Please To Enjoy… #3

The Murder of Nancy the Prostitute, from

Oliver Twist (Lean, 1948)
In professional wrestling, it’s called a faceturn. The etymology of the term is this: good guy wrestlers are referred to backstage as “babyfaces”, or simply “faces”. Bad guys are called “heels.” When a heel suddenly and dramatically turns on his fellow heels in support of a face, he effectively turns into a face himself. A faceturn.

One of the great faceturns in film and I suppose literature is when Nancy, the prostitute common-law wife of the altogether bad Bill Sikes decides to turn on Sikes and her childhood crime mentor Fagin, attempting to rescue young Oliver Twist from their clutches. In David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist , Nancy is played by Kay Walsh, and it seems her contribution to the film is underrated. She’s hardly the flashiest character in the story, but she may be the most emotionally important one. Readers of the novel probably identify with Oliver, but I suspect part of why that works is that in any novel, you partly conjure the character yourself, and can mentally avoid visualizations that might harm that identification. Trickier in film – an adult viewer has the image of Oliver defined for him, and it is a child, who looks a specific way, and he’s presented over and over. Hard to forget that you are not he. It’s very easy to feel for him and want to help, but unless you have some childhood memory of neglect or privation it may be hard to identify with Movie Oliver. This is where Nancy comes in handy – she’s a grownup, with grownup feelings and foibles. Of the adults in the film, she alone knows both dark and light, the rest being all straight bad’uns n’ good’uns. She presents the moral compass and satisfies our urge to help Oliver.

Now this is all tricky as an acting job and where I say Kay Walsh really helps this version of Oliver Twist succeed so well. She starts out working against Oliver at the request of Sikes/Fagin without a second thought. At some point she puts herself between the boy and his oppressors, and its not much articulated why she does it. Walsh has to sell us on her identification with Oliver, her maternal instincts, her realization that if a child has a path to avoid their life he jolly well should, and her own strength to stand against these possible killers. She has to do this without a lot of words or obvious motivation.

She succeeds. We root for Nancy and she is a plausible film savior for Oliver because Walsh makes her so. When this promptly leads to Bill Sikes coming to kill her, it’s the moral pit of the film. Not anything that happens to Oliver, it’s what happens to Nancy that is the ultimate crime.

Her murder scene is virtuosic work from Lean, his scriptwriter, his editor, everyone really. Ironically Kay Walsh contributes littlish to it, as she doesn’t last for long, and much of what does happen to her isn’t shown. It doesn’t need to be. The character’s moral presence still dominates even as a stiff in a room. This is a big part of where the 60s musical totally fails for me – a fluff Nancy, who’s fate doesn’t really matter for much amid the bouncy songs. Moral judgement is tossed out the window.

The scene is about four minutes long, and strikes me as its own little masterclass. If you want to make a case for Lean, you might just as well start here as soon as any bit of Lawrence of Arabia. Let’s have a look:

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Nancy sleeping in their hovel. She awakens to Bill Sikes looming over her.

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At first she’s happy to see him, this because she actually loves him. She’s managed to not give up his name in her attempts to save Oliver – her work is keeping Bill from doing bad, not injuring him in any way. Then she sees the violence in his eyes.

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She’s dragged from her bed by the hair and hammered to the ground by Sikes’ fist.

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Sikes retrieves a cudgel and swings down on her. This is where Nancy starts to die. Sikes’ dog watches, and here begins one of the great canine performances of all time. Really, the dog is great.

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The dog flings himself at the door and scrapes madly at it, trying to escape the murder scene. He looks like he may kill himself trying to get away. The blows continue.

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The dog keeps tearing, contorting, and a dissolve takes us out into the quiet of night.

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Night gives way as the lampman does his bit. Lean & co. stage an interesting triptych of encroaching day – three matched shots (not quite successive, but close) of new light coming through windows. First the grand stained glass of a church, next a random person’s house in the neighborhood, then the flapping curtains of Sikes’ place.

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Sikes has been sitting there staring at the body all night. The dog…the dog is shaking with fear. This is just a still, so it doesn’t come across, but he’s shaking, and presumably has been for hours. Did I mention the dog is great?

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We get some odd shots, trying to show but not show Nancy’s dead body. They end up being suggestive of dismemberment, making it all the creepier. He covers her with a blanket so he can finally stop staring.

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He regards the traces of her…her little table of a woman’s things, the bed they shared. The guilt is consuming him. Sikes’ motivation in most everything it seems to me is fear. Fear of capture drove his violence against her in the first place, and now guilt and new fear starts to root. For all his menace, Sikes is a very weak fellow.

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The camera pushes in on Sikes’ face, the lighting darkens everywhere but right on his face, the telltale old-time movie sign of internal monologue. He imagines Nancy telling him that Fagin lied , she did no wrong. Now this is sort of true, Fagin at least misled him. But Sikes can’t know that. He’s mentally trying to confer the guilt and responsibility for this murder onto Fagin.

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He fantasizes about killing Fagin with the cudgel, and that beaky fellow lying on the floor dead. But it is not Fagin. It’s still Nancy.

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As Sikes opens the door to leave, the dog bolts out and runs like mad. Sikes heads for his accounting with Fagin, and with Fate.

Wonderful stuff, really.

2 Responses to “Please To Enjoy… #3”

  1. Sterling says:

    More like this!

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