver is adopted by the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Josephy O'Conor), who eventually realizes that Oliver is the son of his niece that disappeared years earlier, but not before Oliver is kidnapped by the evil Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed).  Eventually, Oliver is saved from the clutches of Sikes, who is killed in a rooftop chase, and goes to live with Mr. Brownlow. 

Jack Wild and Mark Lester

I find it interesting that Vernon Harris's script for the film  often has almost the bare minimum of spoken dialogue necessary to move the plot along, frequently using physical action to tell the story, while the musical numbers are practically piled up on top of each other. Just look at the way that the opening song, "Food Glorious Food" segues almost immediately into the next song, "Oliver". But, with its simple story (this film is a good introduction to musicals for kids) and terrific score, I don't think this is a bad thing, as it feels that this a film that almost bursts at the seams with music.
My favorite scene in the film is the unforgettable "Consider Yourself" number, which begins with the Artful Dodger singing to Oliver and just gets bigger and bigger, with street urchins, butchers, newsboys and many others  all joining in as the two boys make their way through the crowded London street.  As the song ends, Reed's camera pans up to show blocks of hundreds of people singing and dancing at the same time in a perfect moment of cinematic delight.  This formula is used again later in the film during "The Who Will Buy" number, which starts with Oliver singing alone and then grows until an entire  town square joins him; although it isn't quite as successful as the earlier scene, it still is impressive.  And even in the non musical scenes, Reed comes up with some excellent visuals: I love the way that he introduces Fagin from behind a cloud of steam, brandishing a tong like a devil's pitchfork, or the way that we see Bill Sikes's long shadow moving down a dark tunnel before we see him.

Ron Moody as Fagin

My favorite performance in the film is Ron Moody's as Fagin; Moody had already played the character in the London production,  and clearly had him down cold.  His Fagin is a greedy, unrepentant criminal who corrupts young boys, but somehow he is lovable, mainly because he clearly does care about the boys, and abhors violence.  And he is also very funny, especially when he sings the classic "Reviewing the Situation", in which he considers reforming, but can't quite bring himself to do it.  I also enjoy Oliver Reed as the evil Bill Sikes; he plays the role completely straight, and his intense, brooding presence keeps the film's tone from getting too light.  Interestingly, his character sang on stage, but not in the movie, and there are some reports that this was because of Reed's singing voice not being up to the standards of his costars.  I personally, I think this actually works for the character; the fact that Bill refuses to join in with the dancing and singing going on around him makes him more removed and darker, adding to his villainous nature.  
I do have one problem with the film's casting: I am genuinely surprised that after auditioning thousands of boys, Mark Lester was chosen.  Oh sure, he's a reasonably cute kid, but he often seems a bit stunned or bored on screen, and he just isn't all that interesting or likable as a child actor, unlike Jack Wild's charismatic Artful Dodger.  I also don't like Lester's singing voice (which, it was revealed years later, was dubbed by a girl named Kathe Green), and I find Oliver's one solo number, "Where is Love?" the only one in the film that completely fails.  Even worse is that, considering that he's the hero, Oliver  actually never does anything in the story that could be called heroic.  Most of the time, he has other characters help or hinder him, and he just passively stands by and accepts it. He's even too dim witted to run away from Bill Sikes when he has a clear chance to do so. And, of course, his happy ending arrives entirely out of sheer luck, without any energy expended on his part.  (I realize that my criticisms here apply as much to the original novel as they do to the film).  Thankfully, having such a dull lead character really doesn't hurt the film, because Oliver is constantly surrounded by far more colorful and interesting people who brighten up the film. So I still really enjoy it.


While I obviously have a real affection and warmth for OLIVER!, there was a colder, stranger film that came out that year that would prove to be extremely influential: Stanley Kubrick's 2001, which is perhaps the finest Science Fiction film ever made, and clearly is superior to the charms of OLIVER!, engaging as those charms may be.

