March 25th, 2017

“Oliver Twist”: on depicting violence

As far as I’m concerned, the 1948 David Lean black-and-white version of “Oliver Twist” is the masterpiece of the many movie versions of the story. I first saw the film as a child and it scared me horribly at times, but I recognized its artistry and chiaroscuro brilliance. Here’s a clip depicting the death of Nancy, in which Robert Newton is absolutely perfect as Bill Sykes. And the dog’s behavior sends chills down my spine to this day. :

Here’s an older silent version from 1922, a version which I had no idea existed:

The musical film “Oliver” was a much brighter entity entirely. But Oliver Reed was still a very good Bill Sykes, although the scene in question was substantially changed from the way it’s depicted in the book:

Note that in all three versions, the actual violence is somewhat hidden and/or mimimized. That’s not the way of current movies, but it’s very effective. The imagination can fill in the horrific gaps, and Nancy’s death is all the more poignant and terrible for that.

The Greeks had a prohibition on graphically depicting acts of violence onstage, despite the often-bloody plots of their tragedies:

…[I]n traditional Greek tragedy, no blood—not even that of an animal—was spilled on stage. In the piece ‘Drama and Dromena: Bloodshed, Violence, and Sacrificial Metaphor in Euripides,’ Albert Henrichs points out that in Greek tragedy “the most extreme forms of tragic violence are presented as off-stage events, out of sight but very much within the emotional reach of the audience.”…

Sophocles…spares no detail of Oedipus’ bloody fate—an act so repulsive that it could make even modern audiences flinch. Yet only after the chorus’ description does Oedipus himself re-enter the stage, blinded. Just as he comes into view, the chorus gives voice to the audience’s shocked reaction, exclaiming, “This is a terrible sight for men to see! …I shudder at the sight of you.” (Oedipus the King 1297-305) Here, the chorus narrates the action, informing the audience of the events that occurred offstage. Their vivid descriptions serve to fuel the imaginations of the spectators, who are left to picture the horrible sight…the chorus members do not act as impartial observers; they react to the tragic events that unfold before them in the same way the author intends the audience to react. In effect, they play a dual role: both relaying the necessary information to the audience and modeling the audience’s intended emotional response.

…Interestingly, the Greek tragedians made the best of their limited circumstances, discovering effective ways to manipulate the emotions of the audience—chiefly through the chorus—conveying a greater overall sense of tragedy.

In the story of Oliver Twist, the dog serves a similar function to the Greek chorus. Although the dog is unable to speak, it is an eloquent witness and expresses the horror the audience is expected to feel, particularly in the Lean version. Every time I see those clips from Lean’s movie—the way the light streams through the window on the morning after the murder, the depiction of the flow of Sykes’ thoughts interspersed with the dog’s trembling—I am in awe of what the director has done there.

17 Responses to ““Oliver Twist”: on depicting violence”

  1. Grace Clark Says:

    In the Lean version, Kay Walsh was a fantastic Nancy.

    I believe she was Married to David Lean at the time.

  2. Yancey Ward Says:

    I don’t know how I missed ever seeing the Lean version. I have seen Oliver, and I have read the book. I will put on the list of movies to see.

  3. Frog Says:

    Wow to David Lean. Read much of Dickens, but only after the 1948 movie, which I never before saw.
    Times have certainly not improved Hollywood’s tastes and creativities. The movie lead-ins I see as commercials today all feature preposterous grotesquely graphic violence, usually in primitive fantasy worlds where monsters lurk and combat is hand to hand, obscenely bloody. All done with computer graphics. Surprised by what happens on our streets?
    ‘Twere better we were back in the days of Aeschylus in many ways.

  4. Ann Says:

    Great mystery to me is why Lean decided to pull out all the stops on using anti-Semitic stereotypes when it came to Guinness’s portrayal of Fagin — in 1948, after we knew about the Holocaust.

  5. Bilwick Says:

    In the early to mid Fifties there was a Classics Illustrated comic book version of OLIVER TWIST, and I recall a panel showing Bill Sykes slumped in a chair, staring at the murdered Nancy. He had thrown a blanket over the corpse, but there is a huge pool of blood coming from under the blanket and onto the floor. It was the most blood I’d ever seen in a comic book, and sickened me.

