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This film is, beyond any comparison, the most perfect version of Victor Hugo's timeless classic - BAR NONE! I've only seen this version once at a UCLA French film retrospective, but I was absolutely floored. If you ever get a chance to see this movie, do not miss it! Harry Baur's performance as Jean Valjean is magnificent. I'd love to see this one again. I wish it was available in any form DVD, VHS ... anything.
TFO (la Télévision Française en Ontario), the French Ontario TV channel
has started showing the complete version of this 5 hours and 15 minutes
piece (3 x 1 hour and 47 minutes) in three parts, on three consecutive
Sundays, starting yesterday. This is a major event as this film is
almost never shown, is not available on DVD and is usually cut down,
when shown at all, to three hours. It is an amazing accomplishment for
1934 because of the following elements: the mobility of the camera, the
sound effects, the music by Arthur Honegger, the witty, almost
literary, visual ellipses, the interpretation of Baur and Vanel, the
editing and eerie expressionistic camera angles, and the production
values in general (sets and costumes cannot be topped). The only
drawback of the TV showing is that the film is cropped vertically (the
old "tops of the heads are missing" syndrome), which comes from
cropping a 1.30:1 narrow ratio early-talkie film onto a 1.37:1 TV
screen without pillar-boxing. It's still worth the watch. Needless to
say: This is long overdue on DVD!
Historical note: The creepy night scene where Cosette is sent, despite her fears, to fetch water a long way from home at the request of her heartless keepers, is a direct inspiration for Walt Disney's Snow White's panicky flight through the forest scene of three years later (1937).
May 2008 update: As most of you probably know, the whole film is now available on DVD from Criterion's Eclipse series in Region 1.
This version of "Les Miserables" is very much the best I've ever seen.
I've read the book, and the author Victor Hugo has a certain kind of great, rolling oceanic rhythm, where he starts to set up a scene, appears to wander around adding elements, then slowly brings people and events to a staggering, shuddering climax two- or three hundred pages later. And he manages it several times in the one book. It's a remarkable technique, and no other film version of Les Mis that I've seen manages to capture that feeling of majestic, gigantic tension and release the way this one does.
Now, I've only seen the three-hour version of the Depardieu/Dayan version, not the original six-hour, which I've never been able to track down in a version with English subtitles.
But I've seen just about every other version, and they all have a disjointed sense of pace and continuity that comes from jamming a huge novel into a Cuisinart and filming the pages that survive.
For overall achievement, this one takes the prize. Individual scenes have been done more effectively in other versions, but for capturing the feeling of actually having read the book, this movie is the best.
Other versions have gone deeper into the dirt and filth of Old Paris; much of this film was shot on backlot streets where even the dirt is clean, like a Sam Goldwyn picture. Director Raymond Bernard is also a little too fond of tilting the camera for dramatic effect, but you get used to it quickly, and some of the German Expressionist lighting is very effective.
This is the only version I've seen that shows the actual revolution Hugo describes with sympathy and patience, and the character of Marius gains terrifically from it. By contrast, the attitude towards revolution is nervous and dismissive in the 1935 March/Boleslawski version, as Hollywood was run by Republicans in those days, and Marius inevitably comes off like a twerp. Not here.
Also, the class distinctions among the characters are etched far more clearly than in other adaptations. Today's egalitarian impulses usually tend to bland out such niceties, but our contemporary demands for comfort with these interactions are ignored in this movie from 1933.
Harry Baur as Valjean is a dramatic giant, a stocky, massive bunch of nerve endings. He is from the same school as Emil Jannings, but fortunately never plumbs the depths of Jannings' abysmal, moist self-pity. It should also be noted that Baur is better here than in Abel Gance's film about Beethoven. Some of the actors surrounding him in Les Mis are a bit obvious, but OTOH this has the best Gavroche, period.
Charles Vanel is the only Inspector Javert you are likely to see who was not affected by Charles Laughton's remarkable portrayal of the character, as that was not to be filmed until two years afterward. Laughton's Javert was so intense that it unbalanced that picture, so that the film wound up being about his agony, not Jean Valjean's, which is wrong.
Charles Vanel's Javert appears to be offhand, methodical, restrained, banal; unlike Laughton, he has no speech about why he does what he does, and he gets very few closeups. There is next to no exploration of his interior life, if any, and his death is handled very differently from what we have come to expect.
Past the initial surprise, I think that is one point of the film, that Javert is not a flamboyant, obsessive madman. Vanel's Javert is not a twitchy rogue cop like Anthony Perkins or a reptilian boogeyman like John Malkovich; this film is not a Homeric one-on-one duel to the death like "The Fugitive." Here, Javert symbolizes a government of anonymous and casual brutality. He is a willing cog in a machine that metes out rigid punishment and has no mechanism for tempering justice with mercy. This approach will definitely provoke you to thought, which you can't say about most movies.
