Oliver Twist was made in 1948 and was the second of David Lean's two film adaptations of Charles Dickens novels. Following the success of his 1946 version of Great Expectations, Lean re-assembled much of the same team for his adaptation of Dickens 1838 Novel, including Producers Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allen, Cinematographer Guy Green, Desighner John Bryan and Editor Jack Harris. Lean's then-wife, Kay Walsh, who had collaborated on the screenplay for Great Expectations, played the role of Nancy. John Howard Davies was cast as Oliver, while Alec Guinness portrayed Fagin.
In 1999,the British Film Institution placed it at 46th in its list of the top 100 British films.
A woman in labour makes her way to a parish workhouse and dies giving birth to Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies). As the years go by, Oliver and the rest of the child inmates suffer from the callous indifference of the officials in charge: Beadle. Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan) and matron Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare). At the age of nine, the hungry children draw straws; Oliver loses and has to ask for a second helping of gruel ("Please sir, I want some more").
For his impudence, he is promptly apprenticed to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Gibb McLaughlin), from whom he receives somewhat better treatment. However, when another worker maligns his dead mother, Oliver flies into a rage and attacks him, earning the orphan a whipping.
Oliver runs away to London. The Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley), a skilled young pickpocket, notices him and takes him to Fagin (Alec Guinness), an old man who trains children to be pickpockets. Fagin sends Oliver to watch and learn as the Dodger and another boy try to rob Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), a rich, elderly gentleman. Their attempt is detected, but it is Oliver who is chased through the streets by a mob and arrested. Fortunately, a witness clears him. Mr. Brownlow takes a liking to the boy, and gives him a home. Oliver experiences the kind of happy life he has never had before, under the care of Mr. Brownlow and the loving housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin (Amy Veness).
Meanwhile, Fagin is visited by the mysterious Monks (Ralph Truman), who has a strong interest in Oliver. He sends Monks to Bumble and Mrs. Corney (now Bumble's domineering wife); Monks buys from them the only thing that can identify Oliver's parentage, a locket containing his mother's portrait.
By chance, Fagin's associate, the vicious Bill Sikes (Robert Newton), and Sikes' kind-hearted girlfriend (and former Fagin pupil) Nancy (Kay Walsh) run into Oliver on the street and forcibly take him back to Fagin. Nancy feels pangs of guilt and, seeing a poster in which Mr. Brownlow offers a reward for Oliver's return, contacts the gentleman and promises to deliver Oliver the next day. The suspicious Fagin, however, has had the Dodger follow her. When Fagin informs Sikes, the latter becomes enraged and murders her, mistakenly believing that she has betrayed him.
The killing brings down the wrath of the public on the gang. Mr. Brownlow and the authorities rescue Oliver, while Sikes accidentally hangs himself trying to escape over the rooftop, and Fagin and his other associates are rounded up. Monks' part in the proceedings is discovered, and he is arrested. He was trying to ensure his inheritance; Oliver, it turns out, is Mr. Brownlow's grandson.
Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin was considered anti-semitic by some. Guinness wore heavy make-up, including a large prosthetic nose, to make him look like the character as he appeared in George Cruickshank's illustrations in the first edition of the novel. As a result of objections by the Anti-defimation League of B'nai Brith and the New York Board of Rabbis, the film was not released in the United States until 1951, with seven minutes of profile shots and other parts of Guinness's performance cut. It received great acclaim from critics, but, unlike Lean's Great Expectations, another Dickens adaptation, no Oscar nominations. The film was banned in Israel for anti-semitism and in Egypt for portraying Fagin too sympathetically.