David Lean was puzzled when pale, young Alec Guinness asked to play Fagin, Charles Dickens’s grotesque old king of pickpockets, described in the novel as being shriveled and Jewish, with a “villainous-looking and repulsive face.” A screen test won Guinness the part, and the result, based closely on the text and illustrations, brilliantly presents Fagin as Oliver Twist sees him—funny at first, tutoring his boys in theft, but increasingly evil and even murderous. The filmmakers were shocked when, in America, they were accused of anti-Semitism. The U.S. release was delayed for years, as other hands cut out the very comedy scenes which Lean felt humanized Fagin and had made the accusations untrue.
Archival print courtesy of the British Film Institute
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