Anyway, forget the star-studded comic book adaptations that are the norm for this title, and curl up with a good book. This one is on two DVDs, takes around five hours to watch, and you'll never regret it.
I got my first glimpse of the 1934 version while watching the 1995 adaptation with Jean-Paul Belmondo. The clips to which we are treated there intrigued me and after considerable rooting around the internet I managed to obtain a copy on video (to the best of my knowledge it has never been released in Britain). I was not disappointed. This is quite the fullest and most satisfying cinematic version of Hugo's extraordinary tale yet produced. Some may find the running time of around four and a half hours quite daunting, but I found that I hardly noticed the time pass. The reasons for its success are manifold. Firstly the detail and therefore the strength of the original are largely retained. Characters are properly fleshed out, and just as in the original we feel we share the characters' lives and get to know and care about them. The depth and number of characters are not sacrificed to considerations of time and commerce. Although some of the photography appears dated by modern standards, Raymond Bernard's literate script and direction are stimulating and advance the narrative at a steady pace (despite the impression created by the running time). He is masterful in the creation of atmosphere in both intimate and crowd scenes. For example the film is quite spectacular in its depiction of the 1832 uprising, yet it is deeply moving in the scenes involving Valjean and the Bishop. The music (by Arthur Honegger) has great dignity and is entirely apt to the tenor of the film and the themes it embraces. However, if the real strength of the piece is in the depth and conviction of its characters, their cinematic success is due in no short measure to the quality of the acting. Fantine (Josseline Gael) is perhaps a little melodramatic for modern tastes, and Javert (Charles Vanel) lacks a truly tragic quality, but all told the performances are faithful to the original and convincing, and none more so than Harry Baur as Valjean. His immense physical presence and slow, controlled delivery, combined with his ability to express his inner feelings with little more than a look or a moment's hesitation command our respect and sympathy, making him the perfect incarnation of the tormented but determined Valjean. It wreaks sincerity and a genuine desire to transfer not just the story, but the spirit of the original onto the big screen.
Hugo's novel is my bible. I remember, while I was reading the books in the course of over one year (in small portions mostly, but not rarely I had to sacrifice an entire night), one of the three volumes has been always in a striking distance to me: near my pillow, riding pillion, on my school desk or in my backpack on trips and sleep-overs. Simply put, the story was my home for that one year, Jean Valjean one of my closest friends and Cosette my own child. That's now about 10 years ago and I still return to it every once in a while, pick randomly chapters to read and still am drawn to Hugo's uniquely beautiful and powerful language (i.e. the chapter where he describes the battle of Waterloo is probably the single best piece of literature I've ever read). So, although, I love the book so much, I never dared to touch any screen adaptation, and there are plenty out there, because I did not want to ruin my imaginations of Les misérables I had in my mind for more than 10 years now. I finally did last week and what can I say? Actually, I don't want to spout too much, to run into danger to talk things to death, but it's an amazing, amazing experience when you see those pictures that were engraved in your head for a long time, now alive, in front of your eyes instead of behind. Of course, a book is, I guess, always more stimulating than its adaptation (are there actually any examples to disprove?), and Bernard's is no exception. In fact, this one is as close to the essence of literature as the medium can get. Everything that can be great about movies comes together here, and in the end, Les misérables is the first film I immediately felt home (which is mostly due to the previous history I have with the story), and when a filmmaker achieves exactly this with his very own methods, like a writer does with his/hers, the outcome is nothing less than, yes, cinematic perfection.
I am a huge fan of those lavish Hollywood productions of the same period and genre and its strict codes of plot, camera angles and montage, where even the poor have to look glamorous. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Marie Antoinette (1938), A Tale of Two Cities (1935) and 20th Century Pictures' own version of Les Misérables (1935) come to mind. But this is something different. Starting with the fantastic soundtrack by Arthur Honneger and the expressionist camera and lighting, you enter another world. Of course it helps the authenticity by being a French film with French actors. Here you can see the real French working classes, the homeless and the criminals. By the way, the English subtitles of the Eclipse DVD are good and idiomatic. Also, this monumental and epic film (DVD version 281 min, and a 315 min version seems to exist) has none of the poor production values one is accustomed to with such films from Europe of the 30s. It makes you wonder what might have been possible at, say, MGM if Stroheim or Welles had been given free reign. Let's be glad to have both visions as created in very different studios on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Les Miserables" (1933): This film on DVD comes in three parts, totaling 279 minutes. Audiences were appreciative of long, complex stories. They didn't need everything stated and resolved in 22 minutes. They had an attention span. This is THE definitive interpretation of Victor Hugo's novel. The photography is flawlessly inventive and artistic. The scoring is everything from subtle to emotional and sweeping. The story is, of course, HUGE. Like other authors of that time, the use of irony was a major, and wonderful, device (no, it is not an invention of 1990s films). DO expect IT to expect YOU to keep up. The acting is all over the map, from superb and aware, to stiff and overstated (from the only-then-dying silent film era). The set room sets and costumes are great, the landscapes & "cityscapes sometimes contrived as flat sets. This film, like All Quiet on the Western Front, are must-see examples of what powerful, early film making can be.
