After stealing a loaf a bread to feed a starving family, Jean Valjean is sentenced to ten years at hard labor as a galley slave. There he is taught to read and write by another prisoner and meets Javert, an obsessive policeman who was himself born to convict parents aboard a prison ship. After his release, Valjean is treated as a pariah but finally finds shelter in the home of a kindly bishop. Valjean repays the clergyman's generosity by stealing his silver plate. He is apprehended by the authorities and returned to the bishop but is amazed when the kindly old priest tells them that the valuable plates were a gift. This becomes a transforming experience for the ex-convict, who establishes himself under an assumed name in a small country village as factory manager and ultimately mayor. Unfortunately the newly-promoted Javert is assigned there as chief inspector. Although he doesn't recognize his old nemesis at first, the two clash over Javert's overzealous prosecution of the letter of ...Written by
Watchable version of the oft-filmed Victor Hugo tale: made by the same studio (Fox), it emerges as a wholly inferior remake of the superb 1935 version – which I reviewed earlier this month. Despite Milestone’s involvement, this one displays more surface gloss than genuine style – with the script itself being much more prosaic. Still, there’s an intermittent evidence of talent throughout – for instance, in the rather effective final shot which frames the mirror image of the protagonists between the all-important candlesticks; also worth noting is the score by Alex North which, particularly at the climax, feels like a dry run for his Oscar-nominated work on SPARTACUS (1960).
Michael Rennie and Robert Newton are fine actors, but their performances here are no match for Fredric March and Charles Laughton in the earlier film; though Newton is remarkably restrained, his role has been somewhat diminished to accommodate the sappy romance involving Debra Paget and Cameron Mitchell! Besides, it’s compromised by the loss of two small but important scenes from the 1935 version which, in this case, robs the character of essential depth: a) when Javert is humiliated by his peers for his lowly background, and b) when he blackmails newly-appointed Mayor Jean Valjean, a former convict, in his office; unbelievably, it substitutes the first by having Javert’s own father serve a prison sentence on the galley to which he’s himself assigned!
Other conceptual flaws include: Edmund Gwenn’s pivotal role of the Bishop, which comes off as whimsical alongside Cedric Hardwicke’s haunting turn in the earlier film; Valjean is depicted as an illiterate who receives schooling from the intellectual played by Joseph Wiseman (his Method approach feels out of place in a 19th century French setting!); Javert’s conscience-stricken demise here is, disconcertingly, brought about by his brief conversation with James Robertson Justice (as Valjean’s right-hand man); missing from the narrative, though, is the poignant character of Eponine (whose role gave a plausible melancholia to the romantic angle in the 1935 film).
Ultimately, I wouldn’t call the 1952 LES MISERABLES unnecessary, considering that it’s made with undeniable professionalism and the fact that countless other film versions have followed it; perhaps, the late eminent critic Leslie Halliwell summed it best in his claim that it’s “lacking the spark of inspiration”.
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