Friday Film (80)

Anyone who knows me as well as does, say, my little black-and-white foundling cat — who has known me for about 20 months now, and pays the closest attention to everything I do — will know that a film like David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) is bound to present me with a complicated experience. (Note that I say ‘complicated’, rather than ‘complex’…)

On the one hand, you see, there is the fact that I have a serious allergy to the apparently great Charles Dickens: I react to every element of his work — the prose, the plots and their denouements, the characters and their silly names — in pretty much the same way that some people react to peanuts. (That’s the legume. Not the cartoon.)

What’s more, I seem to have had this constitutional aversion all along. As a TV-loving child, I loathed the creaky and ponderous Sunday-night Dickens adaptations that were absolutely the last thing a schoolboy wanted to be faced with on the final evening of the weeked. A little later — when I was about 12 years old — our school made us pay for brick-like paperback copies of Oliver Twist on the grounds that we were about to study it; having had a look at its contents, I was greatly relieved when our English teacher was suddenly sacked and his replacement didn’t carry out the plan. Then, in the sixth form, a friend gave me a copy of Dombey and Son as a present: far from being able to finish it, I could barely get beyond the first few pages — some of whose lifeless lines and unfunny humour I can still remember. And after countless comparable experiences down the decades, my sensitivity is now so great that I only need to glimpse a copy of Nicholas Nickleby in a bookshop and I break out in lumps.

Rita! How lovely to see you! And you brought Julie as well! Do come in, both of you. Now tell me, how do you like your Martinis? Oh, sorry about the little cat: she always does that…

Add to this my abiding lack of interest in the work of David Lean (1908-91). From Brief Encounter (1945) to A Passage to India (1984) by way of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and not forgetting Lawrence of Arabia (1962), I have been bored to the limits of endurance by just about every Lean film I’ve seen. Watching them, I genuinely cannot tell what it is that made Lean think their contents deserved presentation: that’s how far out of his particular world of feeling and thought I am. The result is that literally nothing will ever induce me to sit again through the c. 200 minutes of Doctor Zhivago (1965) — short of Julie Christie or Rita Tushingham agreeing to sit down and watch it with me.

On the other hand, though, there is Oliver Twist‘s score. In choosing Maurice Jarre (1924-2009) as the composer for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Lean made what, at least to me, are two of the most baffling decisions in the entire history of film music — but in engaging Arnold Bax (1883-1953) to produce the score for Oliver Twist, he actually had his hands on a highly skilled and fluent composer who is at least seven-eighths of the way to greatness. (Yes, I’m still a Bax fan — and I still think he’s shockingly under-rated.)

And, speaking of skill, fluency and near-greatness, there’s Alec Guinness: in Lean’s Oliver Twist — only his second ever screen role, you will remember! — he offers what has to be called an extraordinary and even unique performance. (I wonder how many people would see his scenes and not realise that it was him beneath Stuart Freeborn’s make-up — designed as it was to imitate the ‘first generation’ illustrations provided by George Cruikshank for the novel’s original 1837-39 serialisation.), you appreciate the complexity, I mean complicatedness of my position — which I have taken the trouble to define here for the following reason. If — given all that I have said about the frame of mind in which I approach anything that even smells of Dickens and/or Lean — I am nevertheless able to experience one or more parts of this film as meaningful, then something pretty good must be going on, even if (and I raise this as a genuine possibility) the elements to which I am responding positively and comprehendingly are ‘imports’ whose impudence and inappropriateness leave the true Dickens-lover gasping. (And if you want the clearest possible comparison from the world of music, think of the way that so many people will come away from a Stokowski orchestration of a Bach organ work spluttering “But … that just isn’t Bach…!“)

So let’s have a quick film-musical look at our piece of Dickens-Lean-Bax…

First, the trailer. Unlike so many of the trailers we’ve seen in this series, it has ‘the proper music’: it’s all by Bax, and it’s all in the film…

Having said that, though, it’s worth mentioning that the march tune heard at the start was actually taken by Bax from an unpublished piece called In Memoriam that he had written in 1916 following the Irish ‘Easter Rising’. A passionate Hibernophile, Bax was a friend of several Irish revolutionaries, and a manuscript source of this work carries the dedication — in Irish Gaelic — to one of the 16 patriots executed by the UK state: ‘I gcuiṁne ar bPádraig mac Piarais‘ [‘In memory of Patrick Pearse’]. The fact that Bax should have used this three-decades-old tune in his Twist score strikes me as worth a thought or two. (Of course, no-one will have recognised it, as the piece was never published in his lifetime, and indeed was not heard in public until 1998. But that isn’t the point, is it?)

So, if you want to hear some previously unknowable ‘context’ to this film score, here is the entire piece from which the music for the movie’s ‘redemptive’ ending (and the trailer’s ‘reassuring’ opening) was drawn…

Now, at this point I want to include a few clips from the very start of the film — prefaced by something its audiences will have expected to get, but didn’t quite.