Since many years ago I've been a fan of Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables, and I can say this is one of the best and most faithful film adaptations of the story. Harry Baur is great as Jean Valjean, and all the cast in general is excellent. There is only one thing I may object about the film: the omission of the episode of Jean Valjean and Cosette in the Petit-Picpus convent and consequently the omission of the gardener Fauchelevent. This film is far much better than the one which is consider the classic version of Les Miserables, the one directed in 1935 by Richard Boleslawski, starring Frederich March as Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert. Raymond Bernard's version of Les Miserables is only comparable to other two French film versions of the novel: the 1982 directed by Robert Hossein, starring Lino Ventura and the 2000 TV version, directed by Joseé Dayan, starring Gerard Depardieu.
So far, I have not read the book, and have only listened to a few bits from the musical, and I am usually not too fond of foreign films. I saw that this was on TCM not too long ago and I decided to give a watch. It took me two days, because I was doing other things, and here is my overall impression: One of the Best Films Ever! The story is about convict, Jean Valjean(played by Harry Baur, who gives an incredible performance), has a changed experience because of a bishop who took him in(Henry Krauss), and saved him from going into forced labor for life. Valjean uses silver the bishop gives him, so he could have a new start in life. Along the way, Inspector Javert(Charles Vanel) tracks him down throughout the years, and while Valjean escapes and changes his identity. The story's main themes in my opinion, are redemption, humanity, and the revaluation of good and evil. Valjean is an escaped convict, but he shows love and compassion for his fellow man, and even takes in a dying woman's child as his own. He even offers Javert to arrest him after he has found Cosette(the dying woman, Fantine's child). While Javert, a police inspector, is at the wrong side of ethics, as he lacks the compassion Valjean has. The film runs over four hours, the longest film I have ever seen, and its worth it. You need the running time to be long so you can discover the full depth of the story. The film also contains themes of revolution which are present, but it does not begin until much later on in the film. Overall, one of my 10 favorite films, and is one you should get your hands on.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After watching this first adaptation of Les Misérables, I'm afraid the
bar is set high. Raymond Bernard achieved what I thought was
impossible: he took this gigantic and epic masterpiece of a book and
turned it into a great film that works incredibly well within the
This long-lost masterpiece was shot during difficult times, forgotten too fast, re-cut, re-released, cut again, and finally let aside to sleep on a shelf at Pathé. The admirable initiative of Criterion, Eclipse, finally restored it and brought it to the public in a form that is believed to be close to the original. Raymond Bernard, after his WWI success Les croix de bois, was allowed a big budget to make this three-parts film. With a running time of almost five hours, it gives itself the time to capture the essence of the story. The very few changes that were made to the plot make perfect sense. They are mostly around the ending, which they shortened more than I thought they would, given its emotional power. Still, the book is pretty intact.
As I said before, this is a great film, whether you've read the book or not. Some people disliked the extreme angles the director used through the film, especially during intense scenes. I thought they gave a creative and atmospheric touch to the film and worked really well within the context. Don't let them fool you, though: this isn't a purely visual experience, it's got a heart. Harry Baur is perfect as Jean Valjean, everything that I thought he would be. His performance makes you respond emotionally and involves you with his character, one of the greatest and most interesting of literature. Harry Baur once had the potential to become the equivalent of Jean Gabin is France, but he was arrested by the Nazis and tortured for information in 1943 because his wife was Jewish and suspected of taking part in the anti-Nazis activities in France, and died shortly afterward. He was a great actor that deserves more recognition, and he's at the top of his game here.
The rest of the cast fit their roles perfectly. Jean Servais as Marius and Josseline Gaël as Cosette are as innocently annoying as they should be, playing the two young lovers and the least interesting characters. Charles Vanel is pure evil as Javert. The child-actors who play Gavroche and Cosette are pitch-perfect. The young girl looked like the "gravure" (I don't know the English word) used to promote the Broadway musical. Orane Demazis, though, is miscast as Eponine. She was 40 and playing a teenager, in a not so memorable performance. Eponine was one of my favorite characters and so I was a little disappointed. She is the only thing I would change about this otherwise fantastic cast.
The memorable scenes of the book preserve their power. The insurrection made an impressive action scene. The sewer bit is as stressful and oppressing as it could be (The Third Man, anyone?). The convoy of convicts almost made me cry, as did the death of Gavroche and many other moments.
All in all, this is not only a great adaptation, but a great film in itself, and is definitely amongst my favorites. Any thoughts for this epic film that my boss once said "puts Les enfants du paradis to shame"?
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