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Oliver Twist
Directed by David Lean
Produced by Ronald Neame
Anthony Havelock-Allan
Written by Screenplay:
David Lean
Stanley Haynes
Charles Dickens
Starring Alec Guinness
Robert Newton
Kay Walsh
John Howard Davies
Anthony Newley
Music by Arnold Bax
Cinematography Guy Green
Editing by Jack Harris
Distributed by Rank Organisation
Release date(s) United Kingdom:
June 30, 1948
United States:
July 30, 1951
Running time United Kingdom:
116 minutes
United States:
105 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Oliver Twist (1948) is the second of David Lean's two film adaptations of Charles Dickens novels. Following the success of his 1946 version of Great Expectations, Lean re-assembled much of the same team for his next film, including producers Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan, cinematographer Guy Green, designer John Bryan and editor Jack Harris. Lean's then-wife, Kay Walsh, who had collaborated on the screenplay for Great Expectations, played the role of Nancy.



Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) is born in a workhouse to an unwed mother who dies in childbirth. The years go by and Oliver is regularly mistreated by Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan), caretaker of the workhouse. At the age of nine, the hungry Oliver asks for a second helping of gruel ("Please sir, I want some more") and for his actions is promptly sold as an apprentice to Mr. Sowerberry (Gibb McLaughlin). Mistreated again there, he escapes and runs away to London, and is picked up there in the streets by the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) a boy pickpocket who wears a top hat and a man's overcoat. The Dodger takes him to the lair of Fagin (Alec Guinness), an old man who trains boys to be pickpockets. Mistakenly arrested for presumably picking the pocket of Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), an elderly, rich gentleman, he is cleared and taken home by Brownlow, where he experiences the kind of happy life he has never had. However, Fagin and his henchman, the dangerous and vicious Bill Sikes (Robert Newton), decide to kidnap Oliver to keep him from talking, and Sikes forces his kind-hearted girlfriend Nancy (Kay Walsh) to help. Nancy, however, feels guilty and eventually plots to help Oliver, but Sikes murders her after mistakenly believing that she has informed on him. The murder brings the wrath of the public on the gang. Mr. Brownlow and the authorities rescue Oliver while Sikes accidentally hangs himself and Fagin and his other associates are brought to justice. The mystery of Oliver's birth is unravelled, and Mr. Brownlow discovers Oliver is his grandson.

It is also revealed that Monks (Ralph Truman), Oliver's half-brother, has been in cahoots with Fagin to defraud Oliver of an inheritance. It is Nancy who reveals his actions to Brownlow, and when Fagin discovers what she has done, he makes Sikes think that she has betrayed him (Sikes). This leads to her murder.


Differences from the novel

While in general faithful to the Dickens storyline, Lean's film omits the Rose Maylie sub-plot altogether. Instead, while Oliver is forced by Sikes to help him burgle a house, Nancy goes directly to Mr. Brownlow to warn him of the plot against the boy, and Fagin dispatches the Artful Dodger instead of Noah Claypole (who appears only in the early scenes) to spy on her. Oliver returns safely from the burglary with Sikes, rather than being accidentally shot during the break-in.

Nancy's best friend, Bet, is also omitted from this film. It is the Artful Dodger, and not Bet, who discovers the murder, and who betrays the murderer to the police.

Unlike the novel, in which Nancy meets Oliver the day after he arrives at Fagin's and her sympathy for the boy is implied early in the story, she and Oliver do not even meet in the film until she helps to kidnap the boy; and although she defends him from Fagin's anger after the kidnapping, Oliver seems to still be unaware of any real concern she may have for him until late in the film, when he leaves with Sikes to commit the burglary. While wrapping a scarf around Oliver's neck prior to his leaving, she momentarily touches his cheek to silently reassure him, and he looks back at her in surprise as Sikes pushes him out the door. Unlike the novel, the musical, or many other film versions, Oliver is never shown displaying any feelings for Nancy one way or the other.

Agnes Fleming, Oliver's mother, is turned in the screenplay into Brownlow's daughter, rather than simply the paramour of Oliver's father.

Oliver's father is never mentioned at all in the film, while in the book he was Mr. Brownlow's best friend.

Although the film includes the character of Monks, Oliver's half-brother, it is never explained in the script that Monks is the half-brother at all. He seems to be merely a mysterious stranger who turns up to make trouble for Oliver. The one clue to his identity is furnished when he says to Brownlow, "Is this a trick to deprive me of my inheritance?", and Brownlow replies "You have no inheritance, for as you know, my daughter had the child!" The terms of the will left by Oliver's father — that Oliver would be disinherited if he ever committed a criminal act, are also left unexplained.


Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin was considered anti-semitic by some. Guinness wore heavy make-up, including a large prosthetic nose, to make him look like the character as he appeared in George Cruikshank's illustrations in the first edition of the novel. As a result of objections by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the New York Board of Rabbis, the film was not released in the United States until 1951 and with seven minutes of profile shots and other parts of Guinness's performance cut. It received great acclaim from critics, but no Oscar nominations. The film was banned in Israel for anti-semitism and in Egypt for portraying Fagin too sympathetically.

Beginning in the 1970s, the full-length version of Lean's film began to be shown in the United States. It is that version which is now available on DVD. The film is now considered one of the great classics of British cinema. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked Oliver Twist 48th on its Top 100 British Films.


  • Robert Donat auditioned for the role of Sikes.
  • Kay Walsh was married to David Lean at the time of the filming, but the stresses of filmmaking caused Lean to enter psychoanalysis. This played a large part in their ultimate divorce.
  • David Lean was unconvinced that Alec Guinness could ever play Fagin, until Guinness auditioned for the part.


  • Vermilye, Jerry. (1978). The Great British Films. Citadel Press, pp. 117–120. ISBN 080650661X.

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