Those memorable filmic moments when all the cogs fit perfectly into place occurred magnificently in 1958, when the French finally produced the definitive version of LES MISERABLES, now on Blu-Ray from Olive Films (in conjunction with Pathe Renn and Serena Films).
Victor Hugo’s novel, now most famously known as an internationally successful stage (and feh big-screen) musical had long been thought unfilmable, at least in the way the author conceived it. Hollywood nevertheless diluted the material – not once, but FOUR TIMES – notably in two Fox renditions eighteen years apart (there had been earlier silent versions in 1909 and 1917). By streamlining the narrative into one Monarch Notes edition, the studio unveiled a 1934 version costarring Fredric March and Charles Laughton and then a 1952 visualization featuring Michael Rennie and Robert Newton. Both remain marginally entertaining, but absolutely NOT the book.
It took much finagling and decades for French producers Paul Cadeac and Richard Brandt and director Jean-Paul Le Chanoise to fashion a faithful adaptation, doing their hero, Hugo, justice, and, in 1958, when epics were all the rage, it so came to pass. A mammoth project, featuring endless extras, an all-star French cast and a colossal 188-minute running time (not including intermission), LES MISERABLES at last reflected the book in all its glory.
No longer was this one straight cat-and-mouse chase between the much-maligned Jean Valjean, an innocent who served nearly twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread, and the maniacal police officer Javert, who relentlessly pursues him. This was the novel – with many inter-stories involving the colorful and diverse characters that both men encounter during years of strife, tension, political corruption, revolution, turmoil and triumph.
The movie was structured in Von Stroheimian terms, giving supporting players their own individual stories. And, it worked. But the cast sealed the deal. As the sociopathic lawman, Bernard Blier excelled as Javert; but it was the coup choice of Valjean that forever makes this tower above any other MISERABLES. Since the 1930s, it was globally agreed that the greatest Jean Valjean would be Jean Gabin, arguably one of the twentieth century’s finest actors. By 1958, the veteran thesp had actually grown into the right age for the role, only relying on “youth” makeup in earlier segments (usually it was the other way around). Gabin not only owns Valjean, he portrays TWO roles, the second being an unfortunate who is persecuted because he looks like the bread thief (the latter later ascending to the position of wealthy industrialist). There are other terrific performances as well, including Daniele Delorme as Fantine, a single mother turned prostitute, Ferdnand Ledoux, the bishop who puts the frenzied thief Valjean on the road to redemption, plus Sergei Reggiani, Bourvil, Rene Fleur, Julianne Paroli, Jean Murat, Beatrice Altariba, Lucien Baroux, Suzanne Nivette and Jacques Marin.
The movie actually takes additional liberties with its source-work by giving us a flashback on how Javert came to become the despicable tracker he is. And what tragically happens to him after the main events play out. It was a bold but brilliant move.
This is a sensational look at oppression, humility, hope and essentially beating the odds even in the most bleak circumstances. It demonstrates how power can actually be used for the good, something often never considered in mainstream picture drama. In short, there’s never been a LES MISERABLES like this one; nor, I imagine, will there ever be. Credit the screenwriters Michel Audiard, Rene Barjavel and Le Chanois, who also excelled with his fine direction, and the opulent art and set production design by Serge Pimenoff, Karl Schneider,Pierre Dequesne, and Albert Schultze. Also the incredible period costumes authentically reproduced by Marcel Escoffer, Jacqueline Guyot, Frederuc Junker and Luise Schmidt. The music, too, is part of the winning formula, so kudos to composer Georges Van Parys. For me, the piece de resistance is the outstanding cinematography of Jacques Natteau. Filmed in gorgeous Technicolor, LES MISERABLES was, I believe, the first French production to use the then-new widescreen process of Technirama (another wise decision; this pic looks fantastic, crystal clear images, bursting with stunning hues and tones). Mono audio in French (with excellent English subtitles) completes this thrilling experience.
LES MISERALBES is an amazing Olive Films Blu-Ray, likely presented in the States for the first time in its proper aspect ratio since its original American release (the movie was an international blockbuster). Would I like to see a 4K presentation? Certainment! But this 1080p platter will suffice more than nicely until that home video joyeux evenement occurs.
LES MISERABLES. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; DTS-HD-MA [French w/English subtitles]; Olive Films/Pathe Renn/Serena Films. CAT # OF530. SRP: $29.95.