Top 10 Les Mizzes Better Than the New Les Miz

The movie musical is already a worldwide hit, but lovers of the Victor Hugo novel can find many more satisfying versions: on film, TV, the radio and YouTube

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(READ: The influence of Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses on John Ford’s The World Moves On)

Viewers of the new Les Miz will note a few bizarrely canted camera angles, as if Tom Hooper’s Paris were meant to be Carol Reed’s Vienna from The Third Man. Bernard’s trilogy teems with such shots, indoors and on the streets, with characters and buildings ominously crowding each other. With the help of cinematographer Jules Kruger, who had helped Abel Gance shoot his epic-of-epics, the 1927 Napoleon, Bernard raised the tilted-camera trope to a ripe aesthetic — one that sees all of France as socially, legally, morally askew. He also borrows from Gance in the use of hand-held cameras, which capture the student uprising as an artful jumble of men, guns and barricades. This amazing sequence has a startling New Wave urgency; it looks both back to Paris 1832 and forward to Paris 1968.

(READ: Richard Schickel on Abel Gance’s Napoleon)

Through the Caligariesque warning shadows, Javert slinks like the vampire Nosferatu. An actor known abroad for the crafty detective he played in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 Diabolique, Vanel here is devoid of humanity, nearly devoid of character; he is Valjean’s guilty conscience made flesh, chasing him after all sins have been atoned for; he is the original sin man that Catholics believe cannot be erased in this life. The supporting actors draw their characters in strong strokes, particularly the Thénardier of Charles Dullin and the Fantine of the actress known as Florelle; her wracking coughs make Fantine the most convincing movie consumptive this side of Garbo’s Camille. But the films are dominated by the towering performance of Baur, from the opening image — of a strong men lifting a cornice depicting a crushed angel — to the final scene as Valjean dies and the flickering glow of the silver candlesticks is finally extinguished.

(FIND: Diabolique on the all-TIME Top 25 Horrtor Movies list)

In movies from 1909, Baur created memorable roles in Julien Duvivier’s Carnet du bal and The Golem, Pierre Chenal’s Crime and Punishment and Maurice Tourneur’s Volpone, earning admirers on both sides of the Atlantic, including a few at TIME. Wrote our critic of one of Baur’s few English-language film, the 1935 I Stand Condemned: “What Emil Jannings was to the German, what Charles Laughton is to the English, Harry Baur has long been to the French cinema. As France’s No. 1 character actor, however, his methods are his own. Above a body like a meal sack appears a face as soft as putty. On the face wriggle a corrugated nose, two eyebrows which appear to have disassociated sets of muscles. No dabbler in dilettantish restraint, Actor Baur roars like a lion, whispers like a snake, employs every known trick of the method which more inhibited actors contemptuously describe as ‘mugging.’ This is a technique which he acquired before the War when, as one of the villains in the Paris Grand Guignol, he used to appear on the stage in La Peste Rouge, wearing a shroud and dripping blood.”

(READ: TIME’s 1936 profile of Harry Baur)

TIME’s 1943 obituary of Baur was just as ornately warm: “Fisherman, soap salesman, fruit vendor, teacher, he took a face as mobile as a surrealist potato on to the stage in the late 1800s, was a bright star in the theater for more than 30 years, the French cinema’s Laughton-Jannings for the past twelve.” The obit didn’t mention that Baur, 62, died two days after the Gestapo released him from confinement. In Germany to make a film, he had been detained and tortured by the Nazis, who may have been seeking information on the Resistance activities of the actor’s Jewish wife. As Jean Valjean constructed a meaningful life out of a mean one, so Harry Baur made movie art by depicting powerful brutes. But unlike the character he so indelibly inhabited, Baur could not outlive the villains who tortured him.

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9 comments
sw
sw

Richard Corliss obviously had no experience of "Les Misérables" beyond these film or possibly the cliff notes. If he is willing to rate YouTube parodies above it you know you're not reading the reaction of an informed person.

Case in point: He includes the horribly offensive 1998 film version. The 1998 film turns Jean Valjean's and Fantine's into a completely improbably and ridiculous romance. The bishop is an old sarcastic geezer. Cosette packs heat (I knew they'd have to give Clare Danes a gun at some point in that thing). And Valjean hits everyone Javert, the bishop and even Cosette. Javert is turned into a super villain and the ending … Valjean watches Javert's "end" and runs off happy about it. If Valjean had actually seen it, he would have tried to save Javert. He saved him once he'd save him again. But either way he'd never smile about it.

And the 1952 U.S. version with Michael Rennie rightfully deserves a place in Mystery Science Theater mockery. It's that bad.

Now, I love the French 1958 film, but Corliss should really go watch it again and when he talks about how great it is. There's no way you can artistically excuse that film's use of voiceover narration. That narrator talks almost constantly in that film and most of what he says is redundant: "Jean Valjean found himself in the sewers" -- well, duh!

The so-so 1935 U.S. version may have great performances from the two leads. But the script is terrible. The confrontational themes are watered down into milquetoast "do good .. love." Wouldn't want anyone to really talk about God now would we?

LJDH
LJDH

The writer has an admirably obscure knowledge of 1930s radio production, which I respect (kind of), but I can't help but think this list is a little over the top. The new film version is as much of a "thrilling emotional experience" as any of the others. Stop being such a grouch!

RonnieSimmons
RonnieSimmons

I wholeheartedly agree with the choice of 1934 - 1935 film as the best adaptation. None of the others comes close, especially the new one, which is far inferior to all ten on the list. V. Hugo would be insulted to know that his epic was made into a musical.

mlktrout
mlktrout

My response seems to have been deleted. Hmmm. I will say it again, more carefully this time: you lost all credibility with this list. In particular the Liam Neeson version, which resembles Hugo's book in plot and in spirit about as much as a Basset Hound resembles an Irish wolfhound. I get it--you don't like the new musical of the movie, but you're being ridiculous in pulling out deservedly mothballed adaptations like the Neeson version and proclaim them better. I've seen about seven of the movies in your list and I have the feeling that you never saw any of them yourself.

SeattleBill
SeattleBill

you're going a bit overboard in your hatred of this film. it's a bit weird. you're being not only annoying but trying desperately to justify your nasty, mean-spirited review. maybe TIME for a new film critic? less cranky and old?

Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

Corliss, stop being such a snob.  They're all fabulous, including the current movie.

sayari10
sayari10

1998's  version isn't any good because it left out Eponine!

rksteg
rksteg

Number 6, the 1998 movie directed by Bille August. He is NOT a Swedish director, but Danish, which any quick search would've told you.

mlktrout
mlktrout

@sw THANK YOU! I said some similar things about the atrocious Liam Neeson version in my original reply and someone deleted it. Glad to know the truth cannot be suppressed for long. That movie was revisionism at its worst. 

By the way, for anyone who wants to see what Valjean would really have done if he'd seen Javert about to kill himself, find a copy of Arlene Harris's wonderful book, "Pont-au-Change: Resurrections" at Amazon (hardcopy) or Smashwords.com (ebook). I first read it ten years ago; recently reread it for the first time in a long time and was blown away all over again.