« Les Misérables »
Simplicity is a dangerous word to pin upon so diffuse a work as Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables", yet it is simplicity - simplicity of production, of mood, of performance and direction - which distinguishes the French film edition of the classic now being shown at the Cinema de Paris and lends it dignity, strength and a measure of great beauty.
Eighteen months have passed since Hollywood presented its version of the novel and time has blurred all but two images : Charles Laughton as the relentless Inspector Javert and Fredric March as the harried Jean Valjean. When another eighteen months have gone, I am sure we shall have a different recollection of this new "Les Miserables". There will be no spotlight of memory playing steadily upon one or two characters, but a warm glow gently suffising an entire, wellrounded production.
For this is a thoroughgoing edition of Hugo, telescoped perforce, but not a sketchy abridgment nor a high-lighting, however admirable, of one phase of the novel. The picture has a running time of two and three-quarter hours, but you probably will not be conscious of its length. Raymond Bernard, its director, has not wasted footage. Although the film is not keyed to the Hollywood tempo, it is no laggard, and it moves swiftly when there is need. And always, as it moves, the camera reaches out to seize upon some bright detail of scene or incident or characterization and use it to enrich its filmic pages.
It is part of the simplicity of the Gallic producers that they do not require, as Hollywood always requires, that their leading man be handsome. Here Jean Valjean is represented by Harry Baur, an actor of gross features, beady eyes, shaggy brows [...], with non of the implied asceticism of Mr. March, bestial in appearance rather than long-suffering. Mr March had your sympathy from the moment you saw him ; Mr. Baur's Valjean must overcome repugnance to win yours, and that he does, utterly, is the most objective way of appraising an magnificent performance.
In Charles Vanel's Javert, the film is less fortunate, although that admittedly is less the actor's fault than the producer's. Mr. Vanel unquestionably comes closer to Hugo's description of Javert than Mr. Laughton, but his motivation in tracking down Valjean - his fanatic obedience to duty, to his code - is not brought out with sufficient clarity, and for that reason Javert lacks dimension. On the same count, the picture has made less capital than did Twentieth Century's version of the implacability of the man hunt in which Javert epitomized the eternal bloodhound, Valjean the eternal quarry. It is still a story of the chase, but the personal equation has been removed. It is not as strong dramatically.
Yet there are compensations in superabundance. The trial at Arras, at which Valjean appears to save Champmathieu from going to the galleys in his stead ; the episode dealing with the waif, Cosette, in the Thenardier's inn ; the fight at the barricades, Valjean's horrible descent into the sewers bearing the wounded Marius - these have been plucked living from Hugo's pages and turned vividly into classical literature of the screen. And there are, through it all, settings of undeniable authenticity and performances of rare quality. Beyond question, the French "Les Miserables" has its faults, but only the hypercritical could be blinded by them to its equally unquestionable excellence. Frank S. Nugent