Monday, December 12, 2011



In 1967, for the first time ever, the Academy acknowledged the civil rights movement in its best picture award, yes, after years of awarding escapist froth like 1964's MY FAIR LADY, the Academy finally awarded a film that dealt with racism in modern America.  Although prejudice was also the subject of 1947's GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was the first best picture winner to deal with race and to feature an African American actor in the lead.  In fact, almost all of 1967's best picture nominations showed the creeping influence of the counter culture in Hollywood: clever sex comedy, THE GRADUATE, the stunningly violent BONNIE AND CLYDE, and even GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, which showed Hollywood veteran stars Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn deal with their daughter's interracial marriage, (and which also starred Sidney Poitier) showed that something new was happening in American movies.  (Anyone interested in further information on these films can be directed to Mark Harris's excellent 2008 book "Pictures at a Revolution".)  Only the fifth nominee, the silly kiddie musical DOCTOR DOLITTLE, showed that old school Hollywood was still hanging in there.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was first published as a novel in 1965, written by John Ball, one of the few African American authors to write in the crime fiction genre.  It's success led to producer Walter Mirish purchasing the rights for the United Artists company.  Veteran director Norman Jewison was hired to direct, and Rod Steiger  was cast as Southern sheriff Gillespie.  When it came to casting the film's hero, homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, there was little question of who to get: Sidney Poitier.  Although African Americans had been involved with American film making from almost the very beginning (director Oscar Micheaux, for example, directed over forty movies from the silent era to the 1940's), most films with African American casts and directors were made almost entirely for African American audiences.  Poitier, on the other hand, was the first African American movie star to become famous with all audiences, starring in hit films like THE DEFIANT ONES and TO SIR WITH LOVE.  In 1967 he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, having become the first black actor to win a best actor Oscar for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD.  He accepted the role, but demanded the film not actually be shot in its Southern setting, understandably fearing that the local residents would be angry about the portrayal of their town.  (Another Southern based film about racism made that year, Oscar Preminger's HURRY SUNDOWN, had resulted in death threats from the KKK towards the cast and crew).  Suitable shooting locations were found in a small town in Illinois (except for a few brief shots of a cotton plantation that could only be found in Mississippi), and the shooting went smoothly.  It would quickly become a sizable hit, making almost eleven million dollars on a budget of around two.

Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier

Set in the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi, the story begins with local police discovering the murdered body of wealthy industrialist Colbert.  Homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, who works in Philadelphia and was just in town to visit his mother, is first brought in as a suspect, and then winds up assisting local sheriff Gillespie in the investigation, while dealing with the racist attitudes (and even attacks) of the local townspeople.
The film's opening shots show a train running through a rural setting as Ray Charles sings the great title song and the credits role.  Eventually the train passes a welcoming sign for the state of Mississippi, and audiences of that time already could feel a sense of tension, knowing full well that Mississippi was the location of some of the worst violence of the civil rights era.   As the film continues,  Jewison keeps that tension going through nearly every scene; Virgil spends the whole movie forced to interact in situations  where he runs the risk of saying or doing something that could put his life in danger.  Therefore, Poitier's Virgil is a man of few words, and long, thoughtful looks as he sizes up the people around him before he makes his next move; he grimly accepts the casual racism of the people around him, but he can lash out when pushed too far.  This leads to one of the film's most memorable scenes:  while questioning wealthy plantation owner Endicott (Larry Gates), he lets it be known that he considers Endicott a prime suspect in the murder.  When Endicott angrily slaps him, Virgil slaps him right back, a moment that brought gasps from audiences in 1967.  It still plays well today, not just because of  Poitier's defiance, but also due to the stunned reaction the slap gets from Gillespie, who just can't believe what he's seeing!

The famous slap scene

Steiger, who won a best actor award for this role, has excellent chemistry with Poitier, as his loud and boisterous performance contrasts nicely with Poitier's taciturn Virgil.  I love the way that he sarcastically mocks the large amount of Virgil's salary, or the way that he gets Virgil to stay and  help with the case by playing up to Virgil's pride("You're just gonna stay here and show us all. You've got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame".)  More importantly, Steiger effectively shows his character changing in his racial attitudes as the film progresses, as he goes from angrily spewing epithets at Virgil to respecting his obvious intelligence and ability.  The quiet, admiring way that he says goodbye to Virgil at the film's end shows that the film believes that people can change, even in Mississippi in 1967.
As good as the two leads are, the film is far from perfect; this is especially true of its confused (and confusing) murder plot that meanders before reaching a less than surprising finish.  But really, the murder plot is just an excuse to get the two main characters working together, and on that level, the film excels, clearly influencing later interracial cop buddy movies like the LETHAL WEAPON films.


As much as I enjoy Poitier and Steiger,  and admire the Academy for taking a stand on the civil rights movement,  I still don't think this film holds up nearly as well as Arthur Penn's outstanding BONNIE AND CLYDE, not to mention Mike Nichols's generation defining classic, THE GRADUATE.  Still, as usual, the Academy's choice was far from a terrible one.

