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Hunchback of Notre Dame, The
Director Wallace Worsley's 1923 version of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is a two hour silent film that stands the test of time thanks to some fantastic production values, creative direction and a great performance from the one and only Lon Cheney.
For those unfamiliar with the story, adapted from Victor Hugo's novel by Perley Poore Shehan, it introduces us to Quasimodo (Chaney), a tragically misshaped, deaf and partially blind man who works as the lowly bell-ringer at the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. Quasimodo was raised by Don Claudio (Nigel De Brulier), the cathedral's Archdeacon, and he lives in the bellower itself. When services are held in the church's sanctuary, Quasimodo likes to watch and on one such occasion spies a gypsy dancer named Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), the daughter of The King Of The Beggars, Clopin (Ernest Torrence). He becomes quite enchanted with her right from the start and when she shows him a rare act of kindness, he is quickly very attached to her. When Don Claudio's dastardly brother, Jehan (Brandon Hurst), schemes to make Esmerelda his woman, Quasimodo can't help but get involved.
Before too long, Phoebus (Norman Kerry), who is one of the king's guards, moves in on Esmerelda and she becomes quite smitten with his dashing ways and handsome looks. Jehan cons Quasimodo into kidnapping Esmerelda only to bail when the guards catch up with him...
While most viewers seeing this for even the first time without a lot of familiarity with the source material will know where it's all heading pretty early on, this is still very much a voyage worth taking. Worsley's direction isn't always super flashy and there are moments where you could improve on the pacing a bit but overall he keeps things moving at a good clip and he has a very strong eye for visuals. While there might not be a whole lot of camera movement here, the angles used and times when close up and reaction shots are chosen definitely add to the film's dramatic moments and help raise up the tension inherent in the storyline, particularly its later half. On top of that, the set design and the costuming work that is on display in the film works really well and adds a lot to the movie. This was budgeted at roughly a million dollars, which was pretty huge by the standards of the early 1920s, and it was a pretty big gamble for a then very young Universal Studios to take, but it paid off and the movie not only did well financially for the fledgling movie house but it helped to really put them on the map as a major player alongside some of the more established studios of the era.
As to the acting, this is Chaney's show, but the rest of the cast are strong here as well. Patsy Ruth Miller has the right look for her role, she's beautiful and kind of exotic looking, a bit mysterious but also seeming to be quite kind, which is important given her character arc. She does well. Brandon Hurst does fine work here as the villain, hamming it up a little bit but in keeping with the style of the day to be sure. He's fun to watch here. Nigel De Brulier is also quite good as Quasimodo's friend, the kindly Archdeacon. Really though, Chaney is so good here, even underneath all of the heavy makeup and costuming work, that, hands down, definitely makes a much bigger and stronger impression than everyone else. He brings Quasimodo to life with vibrancy but also plays the role with the right amount of pathos to really make it work.
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.33.1 fullframe taking up just over 30.8GBs of space on the 50GB disc. For a film less than two years away from its centenary, the picture quality here is very good. Yes, there is quite a bit of print damage here but so too is there a lot of detail that really comes out in some shots and makes the makeup, costumes, sets and camerawork easier to appreciate. The disc gives the feature a strong bit rate and, as such, compression is never an issue and there are no noticeable problems with any visible noise reduction or edge enhancement to complain about here. There are some moments where the contrast blooms a bit, and again, the film shows its age and we're at the mercy of less than pristine elements here, but to this reviewer's eyes the transfer is this looks nice.
The only audio option on the disc is a 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track. Given that this is a silent film, there's really only the score from Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum and Laura Karpman to discuss here but it sounds very nice. There's good depth and range to the music and it all sounds very clean and precise with properly balanced levels.
An audio commentary by film critic Farran Smith Nehme start off the extra features on this disc. It's an informative and well-researched track that goes over a lot of detail, covering how the source novel was adapted for the silver screen, details on the makeup required for the lead role, who did what behind the camera, the state of the studio at the time the movie was made, the sets created for the film and lots more.
Also of interest will be the nine minute Life In Hollywood newsreel footage that takes us behind the scenes of what were then a few current productions, including The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Additionally, we get thirteen minutes of Lon Chaney Home Movie Footage wherein he and his family prepare for the arrival of some guests at a party being held at the Chaney home. There are also two slideshows here, the first showing off some interesting production correspondence and publicity materials and the second a selection of production stills.
Included inside the keepcase alongside the disc is a full color insert booklet that contains essay by film historian Michael F. Blake titled The Birth Of An Epic that is quite interesting to read and a nice addition to the release. It also contains a list of the cast and crew and some nice archival artwork related to the movie as well.
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame remains an important and genuinely impressive film that still stands as a really strong technical achievement almost a hundred years after it was made. Kino's done a nice job bringing this film to Blu-ray with a very nice presentation, albeit one limited by available elements, and a strong array of supplements to accompany the feature presentation. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.