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Thursday, August 8, 2013

LES MISERABLES (1958)

This lux French production of the Victor Hugo classic (starry cast, Technirama, TechniColor), now out in a 188 minute edition, offers more plot than other theatrical versions, but little in the way of passion, involvement or enlightenment. What it does provide is a near perfect, make that near plus-perfect, example of the justly maligned Cinéma de Qualité that drove the staff of Cahiers du Cinéma, including future filmmakers like Chabrol, Truffuat & Godard, to distraction, serendipitously kickstarting the Nouvelle Vague film generation in France and elsewhere. And if time has tamed some of their harsher opinions, it still fits the faceless near-competence on relentless display here. (And often worse than that, especially when Jean-Paul Le Chanois stages ‘close action,’ culminating in a ludicrous escape scene set in a Parisian garret.) There’s something cumulatively infuriating in watching so much tasteful waste, as scene after scene parades listlessly in front of proscenium-bound cameras. The cast, no doubt, looked ‘safe’ on paper, but with the possible exception of Bernard Blier’s stolid Javert & Silvia Monfort’s ungainly Eponine, there’s little connection made with the iconic roles. And unhappily, that includes the great Jean Gabin, portly & impassive as the lead Jean Valjean, a particular agony both for him and for us. (It's like watching Robert Mitchum sleepwalk thru the second part of WAR AND REMEMBRANCE. Though, in his defense, Bob was 72 at the time; Jean a mere 54.)

WATCH THIS NOT THAT: Alas, the two great silent serial versions of LES MISÉRABLES from 1913 (about 5 hours) & 1925 (about 7), are unavailable in video format. Barring those, the best bet is Orson Welles' radio drama with The Mercury Theatre team. Welles not only doubles as Valjean & the criminal mistaken for him, as Gabin does, but also plays a host of other vocal roles. Makes for fun listening. In 7 parts, it runs about 3½ hours, has a reasonable amount of the book’s plot (including the great escape-by-coffin from the convent), but no Gavroche, the child hero of the doomed Revolution. A good tv production from ‘78, with Richard Jordan & Anthony Perkins, is only available in a frustratingly trimmed 2 hour cut.

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