Thursday, December 1, 2011



A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS was the second best picture winner for director Fred Zinnemann, the first being FROM HERE TO ETERNITY in 1953; it was a surprising success, considering that he hadn't had a hit in some time, and that the film lacked any big stars.  Interestingly, it's victory illustrates the continuing influence that the British invasion was having on the Academy: between 1962 and 1966, every best picture winner featured a European born star in the lead role, usually playing an English character.   In any event, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is a well made costume drama that has good  performances and is pleasing to look at; unfortunately, it also drags at times, and its main character is, to me, not quite as heroic as he's supposed to be.
It began as radio play written by Robert Bolt that played on BBC radio in 1954, then on British television in 1957.  Then Bolt adapted it to the stage, and eventually it had a successful run on Broadway.  Eventually, it came to Columbia, who gave Zinnemann a relatively small two million dollar budget to make the film, and then mostly left him on his own, which allowed him to cast Paul Scofield in the lead role of Sir Thomas More, a role that he had performed on stage, even though Scofield was not a well known star.  Other good actors like Robert Shaw, a young John Heard, and Orson Welles (who steals his only scene as the cynical Cardinal Wolsley) were cast and the shoot for the film went without a hitch; it became a surprise hit, making over twenty eight million dollars at the box office.
Set in 16th. Century England, and based on the true story of Sir Thomas More, it reenacts a time of great political and religious tumult in England's history:  King Henry the eighth (Robert Shaw), in dire need of an heir, plans to divorce his current wife, Catherine, so that he can marry his mistress, Ann (an unbilled Vanessa Redgrave). When the pope will not sanction the divorce, the King breaks with the Catholic church; More, who was then high chancellor and a devoted catholic, resigns rather than accept the King's actions.  He hopes to retire quietly, but the King desires More's public approval, which he steadfastly refuses to give, eventually leading to his ruin.
Scofield won an Oscar for the role, and it interesting to see the award go to a performance that is so often   soft spoken and reserved; he only raises his voice once, at the end, when he is literally defending his life.  Still, his performance is forceful even without volume, giving the strong willed More a quiet dignity and strength.  The film's best scene comes when the King arrives to personally plead for More's approval; in stark contrast to Scofield, Shaw's acting is boisterous and full bodied; I love the way he shifts from cajoling to pleading to yelling in an attempt to move the taciturn More.  It is also interesting in that while More's determination in the face of royalty is admirable, we can't help but like the King, who feels he is only asking a reasonable favor, and who's desire for an heir is understandable. So the audience can see both sides of the argument, and we can also sense the warmth and respect the two men have for each other, even as they disagree.  It is disappointing that this is the only scene the two characters share in the movie (Shaw appears again only briefly later in the film), especially since for the rest of the movie More's main adversary is Leo McKern's villainous Cromwell, a far less interesting character than Shaw's.

Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield

Even worse though, is the fact that this confrontation between More and the King is the last great moment in the film, as the rest of the movie quickly becomes a series of predictable (but admittedly well acted) scenes.  Once it is established that More will never give in, the story becomes one long slog of him slowly losing one thing after another, from his position to his freedom to, inevitably, his life.  It is interesting to note that the original radio production was just one hour long, while the film lasts two, and I think the padding of the story shows.
Also, I often find it hard to sympathize with More's stubbornness; here is a man who is willing to lose everything in his life, despite the entreaties of his King, his friends and his family, all to prove a principle.    Early in the film, we see that he refuses to allow his daughter, Margret (Susannah York) to marry a Lutheran (calling him "a heretic"),  so the importance of religion to him is clearly established, and his deference to the Vatican is a logical move for him.  Still, by the end of the film, when he is imprisoned while his family lives in poverty, I just can't feel that he's doing the right thing, and I admire his wife for resolutely saying that she will never understand him.  Personally, I've always felt that it was perfectly reasonable for, say, Galileo,  to publicly admit that  he was wrong about the earth rotating around the sun when the Inquisition threatened to kill him because of it.  I understand how important principles can be to people, but I put human life before ideals, and because of that I can't say that I have  much sympathy for More.   He is also a bit of a fool, since he assumes that the King will allow him to retire peacefully, when it should have been obvious to him that that would never happen.

Paul Scofield


While writing about 1964's best picture winner, MY FAIR LADY, I criticized the Academy for picking that old fashioned musical while rejecting the far more dynamic A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, and I feel the same way about this choice; A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is a well mounted and performed adaptation of a play, but it is far less exciting than another play turned into a movie that was released that year: Mike Nichols's adaptation of Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA  WOOLF?.  With   it's great, raw performances by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, (featuring equally raw language!) that was really the best and most memorable movie of that year.