Not half bad, not half bad. No, the new CBS version of "Oliver Twist" is only about three-eighths bad. Maybe five-sixteenths. In television, and especially in television adaptations of tubby literary classics, this actually translates as better than average.
CBS has promoted the film--airing as an "ITT Theater" special at 9 tonight on Channel 9--as "a monumental production," but "incidental production" is more like it. We wouldn't expect CBS and ITT to team up and produce something breathtaking or innovative, would we? As coffee-table television, this "Oliver Twist" is quietly simplified and modestly respectable, though no competition for such previous film versions as David Lean's, or Carol Reed's film of the Broadway musical "Oliver!"
George C. Scott gets top billing over Charles Dickens this time; Scott's appearance in the role of Fagin, the master thief, is the sole distinction for the new version, which was written by James Goldman and directed by the unimaginative Clive Donner. Scott's Fagin is a fresh interpretation; he sees the character not as a simple Dickens villain but as a rumpled, crumpled fatalist who's been relegated to his sorry station in life by a system he has no hope of controlling. The makeup and facial hair Scott wears seem to subdue him, to everyone's advantage. He's imposing, but not gargantuan.
When Lean's film was imported in the late '40s, so soon after the war and Hitler, Jewish groups protested its portrayal of Fagin. Scott affects no stereotypical mannerisms or expressions, and it's really patently unnecessary now to specify that Fagin is Jewish at all. It's an element of the Dickens original to which there is no good reason to be faithful. Yet Goldman has the evil Bill Sykes at one point curse Fagin as a "dirty Jew," a dubiously useful remnant of offensive authenticity. Sykes has already been established as a rotter through and through, so the line can't be defended as further defining him.
What is "Oliver Twist" if not a story for children? The tale of the waif whose mother dies at birth and who grows up in an orphanage, a workhouse and later with a den of pickpockets, should be part of every kid's reading life (though it is hardly so indispensable as "David Copperfield," Dickens' favorite child). For the most part, the film is suitable family fare, but, oddly, Donner chooses to protract, viciously, the killing of Nancy, Sykes' mistress, who helps the child find his way back to kindly old Mr. Brownlow (Michael Hordern) and, eventually, to the discovery of his own identity in the world.
Nancy (Cherie Lunghi) is bashed in the head by Sykes (Tim Curry, whose perversity of appearance works to his advantage in the role), stumbles about the room, blinded by the blow, then kneels before Sykes in hysterics so he can bash her again with a flaming log. Everything else about this "Oliver Twist" has been tidily toned down--it's practically a Hallmark card--and then along comes this stupidly ugly scene. There is a way to make things horrifying without being sadistic, but that takes talent and thought, and this "Twist" has an abundance of neither.
Oliver himself is capably played by the chronically blond Richard Charles. Timothy West, formerly "I, Claudius" (and an actor with a distracting facial resemblance to Sander Vanocur--or have I been glued to my tube too long?) plays Mr. Bumble nimbly. This is by no means an "Oliver Twist" brimming over with either atmospherics or ideas, but it does amount to a moderately artful dodge. 'Pilgrim, Farewell'