  6. Paul in Boston Says:

    Ann, that’s the way Fagin is portrayed in the book, what should he have done? Same question for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. My parents were Holocaust survivors.

  7. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    Thanks, Neo, for reminding me of one of my favorite films of all time, and that compelling scene. There is so much power in what need not be seen. Just off the top of my head I am reminded of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) receiving water from Christ (we see only his hands), and that marvelous moment in “An Affair to Remember” when Cary Grant kisses Deborah Kerr on the ocean liner stairway and the camera stays focused only on their legs. (I might add that I do not believe — per reader “Ann” — that David Lean “pull[ed] out all the stops on using anti-Semitic stereotypes.” He, and Guinness, merely tried to portray Fagin as Fagin.

  8. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “Bread and circuses” demand ever greater stimulation being essentially addictive in nature.

  9. Ann Says:

    So, after the unimaginable suffering of the Holocaust, Lean decides the most important thing is to be true, and then some, to the book’s anti-Semitism. I find that appalling. Some others did, too. The film couldn’t be shown in the British sector of Occupied Berlin because of protests there, and it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1951, and then with some of the worst of Fagin edited out.

  10. Molly NH Says:

    Hypocrisy of Hollywood, gratuitous violence and guns a blazin , yet we are often “treated” to lectures from our bettors after some unfortunate horror, “It’s Time America give up guns” !

  11. Alan W Says:

    I just noticed from IMDB that the silent Oliver Twist starred little Jackie Coogan best known as Uncle Fester and the kid who got ripped off by his parents.

  12. Frog Says:

    Ann, there is nothing good down the path you think Lean should have trod. It is the subtle, seductive path of Political Correctness, which seems so very good and right at the start (“I want the world to sing, in perfect harmony!”), and yet with every forward step proceeds further into the darkness.
    The film could not be shown to the Krauts in Berlin until 1951? Were they in a late spasm of righteousness? The late, departed, obliterated European Jews had suddenly become the object of Kraut respect and love? Perhaps you can elaborate on this, since you brought it up.

  13. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    Okay… So Dickens is anti-Semitic (and George Cruikshank, too) and Mark Twain is racist and Agatha Christy is racist and Shakespeare… Oh My! Don’t get me started. And I am beneath contempt for loving them all as giants of Western literature.

  14. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    Please forgive my “y” on Dame Agatha’s name. Wish I could blame spellcheck for that.

  15. Steve57 Says:

    The scene reminds me of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Not merely because it’s from the same era. But it’s also about murder and dark secrets.

    Anyway, that’s what I flashed back to when I saw this.

  16. FunkyPhD Says:

    The death of Nancy is arguably the most gruesomely violent scene in a novel up to that time. Dickens tells how Sikes burned the club he used to bludgeon Nancy, and “there was hair upon the end [of it], which blazed and shrunk into a light cinder, and, caught by the air, whirled up the chimney.” He hit her so hard, in other words, that her hair came off and was presumably stuck to the club by her blood. Though “Oliver Twist” is a fairly early novel, Dickens was fascinated by this scene throughout his life. During the late 1860s, while still writing at his usual furious pace, Dickens did public readings (one-man performances, really) of scenes from his novels, and frequently concluded with “Sikes and Nancy.” Reportedly, it was harrowing, and raised his heart rate dangerously. Some of his friends thought that Dickens’ relatively early death (he died after a series of strokes at age 58) was hastened by his reckless insistence on performing “Sikes and Nancy” during his Farewell Tour of 1868-9. You’re right about Newton–no English actor could do a menacing turn as well as he did. Have a look at the 1941 version of Shaw’s “Major Barbara” (with Rex Harrison and Wendy Hiller) for another great menacing Newton performance (but with a happier ending).

  17. Julia Says:

    I’ve never seen this, and had to turn it off as soon as the dog started freaking out. I watch the Walking Dead, but this was just too real.

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