You'd think an epic, three-hour, all-star French-East German-Italian film adaptation of Les Misérables (1958), in super-sharp Technirama no less, couldn't possibly miss. Alas, it does, badly. Though in little details less faithful to Victor Hugo's multi-volume novel, the 1935 Hollywood film starring Frederic March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton as profoundly stubborn Inspector Javet is infinitely better. More than 70 years after it was made, that Les Misérables is still extremely exciting and powerful. By contrast, this version, while obviously expensive and much more faithful to its source, is nearly lifeless. Not surprisingly, it wasn't distributed in the United States until 1989, when it was screened in New York as part of the French Revolution's bicentennial celebration.
An Olive Films release sublicensed from Pathé, the film is divided into two distinct halves (and was sometimes shown as two separate films, as the poster below seems to indicate) with a total running time of three hours and eight minutes. Leonard Maltin reports a longer 210-minute version while Wikipedia claims a 217-minute cut, but I suspect those longer running times include overtures, intermissions, entr'actes, and exit music; this version seems pretty complete to me. The transfer is quite good but still a notch-and-a-half below the best transfers from VistaVision/Technirama format films.
The familiar if convoluted story primarily follows Jean Valjean (Jean Gabin), sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread, then hounded for years after by Inspector Émile Javert (Bernard Blier) after Valjean, branded an ex-con, breaks the terms of his release in trying to restart his life.
Jean Gabin, the great French star of Le Grand illusion (1937), Port of Shadows (1938), Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), and French Cancan (1955), among others, was pushing 60 when this was made, and so the major change from the novel has the younger Blier play both Javert and his prison guard father, where in the book they are one and the same.
Gabin's age also renders him a much less physical Jean Valjean, a man with almost superhuman strength in the novel. Yet despite these concessions, Gabin is still miscast, delivering a notably inexpressive, stony-faced performance. Even during the student revolution, at the barricade with much of the cast shot dead around him as he looks on, helpless, Gabin's c'est la vie facial expressions are decidedly inapt.
The film makes for a strange viewing experience. For starters everything is sanitized well beyond even conservative 1950s Hollywood standards. A flashback to the Battle of Waterloo and the failed student uprising is bizarrely bloodless. Even the pretty costumes don't get all that mussed. And, earlier, Fantine (Danièle Delorme), the ill-fated grisette and single mother, the same role portrayed by Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway in the latest film version, looks positively robust in this version, even on her deathbed. The interior sets and (backlot) streets of Paris have a strangely sanitized look about them. Most of the picture was apparently shot not in France but rather at Deutsche Film (DEFA) Studios in Germany and, at times, the sometimes flimsy-looking structures and their barren surroundings resemble East Berlin more than Paris.
The East German funding no doubt accounts for the film's singularly communistic take on the material, with the French bourgeoisie depicted in particularly unflattering terms, and with greater emphasis on Jean Valjean's altruism and selflessness.
The picture is odd in other ways as well. Thénardier, the unscrupulous innkeeper, is played by the great French actor Bourvil, best known for his comedy roles (though also Melville's Le Cercle Rouge, in which he's superb). As in many other adaptations of Les Misérables, including the musical, Thénardier is played as something of a comic villain along the lines of Fagin in Oliver Twist. But it's an uneasy balancing act in this case, with Thénardier at times quite sadistic yet elsewhere downright buffoonish. (Georges Van Parys's over-emphatic, overly Mickey-Mousey score doesn't help.)
The film crams most of Hugo's story into its three-hour-plus running time and some scenes, such as the funeral procession for General Lamarque, are visually spectacular, but there's little sense of pacing and everything is just sort of plopped in front of the cameras and edited together with little imagination. The film is extremely static throughout and strangely un-cinematic, its constant tableaux presentations almost like a historical silent melodrama from the teens.
Video & Audio
Les Misérables was photographed in Technirama, which was basically anamorphic VistaVision. The much larger frame size resulting from the horizontal negative allows for an extremely sharp and steady image, especially in video transfers derived from the original horizontal camera negative. On Blu-ray thus far a few Technirama film have looked spectacularly good (Circus World being the best), others just average (The Leopard, The Big Country), and several inexcusably terrible (Spartacus, El Cid). Les Misérables falls squarely in the middle ground. It appears quite sharp at times and generally pleasing to the eye, but also not pristine as it might. Color is also a bit off; Technicolor (naturally) is credited but if the original lab work was in fact done in East Berlin that might explain its slightly off-kilter hues. At 1:28:50 there's a break noting the end of Part One, which is then followed by a kind of recap prologue, a series of still photographs, leading up to the beginning of Part Two, which begins at 1:30:55. The audio, mono French only with optional (and excellent) English subtitles is adequate but not overly impressive. No Extra Features.
Worth seeing once for Gabin's* and a few of the other performances, and for the sheer size and scale of the thing, the 1958 Les Misérables is rather stillborn and the 1935 film is still probably the best and most accessible non-musical version out there. With reservations, still Recommended.
* In the same way one suffers through Humphrey Bogart movies like Tokyo Joe, Sirocco, and Battle Circus - just to watch him. The movies may be lousy and even Bogie's performance disinterested...but it's still Bogie.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.