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Oliver! The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray Review

Oliver! (1968) movie poster Oliver!

Theatrical Release: December 10, 1968 / Running Time: 153 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Carol Reed / Writers: Charles Dickens (novel Oliver Twist), Lionel Bart (book, music & lyrics), Vernon Harris (screenplay)

Cast: Ron Moody (Fagin), Shani Wallis (Nancy), Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), Harry Secombe (Mr. Bumble), Mark Lester (Oliver Twist), Jack Wild (Jack Dawkins/The Artful Dodger), Hugh Griffith (Magistrate), Joseph O'Conor (Mr. Brownlow), Peggy Mount (Mrs. Bumble), Leonard Rossiter (Mr. Sowerberry), Hylda Baker (Mrs. Sowerberry), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypole), Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Bedwin), Sheila White (Bet), Wensley Pithey (Dr. Grimwig), James Hayter (Mr. Jessop), Elizabeth Knight (Charlotte), Fred Emney (Chairman - Workhouse), Edwin Finn (Pauper - Workhouse), Roy Evans (Pauper - Workhouse)

Songs: "Food, Glorious Food", "Oliver!", "Boy for Sale", "Where is Love?", "Consider Yourself", "Pick a Pocket or Two", "It's a Fine Life", "I'd Do Anything", "Be Back Soon", "Who Will Buy?", "As Long As He Needs Me", "Reviewing the Situation", "Oom-Pah-Pah", "Reviewing the Situation (reprise)"

Buy Oliver! on Blu-ray exclusively at Screen Archives

The Hollywood musical peaked in the 1960s. That decade, musicals were a major attraction, frequently topping the box office and featuring extensively in award shows.
The genre would cool off some in the 1970s and even the enormous success of Grease (1978) would not revive it as a prominent and lucrative staple of the industry. Grease was considered popular entertainment, not high art and accordingly it settled for accolades like Golden Globe nominations and People's Choice wins.

The genre has never quite enjoyed a full-fledged comeback, either. Every few years, there's a new hit: Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, Les Misιrables. But for each of those, there are two flops flying under the radar. The Globes' Musical or Comedy categories remind us each year of the genre's scarcity.

In the 1960s, the film musical was a magnet for critical respect and a venue for great ambition. No longer were musicals just trivial vehicles for the likes of Esther Williams and Elvis Presley. Whether dramatic or comedic, they could tell a story with skillful cinematic technique. Oliver! (1968) became the fourth musical to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in the '60s, following the triumphs of West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. The next time a musical would claim the industry's highest honor would be Chicago in 2002.

Musicals continued to be made, sometimes to both recognition and formidable returns (e.g. Fiddler on the Roof), but in many ways, Oliver! feels like the end of an era. Event musicals with their long runtimes, intermissions, and large-scale song and dance were disappearing, replaced by the edgy, unflinching realism of dramas from a new generation of young filmmakers. The evolution of American cinema is clearly reflected in the Best Picture winners that followed Oliver!: Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, and The Godfather. Distance makes it easy to see that films were getting more mature and, by most regards, better, a progression you can try to follow through to the present day. Some point along the way, though, the films considered the best stopped being the most popular ones.

Even when it's for the better, change isn't easy. As such, Oliver! produces more of a response as the swan song of a format that provided so much joy than as an individual work. It's a film you can love and fondly recall in detail but also struggle to get through or have a strong desire to revisit. It's a film with several characters and songs that are forever emblazoned in your mind after a single viewing and yet one whose story gets muddled and key sequences are soon forgotten. You can simultaneously accuse it of not doing justice to its celebrated source while also feeling that it's more accessible and enjoyable than a Charles Dickens novel ever could be.

Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) is prosecuted for a theft he didn't commit in "Oliver!" In London, Oliver makes the acquaintance of Jack Dawkins (Jack Wild), better known as The Artful Dodger.

Oliver!, of course, adapts Dickens' 1837 work Oliver Twist, by way of the Lionel Bart stage musical that debuted in London's West End in 1960 and began a long, successful run on Broadway in 1963. It tells the story of Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a young blond workhouse orphan who draws the long straw that requires him to ask for more of the gruel that he and his fellow unfortunate youths are served. That request gets Oliver singled out and sold into service. He is acquired by a family of undertakers, who use him as a funeral procession mourner, but only briefly before he reacts to torment and gets thrown in the dreary cellar.

