The lives of numerous people over the course of 20 years in 19th century France, weaved together by the story of an ex-convict named Jean Valjean on the run from an obsessive police inspector, who pursues him for only a minor offense.
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Edna May Oliver
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Jean Valjean, a Frenchman of good character and great strength, is convicted of stealing a loaf of bread, an act that sets in motion a lifetime of misery for Valjean, as he is pursued by the uncompromising and brutal lawman Javert. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
Another reviewer of this version of Les Miserables said this was the Cliff's Notes version of the Victor Hugo classic. I'd be hard pressed to disagree, but bear in mind that another reviewer said the novel itself is over 1300 pages. That would be a daunting task for any film maker. Les Miserables whether done in English, French or Sanskrit lends itself to a mini-series.
Nevertheless this version that stars Fredric March and Charles Laughton is a good encapsulation of the mammoth story about a paroled prisoner trying to escape his past and the relentless police official who's made it a life's obsession to track him down.
This is the third and final film that March and Laughton co-starred in and they did all three of their films for different studios, Sign of the Cross for Paramount, The Barretts of Wimpole Street for MGM and Les Miserables for the newly formed 20th Century Fox. I'd be hard pressed to pick one that is the best because all three have something different to offer.
I think what Victor Hugo does is make a great case for situational ethics in this story. March as Jean Valjean the prisoner is jailed for 10 years on a minor charge and thereafter subject to a strict parole system. He misses a check in and he's a fugitive.
But March is shown kindness by a warm and understanding bishop played by Cedric Hardwicke and changes his life around. But he has to move several times because of the relentless Inspector Javert.
Charles Laughton in his career played many a deformed soul and none more than Inspector Javert. He's a convict's son himself and to repudiate his humble origins becomes a policeman, but one with a rigid code that shows no understanding of times and conditions for a crime and makes no attempt at all to temper his rigid code with a drop or two of mercy.
Had Javert chosen the ministry, he'd have made a great hellfire and damnation preacher, getting all the words right but missing the music of love, redemption and forgiveness. And Valjean who is of equally humble origins is a redeemed soul, a conception Javert can't understand. But he also knows that Valjean even through out the trials Javert puts him through is one at peace with himself and there's no small amount of jealousy in Laughton's portrayal.
In a great acting duo, I give the decision by a few points to March, mainly because of his dual portrayal. At one point March hears from Laughton that Jean Valjean has been arrested and is on trial. After a lot of soul searching he goes to the neighboring town and gets a half wit off who is also played by Fredric March. Because of that Les Miserables has become one of my favorite Fredric March pictures.
March never got another shot at a thespian duel so to speak with another screen icon until Inherit the Wind with Spencer Tracy. His three films with Charles Laughton are deserved classics all. This is as good a version as you'll ever get of Les Miserables for a single motion picture.
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