Directed by Raymond Bernard
This excellent four-and-a-half hour adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, noted as being the most complete rendering of the story, was released as three films. I watched one film a day over three days. Part One: “Une tempête sous un crâne” (Tempest in a Skull) covers Jean Valjean’s release from prison and redemption in the encounter with the Bishop through the death of Fantine. Part Two: “Les Thénardier”(The Thenardiers) covers little Cosette’s treatment at the hands of the Thenardiers and her rescue then flash forwards eight years to Paris to relate Cosette’s romance with Marius and the Thenardiers’ threats against Jean Valjean. Part Three: Liberté, liberté chérie (Freedom, dear Freedom) covers the Uprising of 1832 and the conflict at the barricades through the end of the novel. There is certainly enough plot to justify the long running time!
The highlight of the film is Harry Baur’s portrayal of Jean Valjean. He is a powerful, taciturn, and unassuming man, equally convincing as a convict and as a gentleman. Baur is one of those actors that can express a world of emotion with a glance and is superb. Charles Vanel plays Javert as a relentless enforcer of the law, there is no evil posturing here. The other performances are not quite up to these two but are quite adequate.
The film is filled with beautiful expressionist lighting and interesting camera angles. Little Cosette’s trek to fetch water in the dark is unforgettable and reminiscent of Snow White’s adventures with its scary faces seen in every tree. Although the filming was all done on the back lot, the set design and costuming are lavish and evocative of 19th Century France. Finally, there is a fabulous score by Arthur Honegger. Very highly recommended.
Jean Valjean and the Bishop