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Jan 2004 Journal

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Being nosey about Fagin

The subject of noses has always held great fascination for me (and not for me alone - think of what Pascal said about the effect of Cleopatra's nose on world history!). I treasure such arcane bits of nasal knowledge as the Danish astronomer Tycho de Brahe's acquisition of a silver nose after a duelling opponent had sliced off part of his proboscis.

Altering nose shapes has been a task allotted to makeup experts (and plastic surgeons) at least since Edmond Rostand wrote the box-office hit Cyrano de Bergerac. Recently practitioners of that art scored a minor triumph by transforming the retroussé profile of Nicole Kidman into the aquiline likeness of Virginia Woolf in the film The Hours.

But the major triumph of prosthenic art on screen surely occurred in 1948 when a British studio filmed Dickens's Oliver Twist. In the movie the caftan-clad, greasy-haired Fagin sported a false nose more appropriate to a medieval gargoyle on a church roof than to a human being. The actor appearing in that repellent disguise was Alec Guinness, continuing his climb to fame that had started two years earlier with Great Expectations.

We learn from Piers Paul Read's biography of the actor that he was probably the illegitimate son of a profligate member of the top drawer Guinness clan. As it happened, a highly respectable Guinness, ennobled as Lord Moyne, was wartime British Resident-General in the Middle East. HM Government's Palestine White Paper of 1939 - written to appease the Arabs - was in force throughout the war, and Lord Moyne rigorously enforced the ban on Jewish immigration. This made him a hate figure throughout the Yishuv, and in November 1944 two members of the Stern Gang assassinated him in Cairo.

Is it entirely fanciful, I wonder, to suspect that the image of Fagin Guinness created on screen owed something to vengeful feelings stirred by the murder of his near-relative?
Richard Grunberger

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