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Oprah Winfrey fans: brush up your Dickens!

Oprah Winfrey's latest choices for her book club -- two Charles Dickens novels, "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations" -- should also spur sales and rentals of some terrific Dickens movies.

Top of the list is David Lean's 1946 production of "Great Expectations" (watch the opening sequence, above). As well as being a model adaptation, this story of a young working-class hero forced by breeding and circumstance to take on an artificial role -- upwardly mobile snob -- is a piercing and original piece of moviemaking.

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Lean builds to the convict Magwitch's shocking appearance before the boy in in the churchyard with an ominous audiovisual crescendo: atmospheric shots of Dickens' "bleak place overgrown with nettles," echoes of the wild marsh and the wind rustling spookily through the trees -- then the sudden rattle of the prisoner's chains.

Later, Lean makes palpable the morbid obsessions of Pip's sometime-sponsor, Miss Havisham. When she catches fire in her rotting bridal quarters, and Pip smothers her blaze with a tablecloth that holds the long-festering wedding cake, it splits in Pip's grasp. The camera follows the remnant as Pip frantically gathers it up, underlining the vanity and horror of fixation.

The 1935 version of "A Tale of Two Cities" isn't in the same class as a movie. But it ably compresses the story of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror -- and the brilliant, alcoholic British lawyer, Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman), who (above) opens himself to redemption when he attends a midnight Christmas service with the beautiful and virtuous Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan).

Younger moviegoers who watch Colman's Carton for the first time, or older ones who see this superb performance again after a decade-long span (as I recently did), will find his gallantry and cynicism equally vivid and startling -- and as modern as the noble volatility of Robert Downey, Jr. in "Iron Man." (Downey could be a great Sydney Carton himself.)

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