Here’s one incarnation of the little identifying sequence that ‘The Rank Organisation’ used to run at the start of its films (The gentleman seen bashing the gong is hitting a dummy instrument: the clip’s actual sound was made by percussionist James Blades, using a far smaller tam-tam…)

Having seen that, let’s go to the very start of our film. The first thing that would have been strikingly apparent — at least, to everyone who’d not seen the trailer in the weeks before! — is that the film isn’t in colour: ‘black and white’ has been consciously chosen as the visual medium. The year 1948 is sufficiently late in the history of cinematography for the question of ‘colour, or not’ to have been at least partly an artistic decision: other British films released that year included the impressively colour-ful The Red Shoes and the chromatically cold Scott of the Antarctic — as well as Olivier’s Hamlet, that consciously monochrome successor to the vibrantly coloured Henry V of four years earlier.

The second thing that they would have noticed is … well, I leave your musical ear to make the discovery…

Myself, I always love to find that a studio or distributor ‘ident’ has been worked into some kind of original relationship with the start of a film (it doesn’t seem to be all that commonly done; here’s a modern example); I don’t know whether this splendid tautening of the structure — projecting the world of the film backwards, into its ‘frame’, as it were — came from Bax, or from Lean, or from someone else.

Let me add three other thoughts. First, consider the texture of that middle-section idea on the strings. To begin with, it is presented as an unaccompanied single thematic line: just right for a boy who, fatherless and orphaned, needs to make his way through the world alone. Secondly, this string theme — which arrives just as we are reading the film’s title — is actually constructed so as to contain a ‘twist’: immediately after its two opening A’s, it ‘turns’ by way of a B flat, an A, a G sharp, and then another A… Thirdly, the violin tremolo we hear recurring at the very end now begins the smooth transition into the ‘storm music’ for the sequence in which Oliver’s pregnant mother drags herself to the workhouse to give birth…  Bax’s hundred or so bars of fully scored music allow us to sense the… Oh, wait…

Yes, someone faded down the violins and didn’t use the storm music. The result seems to me to be a catastrophe, much as one may appreciate the elements of belated ‘high expressionism’ that circulate in this scene: having started off by defining the musical soundtrack as a dimension within which significant things are happening, the movie immediately turns into something which seems to have forgotten that music even exists… Me being me — or, to be more accurate, me having once been who I formerly was — I have spent time at the British Library, looking through Bax’s score: it’s genuinely sad to see the amount of work he put into this scene — only to have his music treated as disposable garbage and ignored altogther… apart from the three chords of string harmonics that are dug out of one of the seventeen pages to accompany the symbolic twisting of the thorny briar — and which, in my humble, aren’t all that successful in this obtrusively de-musicalised context…

But worse is to come — and jolly soon, too. Thankfully, though, we do get a few intervening minutes during which musico-dramatic sense is re-established. Bax’s music for the start of a new day that is also the start of a new life is, I think, sensitively written; and the theme that we heard twice in the Prelude turns out to have been functionally repeated: it attaches leitmotivically to the locket that Oliver’s dead mother has around her neck. (PLOT POINT ALERT!)

Here is the whole sequence, from where we left off — and I suggest that you watch and enjoy it while you can, because something appallingly stupid is about to happen…

Before I can show you what goes wrong at the point we have just reached, I need to jump ahead to a later sequence — the one in which Oliver, having been punished and sent up to bed after fighting with the other apprentice at the undertakers, exits the premises and runs away to London…

I have no quarrel with the music for this sequence, nor with the sequence itself (apart from my usual astonishment that anyone could possibly consider these undeveloping cut-out non-characters to be even bearable, let alone dramatically potent). The problem comes from the fact that part of this music gets time-shifted to our earlier sequence and imposed on a piece of action for which it was never intended…

Are you ready for this…?

The first time I ever saw this disaster and heard the sudden and unmotivated entry of solo-piano tone, I thought its composer must be a film-musical incompetent: I can still remember the way it created the impression that the newborn Oliver had just been carried into a cavernous space in which someone, somewhere was playing a piano concerto… Nowadays, of course, I know that it was not Bax who was the musical incompetent, but Lean — from whom also came the nitwit notion that the soloistic use of a piano within the score would emphasise Oliver’s isolation. (Breaking News: It doesn’t.) I don’t doubt that Bax did his professional best to make that ridiculous idea work; but he needed to have his solution respected — rather than squashed into nonsense by a duplicated cue placed wildly out of sequence.

Does David Lean subject Bax and his music to this kind of destructive interference all the way through? No, he doesn’t — though it is shockingly the case that something like eleven of Bax’s cues were omitted, another half a dozen were shortened, and various others were moved around or/and repeated. Happily, though, there are a few junctures in which Bax is more or less left alone — and Lean himself reaps the benefit, with the result being a union of film and music that impresses even me.

But all that will have to wait until next week…


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One thought on “Friday Film (80)

  1. I’m not sure whether your objection to the earlier appearance of Oliver’s Theme is down to the use of solo piano, the quality of the music, or the fact that it wasn’t Bax’s choice for that scene. But I can see why Lean used that cue there – it’s an exact parallel to the later scene (Oliver the orphan, all alone and heading out into the big, bad world). And I think we need to remember that Bax was (like so many British composers of the period) new to film scoring, Even someone with as forceful a personality as Bernstein couldn’t get his own way when he tried his hand at film music.

    As for the dropped cues, I’m tempted to go and buy the complete recording (BBC Phil). At least one reviewer felt that the loss of the storm music was to the film’s advantage…


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