Viewer Guide: Oliver! and Sucker

August 30, 2019 | Richard Peña

Oliver! (1968)


This week’s classic is Oliver!, the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens literary classic Oliver Twist, directed by Carol Reed.

Anyone who has ever read Charles Dickens’ classic portrait of poverty-row London might have problems initially imagining the novel as a likely source for a musical. However, we live in a world in which just about anything seems ready to be theatricalized—witness the Metropolitan Opera’s great success with the opera of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel in 2017. Premiering in London’s West End in 1960 with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, Oliver! proved to be a huge sleeper hit, playing over 2600 performances in London before transferring to Broadway in 1963 for another 774 New York performances.

With its dark narrative of an orphan’s plight in late Regency era England, moving between a brutal child labor work house and London’s seamy underbelly of thieving pickpockets, this 1968 film adaptation surprised critics and audiences alike once again. The film managed to remain true to Dickens while incorporating a welcome buoyancy through Bart’s inventive score and Onna White’s sprightly yet curiously appropriate choreography. While seemingly an incongruous assignment for Carol Reed—the acclaimed British director of the classic 1949 thriller The Third Man—Reed’s experience in making film noir, together with the sensitive cinematography of Oswald Morris, created the right atmospheric balance. Most of the film’s principal cast were new to their roles, with the angelic Mark Lester starring as Oliver and Jack Wild providing his perfect foil as The Artful Dodger. Shani Wallis and Oliver Reed co-star as the doomed Nancy and the fearsome Bill Sikes. Only Ron Moody remained from the West End and Broadway stage productions, reprising his show-stopping performance as Dickens’ larcenous mastermind Fagin to “Pick a Pocket or Two” on screen once more.

The heyday of the movie musical was well on the wane by the time of Oliver!’s release in 1968, but director Carol Reed’s lavish and expertly calibrated cinematic adaptation was that rare exception that bucked the trend to become a blockbuster hit. Honored with 11 Academy Award nominations—including actor and supporting actor nods for Ron Moody and Jack Wild—this all-singing, all-dancing Dickens interpretation went on to win Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture, in addition to an honorary statuette for choreographer Onna White. Screenwriter Vernon Harris returned to Dickens original text to flesh out composer Lionel Bart’s somewhat sketchy theatrical adaptation, yet retained much of the stage show’s narrative streamlining, entirely omitting the book’s secondary plotline with Oliver’s half-brother.

Simultaneously representing one of Dickens’ most memorable yet controversial characters, the role of Fagin was almost immediately attacked as anti-Semitic soon after the novel’s serialized publication from 1837 to 1839, with Dickens bluntly referring to Fagin as “the Jew” 257 times in the course of the text. Dickens defended himself against the accusations, claiming Fagin was simply a character type along with everyone else in the story, but eventually removed the majority of references to Fagin’s ethnic and religious identity in later editions of the book. Director David Lean’s 1948 movie adaptation generated further controversy with Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Fagin with a grotesque prosthetic hook nose. Ron Moody’s performance in Oliver! marked the first time a Jewish actor had played the role—only now, all overt references to Fagin’s ethnicity had been removed. It would be 34 years before another movie musical would win the Oscar for Best Picture, with Chicago nabbing that top honor in 2003.

Sucker (2015)


This week’s indie is Sucker, a 2015 comedy directed by Ben Chessell.

Based on an autobiographically inspired one-man play by Australian comedian Lawrence Leung, Sucker stars YouTube sensation John Luc as Leung’s alter ego, a Chinese-Australian high school student also named Lawrence whose med school prospects are dashed by a regrettable cheating scheme gone awry during his math final. Infuriated by his transgression and cavalier attitude toward school, Lawrence’s immigrant parents decide to send him away for the summer to live with a strict uncle who can “set him on the right path.”

Except Lawrence’s uncle isn’t as strict as his parents think he is, and allows his nephew to join him in a favorite pastime that will teach him discipline, tradition and self-control—playing chess. And although his uncle’s chess club holds no interest for Lawrence, it’s there that he first encounters “the Professor,” played by the British character actor Timothy Spall, who proves to be just the sort of mentor that Lawrence needs to make good on his pledge to repay his parents “every last cent” they have wasted on his education. As it happens, the Professor’s area of expertise happens to be in the realm of human psychology, although not particularly of the scientific variety: the Professor is basically a roving con man—or “professional liar” as he prefers to call himself—shrewdly sizing up his targets’ personalities and foibles to manipulate them into a variety of profitable scams. Impressed with Lawrence’s astuteness, the Professor decides to take him under his wing. And with that, Lawrence embarks on a most unusual summer “internship,” although definitely not of the kind his parents would have ever imagined. Also starring is Lily Sullivan as Sarah, the Professor’s regular accomplice whose connection to his life may not be what it first seems.

With plot elements reminiscent of Preston Sturges’ great 1941 classic The Lady Eve starring Barbara Stanwyck as a con woman always a few steps ahead of a highly gullible Henry Fonda, Sucker is another recent example of a genre that has proven to be enduringly popular throughout the history of the movies. In fact, since the multiple Oscar-winning THE STING from 1973, con man movies seem to have become even more popular than ever, with a list of box office hits that include A Fish Called Wanda, The Grifters, House of Games, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—updated from Bedtime Story and recently reincarnated as The Hustle—as well as Catch Me If You Can and the Oceans Eleven franchise. And that’s only naming a few. What does it tell us about the minds and morals of movie audiences? Or maybe what does it tell us about America, and our seeming willingness to be conned, even by the most outlandish phonies? I guess I’ll just stop there. Well, in the immortal words of W.C. Fields, “never give a sucker an even break.”

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