Harry Baur’s marble-dusted complexion makes him blend seamlessly with the statue he’s propping up, an impressively gargoylesque opening image…
The crowning glory of Pathe-Natan, delivered just before the financial axe fell, was Raymond Bernard’s five-hour epic LES MISERABLES. I feel this masterwork is disqualified from appearing as a piece in The Forgotten, by virtue of its being available from the Criterion Collection (along with Bernard’s WWI epic LES CROIX DE BOIS) but I can and enthusiastically will write about it here.
As a kind of three film mini-series, the Victor Hugo adaptation delivers the long-form pleasures distinct to works such as LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS and THE MYSTERIES OF LISBON — we get to meet a large number of characters, to observe them over time, seeing them grow up or age, and seeing them tested to destruction by the forces of history and/or narrative.
Shamefully, I’ve never read any Hugo, and the only other adaptation of this one that I’ve seen was the Twentieth Century Fox version produced a year later, which conspicuously lacks the epic sweep even if it has big splashy set-pieces and fine stars (though Fredric March seems miscast — he might even have traded roles with Laughton to better effect).
Bernard commands a giant production, and delivers it with his favourite stylistic devices, most of which seem to have been popular at Pathe-Natan and maybe owe something to Gance, while prefiguring Welles: sweeping camera moves, frantic montages of action, and especially in part three, a flurry of handheld shots to simulate the chaos of battle. Bernard also loves his tilted angles, as Michael Koresky says in his excellent liner notes: “The result was a faithful, as well as compellingly askew, vision of the book’s post–Napoleonic era France, from the ballrooms of the aristocracy (shot at such a drastic angle at one point that the dancers look as though they may slide right out of the frame) to the impoverished back alleys of thieves and prostitutes (evoked with palpable decrepitude and anguish) to the barricades of the 1832 student revolt (filmed at times with remarkable handheld fury).”
Such a film also needs strong performers, and it has them: Charles Vanel channels his granite gravitas into the stiff and grudging Javert, allowing the character’s blinkered obsessiveness to emerge slllooowwwlllyyy. He also, in his final scene, manages to closely resemble the great Dick Miller, and there can be no higher praise in my book. The film’s real discovery is little Gaby Triquette as the child Cosette, a wondrously natural and expressive kid. In a brief five-year career she managed to work for Bernard, Julien Duvivier, Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier.
This fairy-tale nightmare forest — complete with handheld lurch towards eerie skull-faced tree hollow — might have influenced SNOW WHITE — Bernard Natan visited Disney in 1934 and bought the French rights to Mickey Mouse.
There’s also the astonishingly youthful Jean Servais, whom I knew from his much later performances in RIFIFI and TAMANGO. Next time I see one of those I may start to cry, because his descent from handsome young blade in 1934 to the raddled and hangdog figure of Tony le Stephanois is heartbreaking. Whatever he went through in the intervening years, including World War Two, it must have been pretty devastating.
Servais, right. I think in this shot, Raymond Bernard has found Servais’ perfect angle.
But the movie is inevitably dominated by its Jean Valjean, the incomparable Harry Baur. Again, the film has an actor unafraid to take his time, so he spends the first half hour as a hulking brute, frustrating us with his unwillingness to learn from experience — and then he starts to weep and it’s devastating. From then on, he holds not just our attention but our admiration with his hulking anthropophagous of a performance. It’s always tricky when a movie casts a tall, fat actor as a very strong character: do we believe he’s a tough guy, or is he just extremely large? Possibly a man that size needs to be superhumanly strong just to move around? Baur sells the fight scene where he defeats seven assailants, but the last act, where he carries Jean Servais on his back through the streets, down a ladder into the sewers, and then through shoulder-high filth, is where we really had to sit back and admit this guy is TOUGH.