7. Les Misérables, 1958 French film
The highest ranks of French movie actors may be divided into the angels — pretty-boy aesthetic types like Jean-Louis Barrault, Gérard Philipe and Alain Delon — and the brutes: the sturdy, working-class hero exemplified by Harry Baur, Jean Gabin, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Gérard Depardieu. Appropriately, all four of these Gallic galoots have taken the role of Jean Valjean. We’ll get to Baur eventually. Belmondo played a father-and-son Valjean in Claude Lelouch’s free-range 1995 adaptation, set largely during World War II. Depardieu starred in a more faithful version in 2000, shown in France as a six-hour miniseries and in international theaters as a three-hour film with the French cast (and John Malkovich as Javert) speaking English. Gabin, the flinty exemplar of a Real French Man in such poetic-realist ’30s films as Grand Illusion, La Bête humaine, Port of Shadows and Le jour se lêve, was Valjean in Jean-Paul Le Chanois’s 1958 Franco-Italian Les Misérables, whose DVD and Blu-ray editions will be issued by Olive Films in early 2013.
(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of the Belmondo-Lelouch Les Misérables)
At 3 hrs.8 min., Le Chanois’ version has room to be faithful to the novel. It begins with Hugo’s prefatory note that his work will be of use as long as poverty and ignorance stain the earth, and ends with the book’s final words: “He died when he no longer had his angel, as the night comes when day is gone.” This film also includes several events ignored by most adaptations. After being saved and presumably enlightened by the bishop’s generosity, Valjean still has some criminal mischief in him: he steps on a coin dropped by a gypsy boy and only belatedly feels remorse. Here, Valjean truly means to rob the boy; his guilt over this theft will weigh him down for years.
(READ: TIME’s 1940 review of Jean Gabin in La Bête humaine)
The movie also includes a lengthy flashback of the Battle of Waterloo, where, as narrator Jean Topart informs us, “the night fell on 60,000 corpses.” Marius’ father, a Waterloo veteran who won a Legion of Honor fighting for Napoleon, places the boy in the care of a rich royalist, against whom he rebels by joining the student revolt. So Marius (Giani Esposito), like Cosette (Béatrice Altariba), is an orphan raised by a willful foster father. At Waterloo we also find Thénardier (the comic actor Bourvil), picking the pockets of slain solders. The venal innkeeper is woven throughout the story, showing up not only on the battlefield and at the barricades but also just before Valjean’s death. As in the novel, the boy Gavroche (Jimmy Urbain) is not a mere street urchin but the youngest child of the Thénardiers — the kid brother of Éponine (Silvia Monfort), and another rebel against his forebears. One change: this film’s Javert is the son of a locksmith at the Toulon penal colony, where he saw the prisoner Valjean demonstrate his great strength — an obsessive image Javert carries for the rest of his life.
(READ: TIME’s 1976 obit for Jean Gabin)
As with many films in the early years of the wide-screen process, le Chanois’ Les Misérables stages its dialogue scenes in stately, often static medium shots of two actors. When the actors are Gabin and Bernard Blier, who plays Javert, those scenes can crackle with tension. In the film’s main portion, the adversaries occasionally act as analysts of the other’s behavior, as when Valjean says, “Javert, you are a genius in the art of complicating things.” Each man fails to understand what drives his rival, which triggers contempt in Javert and pity in Valjean. Blier necessarily shrivels when perched next to Gabin, whom Richard Schickel aptly described as a “great screen actor whom the camera never catches acting.”
6. Les Misérables, 1998 U.K. film
Credit the Swedish director Bille August, a two-time Palme d’Or winner at Cannes for Pelle the Conqueror and The Best Intentions, for the most solid Les Miz of the past half-century — nothing great, but August manages the actors and the sprawling narrative with a brawny dexterity. Rafael Iglesias’s script gracefully covers the novel’s touchstones, and Liam Neeson (an Oscar nominee for Schindler’s List) and Geoffrey Rush (Oscar winner for Shine) make a finely balanced hero-villain pairing, both slipping beneath the skins and into the souls of their characters. For once, Valjean is allowed to kindle a kind of romance with Fantine (Uma Thurman, radiating a gorgeous pallor); they tiptoe to the edge of eroticism, making Cosette (Claire Danes) their true, if metaphorical, offspring. Fans of Homeland, and of the Claire Danes Cry Face Project, will be pleased to know that the actress, then still a teenager, has many opportunities to rain a torrent of tears.
5. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, 1935 Hollywood film
One of 12 Oscar nominees for that year’s Best Picture (the winner was Mutiny on the Bounty), this Darryl Zanuck production got the full prestige treatment: two Oscar-winning actors — Hollywood heartthrob Fredric March and character-star supreme Charles Laughton — directed by the Slanislavski-trained Richard Boleslawski and superbly photographed by mood magician Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane). Boasting speeded-up chase scenes, an “Ave Maria” chorale and an Expressionist bonus in Valjean’s vivid nightmares of his prison beatings, this remains the finest Hollywood version of Hugo’s novel. TIME called it “the grimiest great story ever told.”
(READ: TIME’s review of the 1935 Les Misérables)
Before becoming a full-fledged mogul at 20th Century Pictures in 1933, Zanuck had been production chief at Warner Bros., where he supervised such social-document sensations as The Public Enemy, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Wild Boys of the Road. His Les Miz would tap Depression-era anxieties about America’s 20% unemployment rate. On trial for stealing to feed his starving sister and her children, Jean Valjean (March) pleads to the judge, “You don’t know what it means to be hungry. You don’t know what it means to be out of work. I’ve tried and tried. I’ve walked 20 miles a day to find work. No work! No bread! We were only hungry! Hungry!” Speaking from the dock, Valjean stands next to a lifesize crucifix, a broad hint to ’30s audiences that the poor are close to God, and that their oppressors in the judiciary are tools of Satan. After the defendant is sentenced, the camera cuts to a closeup of “Exhibit A — case of Jean Valjean”: a loaf of bread.
(READ: TIME’s 1950 cover-story profile of Darryl F. Zanuck)