From there, Oliver escapes and makes the long journey into London, where he immediately meets Jack Dawkins (Jack Wild), better known as the Artful Dodger, a street-wise young pickpocket who brings innocent Oliver into his world. It is a community of young thieves working for Fagin (Ron Moody), the leader who provides for them from the wallets they steal and other illicit dealings with the feared Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed).

On his first day on the job, Oliver is apprehended for a pocket he didn't pick. Just before he can be sentenced, Oliver's innocence is declared and he is taken in by the wealthy victim of the crime. The arrangement exposes Oliver to a sunnier side of life, but makes Fagin and Sikes worry that Oliver could jeopardize their operation with the drop of a hat. Meanwhile, Sikes' gal Nancy (Shani Wallis), who endures his abuse, worries for Oliver's safety, especially after Sikes brings him back to Fagin's gang.

Fagin (Ron Moody) gives these runaway boys food and shelter as long as they pick a pocket or two for him.

The only G-rated Best Picture winner, Oliver! is a lively production that viewers of all ages should find charming to some degree. This was the biggest film and one of the last directed by Carol Reed, an Englishman who won the first three BAFTA awards for Best British Film for the late-1940s noirs Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and his masterpiece The Third Man. Reed was new to musicals but not to big productions, having tackled The Agony and the Ecstasy shortly after departing the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty remake over creative clashes with Marlon Brando.

Oliver! is not the film for which Reed is celebrated these days, but he does an admirable job of giving the movie breadth and vitality. The anamorphic Panavision compositions of cinematographer Oswald Morris (nominated for the Oscar, which he later won for Fiddler) are often striking.

Unquestionably, the film is a tad overlong. Though the trend back then was to approach three hours (as My Fair Lady and Sound of Music did) and it seems right for productions of such stature, Oliver! suffers from running 153 minutes (with overture, intermission, and exit music). The movie takes a while to get going, hitting the half-hour mark with very little to show for it. It could easily check in under two hours and tell its story more efficiently. As is, high points are mixed among lows and the entirety lags some. Screenwriter Vernon Harris trims a little and reorders some numbers from the stage show, but the film requires a good deal of patience especially in contrast to today's paces.

Good-natured barmaid Nancy (Shani Wallis) is a little too forgiving of her boyfriend's faults. Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) displays a more menacing nature than his colleague Fagin.

In spite of this, you can't help but love the movie, its strong creative story and bold characters. The latter are capably brought to life by the focal cast members. Mark Lester, who had previously appeared in a handful of British television episodes, has the pure look the story needs. The angelic high-pitched voice, it was later revealed, actually belonged to Kathe Green, the 24-year-old daughter of musical arranger Johnny Green. Countering Oliver with wholesome devilishness is Jack Wild, who at 16½ became the third youngest male nominated for a competitive acting Oscar (a distinction that Haley Joel Osment and Kramer vs. Kramer's Justin Henry have since served to diminish). An equally compelling study of contrast is found in the two adult leads. Outstanding and flashy as the beguiling,
essentially decent Fagin, Ron Moody regrettably lost the Best Actor Oscar to Cliff Robertson's turn in the stupid drama Charly. Oliver Reed is also powerful as the brooding, understated, mutton-chopped menace Sikes. In the lone female role of importance, Shani Wallis is saddled with both an unflattering hairstyle and an unbecoming propensity for enabling, but Nancy supplies some needed kindness.

The strengths of Oliver! certainly overshadow the weaknesses and it ends up being a film you can think highly of, without necessarily wanting to sit through often.

Last week, Oliver! became one of the highest profile movies to date in the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment library licensed to Twilight Time, a specialty distributor that has been bringing classic and contemporary films to Blu-ray since 2011. Available exclusively at Screen Archives, these releases cost a bit more than general retail counterparts, but they are limited to print runs of just 3,000 units and therefore prone to disappearing. Twilight Time's agreement grants them a five-year window of exclusivity, so when they're gone, they're gone for a while and with no alternative. Those who have missed out on the label's Blu-rays of the seminal '80s horror flicks Christine and Fright Night are now being asked to pay as much as over $200 to get a copy from second-hand markets, giving concrete credence to the old saying "You snooze, you lose."

