Valjean had descended from poverty into ignominy; Javert (Laughton) was determined to rise above both. “My mother was a tramp,” he tells a higher-ranking policeman. “My father died in the galleys. I myself was born in prison. I swore to myself that I would not be of that class.” So he takes the law as his mistress, indeed his dominatrix, and can see “only two kinds of society: those who attack it and those who guard it…. Regulations, good, bad or indifferent, must be carried out to the letter!” Valjean, for all his good works, feels crushed under his notion of original sin, but Javert is the eternal prisoner of his skewed convictions.
(READ: TIME’s 1952 cover-story profile of Charles Laughton)
To keep the Valjean-Javert conflict in balance, screenwriter W.P. Lipscomb (A Tale of Two Cities) truncated the stories of Fantine (played by Florence Eldridge, March’s wife for 48 years) and Éponine (an excellent Frances Drake). The film ends not with Valjean’s demise but with Javert’s. At the end the Inspector pronounces his own death sentence when he allows Valjean to stay with Cosette (Rochelle Hudson) and Marius (John Beal). The handcuffs he intended for his prisoner he leaves at Valjean’s door, and the last shot is of a policeman’s nightstick floating in the Seine. Having invested Javert with chilling sneers and fears, Laughton brought a piercing poignancy to his character’s ultimate breakdown. The actor later wrote: “The sequence is, in my opinion, the finest thing I have been able to accomplish on the screen.” He certainly made the movies’ most memorable Javert — a creepy monster whose greatest horror is that he is also recognizably human.
4. Les Misérables, 1985 musical play
The Les Misérables everyone knows survived some rocky reviews, when it opened in London under the aegis of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985. In a review titled “Glum-Show,” The Daily Telegraph‘s Francis King wrote: “Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (‘The Glums’) at the Barbican stands in the same relation to the original as a singing telegram to an epic.” But directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird, whose eight-hour production of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby had been a hot ticket in London and on Broadway a few years earlier, and producer Cameron Mackintosh, who had promoted Cats into a worldwide smash, touched the pulse and heart of modern theatergoers. Brutality and sentiment on an epic scale, set to Schönberg’s anthemic tunes and placed on two spinning turntables, translated into nearly 50,000 performances around the globe and many warm tears shed.
(READ: Corliss’s 1981 cover story on the RSC Nicholas Nickleby)
William A. Henry III’s TIME review of the 1987 Broadway debut got it right: “From the bitter opening invocation ‘Look down, look down,’ intoned by prisoners in a dungeon, to the anthemic rallying cry ‘When tomorrow comes,’ sung at the finale by the spectral dead of revolutionary 19th century Paris, the musical version of Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables is a melodrama inflamed with outrage. Its politics always matter more than its love stories. Many of its principals die in violence or grief, but the most unprincipled of them endure and thrive…. [Yet] this epic musical sends audiences out exalted. Handsomely staged, stirringly sung and performed for the most part with consummate craft, Les Misérables nonetheless succeeds not so much for its artistry as for its heart. Far more than an entertainment, it is a thrilling emotional experience.”
(READ: William A. Henry’s full review of the Les Misérables musical)
3. Les Misérables in Concert, 1995 performance and TV show
You can pony up hundreds of dollars to see Les Miz onstage, if it’s playing at a theater near you, or you can own the best version of the musical — the 10th anniversary “dream cast” concert edition — for playing whenever your soggy soul needs uplifting. Producer Cameron Mackintosh summoned Colm Wilkinson (Valjean), Michael Ball (Marius) and Alun Armstrong (Thénardier) from the original Barbican ensemble, Judy Kuhn (Cosette) and Michael Maguire (Enjolras) from the first Broadway cast, Miss Saigon‘s Lea Salonga (Éponine), Anglo balladeer Ruthie Henshall (Fantine) and the Autralian Philip Quast (Javert) for a bare-bones but definitive rendering of the Schõnberg-Boublil-Herbert Kretzmer score. The shadows of the standing microphones occasionally obscure the faces of the singers, who are performing for a Royal Albert Hall audience, not for the intimate camera. And some of us miss Roger Allam, an imposing slab of vengeance, visually and vocally, as the original London Javert. Other than that, this is the essential Les Miz.
This concert and the 2010 25th anniversary edition, also on DVD, remind all viewers of the new movie version that Les Miz demands real singers — not just actors who have sung but vocalists who can meet the challenge of selling Schõnberg’s octave-vaulting tunes. Wilkinson, who made his musical-theater debut as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, sometimes looks like Joe Cocker straining to hatch an egg, but that could be an aspect of the stress Valjean feels, in perpetual anticipation of being sent back to jail by Javert. Kuhn, blessed with one of the clearest soprano voices on the Broadway stage, makes “In My Life” a declaration of virginal love. Armstrong, who had played the venomous Wackford Squeers in the Nunn-Caird Nicholas Nickleby (and would later earn an Olivier award as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd), should have given lessons to the movie’s Thénardier, Sacha Baron Cohen. The joy Armstrong conveys in the innkeeper’s connivery makes him a pleasure and a terror to behold.
(READ: Corliss on the film of Sweeney Todd)
For an encore, 17 Jean Valjeans from world-wide productions — including Robert Marien (France), Takeshi Kaga (Japan), Tommy Körberg (Sweden) and Jeff Leyton (Ireland) — come on stage to sing a few bars each from “When Tomorrow Comes,” then join the full cast and the hundred choristers for the all-time rousingest “One Day More.” How to express the musical exaltation this finale stirs in any Les Mizamaniac? The French have a word for it: verklempt.