Les Misérables (1935) opens in a crowded courtroom. A judge presides over a case, clearly one of many that day. Jean Valjean , a young man, is on trial for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. The law is rigid and unmerciful, his crime is worth but a few francs but he is sentence to ten long years in the galleys. He never sees his family again, and is forced to spend the rest of his life repenting for his small crime of survival.
Les Misérables is a film about justice and social responsibility. Altered to mirror current social ills caused by the depression, it stresses the need for leniency and respect for prisoners. The film points to government’s and law enforcement’s failures to society as men are guilty until proven innocent, and if convicted are forced to live with this burden their entire lives. Long after their release from prison, they are ostracized and unable to find work, shelter or happiness. Their only alternative for survival inevitably is a return to crime. Jean Valjean learns this soon enough, but is saved by a bishop who teaches him the mantra he will hold onto for the rest of his days, “Life is to give, not to take”.
What makes the film so appealing and fresh, lies in the performances and it’s strong aesthetic. Hugo’s timeless narrative and themes don’t need all that much to remain relevant and interesting, but this film truly excels at being a stand alone and memorable film.
Fredric March demonstrates enormous depth, transformation and understanding of his character and source material, as he gives perhaps the best performance of his illustrious career. March, although no doubt handsome lead, especially in his youth was never held down by age restrictions. Perhaps it is because he didn’t quite break into the industry until he was a little older, or maybe it was good genetics but he could always rather convincingly age decades in the span of a short film. Part of it was no doubt an understanding of body language. Looking at his films from the early 1930s, it’s really his manipulation of his body and face that allow for such diversity and conviction in his performances. The most notable being his award winning turn in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: as Hyde, he’s impossible to recognize as a human being, let alone as Fredric March. More than just his makeup, he moves like a spider; his back is arched, his fingers stretched, and a nearly inhuman ability to move swiftly around a room, feels sub or even proto human.
The other half of March’s performance is in the eyes. More than most of his male contemporaries, close-ups with March offered an entirely new level of nuance and performance. The scowl and darkness of his expression shifts progressively as Jean ages. The shots almost become increasingly darker until his eyes are hidden completely in shadow. Comparing this growth and internal development to March’s second role of the film, as a dumb look-a-like who gets pinned with his crimes, there is an absent and vacant complamency in the eyes and expression. Although wearing nearly identical makeup to that of Jean after he has left the Galleys again aside from the shallow similarities there is little in this second character that feels or looks like the real Jean. In a single scene lasting just a few minutes, March is able to transform to create an entirely different entity, with an entirely different identity.
March also no doubt related to the relationship between father and adopted daughter on a more personal level. He himself had adopted two children with his wife Florence Eldridge (who also appears in this film as Fantine). Although I can’t speak too highly of either actress who plays his daughter (neither is bad mind you), his own conviction is more than enough to sell the relationship.
Charles Laughton also stars as Inspector Javert. The role is not dissimilar to Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (also released in 35’) but where one character carries his own form of justice too strongly, the other only exercises the written law… although without an ounce of pity or understanding. His character is full of self-hatred and his one note pursuit for the law stems from his own past as a child born in prison. He’s vowed to separate himself entirely from where he was born, and at any cost. Even the mention of his past nearly sends him into tears. As good as he was as Bligh, I would argue he’s more deserving of acclaim here. His presence is far darker, far more complex and his performance never teeters over the fine line of overacting, which I think he’s guilty of in Bounty.
The style of the film exploits these performances with extensive close-ups. Aside from Dreyer’s masterful La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc, I cannot think of a single film that uses them quite so effectively. I’ve already touched on how it aids March’s performance, but that alone is not enough to make the film truly interesting. It’s also how they’re framed, often off balance or with the face partially obscured. For every conventional approach to the human face there are two or three that break the mode of conventional Hollywood framing. The film has the same detached quality as Dreyer’s film, and every close-up almost feels like a soliloquy, as the characters retreat into their own thoughts or neurosis. Or on the other hand command the attention of the other characters, and the audience completely.
The film borrows heavily from German expressionism, and darkness becomes nearly as important as light. The film feels as thought it’s been shrouded in an impenetrable fog. Often there is only one clear light source that serves to only partially illuminate the screen. Unusual angles are used extensively. Much like in the Third Man, the camera is placed just a little off balance. The audience often can’t detect what is wrong exactly, but it lends to a general disorientation and added tension that the film needs. It makes for an atmosphere that feels real (to a certain) extent, but also as if something is wrong. This works well with the themes of a society and system of justice that is off balance and generally “twisted”.
The editing is also quite accomplished, compared to most other American films from the 1930s the editing is swift and impressionistic. It’s quite obviously inspired by the Soviets, especially in action oriented sequences where time is manipulated for dramatic effect. Other techniques like speeding up time are also used for added effect.
I’ve actually been looking forward to seeing this film for years now, and suffice to say I was very impressed. It’s rare than films exceed expectations that have been building for so long, but this one has. A rare gem.