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.