Oliver! (1968): Carol Reed’s Musical Won Best Picture Oscar, but Is It Really Good?

The distinguished British filmmaker Carol Reed, better known for his psychological thrillers (“The Third Man”), directed this musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s famous serialized novel, “Oliver Twist.”  Before it became a movie, the novel was a huge success as a stage musical in London and Broadway. The transfer from stage to screen is only half-successful due to the tendency to soften and sentimentalize Dickens’s harsher treatment of the subject of poverty and orphans.

Please read about Carol Reed’s Career



oliver!_5Detailed Plot and Structure of Musical (Sequence of Songs)

The tale begins in a workhouse in Dunstable, visited by the wealthy governors who fund it. During the banquet for them, the orphan boys who work there are served their daily meal, but they dream of enjoying the same “Food, Glorious Food” as their masters.

The boys draw straws to see who will ask for more food and it’s the turn of Oliver Twist, who goes Bumble and Widow Corney, who run the place and asks for more. Enraged, Bumble takes Oliver to the governor (“Oliver!“), and it’s decided to sell the boy for service. Bumble tries to sell him to the highest bidder (“Boy for Sale“). Oliver is sold to the undertaker Sowerberry, who plans to use him as mourner for children’s funerals.

After his first funeral, Noah Claypole, Sowerberry’s apprentice, insults Oliver’s mother and Oliver attacks him; as punishment, Oliver is thrown into the cellar. Alone in the dark, Oliver wonders “Where is Love?” He pushes the window open and escapes.

oliver!_4Shortly after arriving in London, he meets Artful Dodger, a thief who takes him under his wing (“Consider Yourself“). Dodger’s home serves as hideout for young pickpockets run by the criminal Fagin. Oliver naively believes that the stolen items were “made” by them. He helps the boys stealing while singing, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” to get by.

Fagin sneaks off to meet Bill Sikes, a dangerous thief and lover of Nancy, who waits for him at the pub and sings of her life (“It’s a Fine Life“).  At the hideout, Oliver witnesses Fagin counting his hidden treasures, taking more than his fair share from Sikes’ loot.

Nancy and her sister Bet arrive to collect some money from Fagin on behalf of Sikes, and meet Oliver. The boys mock Oliver for his politeness towards Nancy, and Dodger attempts to be gentlemanly towards her, (“I’d Do Anything“).  Oliver asks to go with Dodger, which he agrees to (“Be Back Soon“). While on the job, Oliver witnesses what Dodger really does and is apprehended for Dodger’s theft of a wallet that belongs to Mr. Brownlow. Afraid that Oliver will inform the police, Fagin and Sikes send Nancy to court to observe him. Oliver is too terrified to say anything, but a bookseller who witnessed the act proclaims Oliver’s innocence. As Brownlow takes in Oliver, Sikes and Fagin send Dodger to follow them.

oliver!_3Oliver, who now lives with the wealthy Mr. Brownlow, watches the merchants of London sell their wares. (“Who Will Buy?“) Sikes and Fagin are determined to get Oliver back, with Nancy’s help. Nancy refuses as she wants Oliver to have another kind of life but Sikes hits her.  Nancy reluctantly follows Sikes, singing of her unwavering love for him despite his manners (“As Long As He Needs Me“).

Brownlow entrusts Oliver with books and money to be delivered to the bookshop. He notices a resemblance between Oliver and a portrait of his long-lost niece Emily. While walking in the streets, Oliver is sidetracked by Nancy and is kidnapped by Sikes.

After a confrontation with Fagin over Oliver’s five pound note, Sikes is defied by Oliver. Sikes becomes increasingly violent, leading Nancy to leave. Fagin threatens Sikes, almost choking him, but realizing Sikes’ violent nature, Fagin reconsiders his life, weighing his options, “Reviewing the Situation.

oliver!_2Bumble and Corney visit Brownlow as he searches for Oliver’s origin. They present a locket belonging to Oliver’s mother, who was penniless and died in childbirth. Brownlow recognizes the locket as his niece’s and throws the two out.