Oliver! The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Screen Archives Blu-ray Disc Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (English), 4.0 DTS-HD MA (Isolated Score)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: November 12, 2013
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
List Price: $29.95
Blue Keepcase
Still available on DVD ($14.99 SRP; August 11, 1998) and Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as DVD & CD Giftset (September 27, 2005)


You'd expect a film as famous and esteemed as Oliver! to get treated to terrific picture and sound from a major studio.
You might not have the same confidence in a small label whose product isn't available in stores. But make no mistake, Twilight Time is not the equivalent of Warner Archive and similar made-to-order programs that have given refuge to films and television programming that can't turn a profit in general retail. No, Twilight Time authors pressed discs, not burned ones. And they don't lower your expectations with disclaimers about limited restoration efforts, because they haven't skimped in this regard.

This fantastic presentation of Oliver! proves that despite their limited print runs and therefore ceilinged profit margins, Twilight Time is very much committed to quality. Sharp and pristine, its age hidden and its original filmic look preserved, this 2.35:1 transfer boasts all the splendor you'd expect from a Criterion Collection restoration. As my introduction to this line, I am highly pleased by what's encountered here, as this 45-year-old film is impeccably restored to the highest heights of 1080p.

I entered expecting a little less than the high standards of Sony's own Blu-rays, but the results here are as impressive as any catalog title they've brought to Blu-ray that I've seen. This is a movie that suffers significantly in pan and scan, so anyone still relying on an old VHS will be blown away. But even if you've got Sony's 1998 DVD and think it holds up well enough (meaning you're willing to overlook that you have to flip the disc at the intermission), you will find this Blu-ray a significant improvement over it. The high definition eliminates most conceivable problems while allowing you to appreciate like never before the people-watching this film of many crowd scenes so thoroughly lends to. The closest to shortcomings that scrutiny yields are a couple of instances of tiny hair-like bits on the edges of frames and a less than presentable intermission card. That's quite a relief considering all the wear and tear that a film so aged could exhibit.

Sound is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD master audio and it likewise compares favorably to major studio output. This isn't an unfaithful remix, since 70 mm prints presented the film with 6-track audio and 35 mm magnetic ones with 4-track stereo. While the lossless presentation doesn't showcase an abundance of directional effects, it pleases with its fine, even distribution of music and dialogue. Happily, English SDH subtitles, never a given though they should be, are provided for those who need them.

A behind the scenes featurette shows us a little bit of the filming of "Oliver!" A 49-year-old Mark Lester delivers Oliver's most famous line once more, "Please, sir. I want some more." in this 2007 interview.


When big studios license titles to small ones, bonus features tend to disappear. That's true of Mill Creek Entertainment's reasonably-priced double feature Blu-rays drawn from Sony's catalog. But not Twilight Time's releases! This disc not only retains the most significant extra from Sony's double-sided "flipper" DVD but adds to it. Though it still doesn't rival the loaded sets offered contemporaries like The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, Oliver! does get a decent collection of extras assembled here.

The Blu-ray's extras begin in the Set Up section with a Twilight Time fixture: an isolated score in DTS-HD MA 4.0, with song vocals intact. Once an occasional DVD inclusion, this feature has largely disappeared. But every Twilight Time release is equipped with it these days. Slightly lessening its value here is the fact that some sound effects creep in on certain scenes because, in the label's own words, separate music stems have not survived.
Still, it's a nice inclusion that compares to when Sony packaged the DVD with a soundtrack CD in 2005.

On the video front, everything is presented in high definition unless otherwise noted.

First up is "Behind the Scenes" (7:35, SD), a faded making-of featurette from the film's original release that touches upon all aspects of this large-scale production. It's matted to 1.85:1 from its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio seen on the previous DVD, unfortunately.

Next up come interviews with the two surviving lead cast members conducted for the UK's 2007 Special Edition DVD.

