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If durability is a virtue then the producers or "Les Miserables" which served to reopen the Rivoli Theatre yesterday, can lay claim to one of the sturdiest properties in the annals of filmdom. Hugo’s case history of the hunted Jean Valjean was recorded seven times, it was reported in March when Italian transcription of the work was shown here. However, repeated variations of this noble theme have not always contributed luster to the original. And the present version is no exception.
Twentieth Century-Fox' examination of the oppressed Jean Valjean's life and his oppressors, is largely an expertly wrought product but one which makes few attempts to delve deeply into the minds of its principals. Hugo's trenchant and panoramic view of the times and of French injustice, which was both damning and sweeping, is rarely brought to the surface with dramatic force.
But Richard Murphy's script and Lewis Milestone's direction are combined effectively in extracting the action, if not the genuine emotion, of the book. A viewer does not come away with the conviction that he has seen a classic manhunt. He is not however subjected to an excess of palavar. Valjean first is pictured as the convict chained to a galley oar. Only a short flashback is used to indicate how he became a prisoner - a flashback that merely indicates the inhumanity of the laws that fixed great penalties for petty crimes. Javert, his constant nemesis, is, on the other hand, an unnaturally bland gent and not the morbidly dedicated sleuth.
Valjean's encounter with the Bishop who gives him sanctuary, sustenance and a foothold on his climb toward respectability, is by far, the best emotional scene in this saga. Edmund Gwenn's portrayal of the Bishop is neither professionally pious nor flamboyant but merely an unadorned expression of faith and charity.
In compressing Hugo's weighty volume, Mr. Murphy and the director have used short scenes to depict Valjean's career as the owner of a pottery - it was an iron foundry in the Italian import - his friendship with the ill-fated Fantine and love for Cosette, her daughter whom he adopts ; his brave exposure of himself in defending the man thought to be Valjean and his subsequent flight to Paris.
The romance between Cosette and the aristocratic revolutionary Marius, and the climatic fighting behind the barricades and chase through the sewers of Paris are more brisk than compelling. As Valjean, Michael Rennie is a convict and a hunted man who occasionally forgets his manners. He is more convincing in the short period as the unkempt, bearded and brutish Valjean than as the well-to-do citizen furtively trying to hide his true identity.
Robert Newton's characterization of Inspector Javert is a uncommonly subdued one. The complex psychological makeup of the indomitable policemen who states that he was "raised by the law" and that it is "wise and just" is not made clear. He is a defeated man when he decides to commit suicide after freeing his longsought quarry, but the reasons for this fatal step are not apparent.
Sylvia Sidney is effective in a few scenes as Fantine ; Debra Paget is pretty as the nubile Cosette ; Cameron Mitchell is boyish but stalwart as her lover and Elsa Lanchester, James Robertson Justice and Joseph Wiseman add brief but competent portrayals as the Bishop's maid, Valjean's friend and a convict, respectively.
The producers have not mined dross from the rich, long-lasting literary vein, but they have not come up with gold, either. A. W.