To initiate Oliver into a life of crime, Sikes forces Oliver to participate in a house robbery. The robbery fails when Oliver accidentally awakens the occupants, but he and Sikes get away. Fearful for Oliver’s life, Nancy goes to Brownlow, confessing her part in Oliver’s kidnapping, but she refuses to rat on Fagin or Bill Sikes. She promises to return him to Brownlow at midnight at London Bridge. When Sikes and Oliver appear, Sikes orders his dog Bullseye to guard the boy. Nancy starts up a lively song, hoping to distract Sikes (“Oom-Pah-Pah“).

Oliver and Nancy bid farewell London Bridge, Sikes grabs both of them and throws Oliver aside. Nancy tries to pull Sikes away, but he drags her behind the staircase of London Bridge and violently bludgeons her. He then takes off with Oliver, but Bullseye returns to the scene where Nancy had died and alerts the police.

oliver!_1The dog leads Brownlow and the mob to the thieves’ hideout. Sikes arrives at Fagin’s den and demands money, revealing that he killed Nancy. Sikes runs off with Oliver as a hostage. During the evacuation, Fagin loses his possessions, which sink into mud. Sikes attempts to flee, but is shot dead by the police. Fagin decides to change his ways, but just as he is about to become a reformed character, Dodger appears with a stolen wallet. They dance off into the sunrise together, determined to live out the rest of their days as thieves (“Reviewing the Situation (reprise)”) while Oliver returns to Brownlow’s home (“Finale: Where is Love?/Consider Yourself“).

Only Oliver Reed (who incidentally is director Carol’s nephew) as the brutal Bill Sikes and Ron Moody as Fagin (who created the role in the original 1960 London production) hit the right notes, though child actor Mark Lester and Shani Wallis as Nancy are pleasant enough.

However, Lionel Bart’s music is uneven, and the staging of the production numbers is skillful but not particularly exciting.

It was hard not to notice that most of the Best Picture nominees in 1968, a year in which the country was engaged in the Vietnam War, were set in the past, suggesting that the Academy voters might have opted for escapist rather than relevant and timely entertainment.

Read about the 1969 Best Picture Oscar: John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy

Oscar: Midnight Cowboy (1969)–Best Picture Winner Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman


Fagin (Ron Moody)

Nancy (Shani Wallis)

Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed)

Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe)

Oliver Twist (Mark Lester)

Artful Lodger (Jack Wild)

Magistrate (Hugh Griffith)

Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Connor)

Widow Corney (Peggy Mount)

Mr. Sowberry (Leonard Rossiter)


Oscar Nominations: 11

Picture, produced by John Woolf

Director: Carol Reed

Screenplay (Adapted): Vernon Harris

Actor: Ron Moody

Supporting Actor: Jack Wild

Cinematography: Oswald Morris

Score of a Musical Film (Original or Adapted): John Green

Art Direction-Set Decoration: John Box and Terence Marsh; Vernon Dixon and Ken Muggleston

Film Editing: Ralph Kemplen

Costume Design: Phyllis Dalton

Sound: Shepperton Studio

Oscar Awards: 5

Picture Director Art Direction-Set Decoration Score Sound

Honorary Oscar to Onna White for her outstanding choreography achievement

Oscar Context

In 1968, “Oliver!” was not the only musical vying for the Best Picture Oscar. The other nominee was William Wyler’s screen adaptation of the Broadway hit, “Funny Girl.” It would take another 22 years for another musical, “Chicago” in 2002, to nab the Best Picture Oscar.

These musicals competed with two historical dramas, “The Lion in Winter” and Zeffirelli’s rendition of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The fifth nominee featured Paul Newman directorial debut in the intimate drama, “Rachel, Rachel, starring his wife-actress Joanne Woodward.

Carol Reed established international reputation with two extraordinary suspense films, both based on Graham Greene’s novels: The Fallen Idol, starring Ralph Richardson, and The Third Man, with Orson Welles. Both pictures boasted high production values; Robert Krasker won an Oscar for his black and white photography of Vienna in The Third Man. Reed received nominations for these films, but won the Oscar at his third nomination, for a less characteristic movie, the musical Oliver!