"Meeting Oliver!" (14:43) collects Mark Lester's recollections about all aspects of production and collaborators. There is evident warmth to his childhood memories of growing so fast to require Jack Wild to wear lifts, having to avoid exertion so as not to turn red, not recognizing Ron Moody out of make-up, and his and Wild's discovery of room service thrills.

Ron Moody fondly recalls his role in "Meeting Fagin!" Dance and Sing-Alongs let you dance and sing along with "Food, Glorious Food" and two other songs.

"Meeting Fagin!" (13:21) has Ron Moody revisit his most famous role. He recalls being cast, originating the role on stage, working with children (including Oliver Reed, "the biggest kid" he ever met) and an owl, and being nominated for an Oscar. He even sings a few lines of his favorite song.

Eight songs are treated to "Sing-Alongs", which actually display lyrics and notes that turn from yellow to orange as they are reached. Simple still, but better than the typical route of the scenes with subtitles. The songs are only presented in Dolby 2.0, though. They are "Food, Glorious Food", "Consider Yourself", "Pick a Pocket or Two", "I'd Do Anything", "Be Back Soon", "Who Will Buy?", "Reviewing the Situation", and "Oom-Pah-Pah."

Dance Instructions are supplied for "Be Back Soon" (3:33), "Food, Glorious Food" (3:05), and "I'd Do Anything" (5:29). In these shorts, evidently produced for the same 2007 UK DVD, an unidentified woman walks you through the steps while the scenes are projected next to her. Presumably intended for young viewers, these are fun to have whether or not you intend to dance along.

"Dance and Sing-Alongs" treats the three aforementioned songs -- "Be Back Soon" (2:44), "Food, Glorious Food" (2:39), and "I'd Do Anything" (4:12) -- to both animated lyrics and a presentation that lets the dancer silently share the screen with the film clip. It's safe to say that no aspiring singer/dancer is underserved here.

The original "Oliver!" theatrical trailer boasts the bright colors you associate with the late 1960s more than the film. The Twilight Time Catalogue shows you which of the specialty label's Blu-rays have sold out and which are still available.

The film's colorful, unusual, mostly still-based original theatrical trailer (1:41) is kindly preserved. It differs from the longer and more conventional one included on the film's DVD, a 4-minute preview that obviously came later, based on its touted Academy Award wins.

Over several pages, "Twilight Time Catalogue" gives us an up-to-date recap of the studio's output with cover art,
release dates, and availability. It's a fun way to see what there is, what there will be soon, and what you've already missed out on.

Aside from the alternate trailer, the only thing dropped from Sony's US DVD is a viewer-navigated photo gallery containing 18 stills of publicity art and behind-the-scenes photos.

The static menu (silent save for navigation noises) simply adapts the cover art. Though the disc does not let you place bookmarks on the film, it graciously resumes unfinished playback even after the disc is ejected, a nice touch too many Blu-rays neglect to provide.

The final extra is found inside the case: an 8-page, staple-bound booklet, which makes nice use of old marketing imagery and features a brand new essay from resident Twilight Time historian Julie Kirgo. It puts the film into context, while knowledgeably and agreeably analyzing its story, songs, characters, and settings. The booklet is an improvement over the 4-page photo one included on Sony's DVD.

In the iconic shot that lends the Blu-ray its cover, Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) dares to ask Bumble for more gruel.


One of the last grand, old-fashioned musicals, Oliver! is a little overlong but a lot of fun. While this decorated Dickens adaptation remains a product of a bygone era, its characters, story, songs, and production design maintain timeless entertainment value.

Though you wouldn't have guessed this title hitting Blu-ray as a limited edition Twilight Time release, there is no shame or disappointment in that. The film is treated to a stellar restoration and joined by a solid 35 minutes of featurettes, all the sing- and dance-alongs you could want, an isolated score, and a nifty essay booklet. It's hard to imagine the film getting all that or more in general retail, so this release is very much worth the additional cost it demands. Drag your feet and you'll only wind up paying much more for this release when it is sold out.

Support classic cinema on Blu-ray when you buy Oliver! exclusively at screenarchives.com

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Reviewed November 18, 2013.

Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1968 Columbia Pictures, Romulus Productions, and 2013 Twilight Time.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.