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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The new movie Les Misérables — the one with all the singing and dying — is already a palpable hit, having earned about $60 million in North America and more than $100 million worldwide in its first six days. The grumpiness of a few critics, including this one, won’t stop Tom Hooper’s screen version of the 1985 West End musical from cleaning up at the box office and earning Oscar nominations galore. But love it or hate it, the current film is just one of about 30 screen adaptations of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel describing the travels and travails of the saintly ex-convict Jean Valjean, his decades-long pursuer Inspector Javert, the waif Fantine, her daughter Cosette, the nasty, innkeeping Thénardiers and their daughter Éponine. For Les Mizophiles and Les Mizanthropes alike, here’s one man’s countdown of some of the worthiest versions — movies, stage shows, concerts, TV and radio adaptations and a few YouTube parodies.

10. Les Misérables, 1952 Hollywood film

Four years after its 1923 founding, TIME first reviewed a Les Miz film: Henri Fescourt’s French silent version, starring Gabriel Gabrio as Jean Valjean and Jean Toulot as Inspector Javert. That the Hugo novel was already a popular template for filmmakers was noted by TIME’s reviewer: “Cinemaddicts recalled another Les Misérables, in which William Farnum appeared almost a decade ago [Frank Lloyd’s 1917 version]. Less faithful in transcription, it had, at least, dramatic structure.”

(READ: a 1927 review of the French silent film Les Misêrables by subscribing to TIME)

The novel’s dramatic structure had become a familiar domicile by 1952, as proved by 20th Century-Fox’s adaptation from screenwriter Richard Murphy (who scripted Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! and Panic in the Streets) and director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front). A fairly close remake of the much superior 1935 Fox version, which we’ll get to shortly, this one stars Michael Rennie as Jean Valjean and Robert Newton as Javert. Rennie, who the previous year had played the extraterrestrial emissary Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, is called on here to display a similar brand of otherworldliness: a sanctified masochism that makes Valjean an explicitly Messianic figure. Newton, known to kiddies as Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island, could project a manly rascality, but the demonic obsessiveness of Javert is outside his skill set.

(READ: TIME’s review of Robert Newton in the 1950 Treasure Island)

Newton takes third billing behind the lissome Debra Paget, who lends Cosette a sex appeal this demure daughter often lacks. Joseph Wiseman, the elegantly saturnine actor who was the first Bond villain in Dr. No, lends his powers of seductive rhetoric to the role of Javert’s galley-mate Genflou. Rennie also plays Champmathieu, the addled idler who is tried as Jean Valjean until the real Valjean publicly declares his convict past. Most of the lead actors in Les Misérables movies have taken both roles; one who didn’t was Jean Gabin in the 1958 French film.

9. YouTube and Simpsons parodies of Les Misérables

Given the ubiquitous impact of the Les Miz musical on popular culture, we are almost surprised by the paucity of parodies. In its early seasons, The Simpsons made frequent and cunning references to Jean Valjean’s prison number — 24601 — as worn variously by Marge Simpson, Principal Skinner and Sideshow Bob. But if you search YouTube for, say, a singing-kitten spoof of Les Miz, you’re likely to get a splicing of this musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. The mini-opera “Les Miseranimals,” a musical burlesque featuring the critters from Steven Spileberg’s Animaniacs, has polish but is vitiated by changing the music just enough to keep original composer Claude-Michel Schônberg from suing for copyright infringement. The Australian cast of Les Miz gets a good score for expertly recapping the narrative to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even as it loses points for having no particular reason to exist.

In this limited company, we give a runner-up award for Most Pointed Satire to a College Parody that compares Hugo’s student uprising to the current depression market for recent graduates. And pride of place goes to “The Les Miserables Song (Spoof),” in which nine young USC grad students with excellent singing voices play all the major roles and perform the first-act finale, “One Day More.” Fantine sings, “I sing one song and then I die/But I come back for the finale.” This is satire with affection: As the cast sings, “We are all Les Miserables,/Or in English we’re just sad./We are all Les Miserables,/But the music’s not half bad.” And this video, from abbegirl, is half-great.

8. Les Misérables, 1978 TV movie

Richard Jordan, the Harvard-educated scion of a distinguished Manhattan family and the possessor of a keen screen intelligence, had starred in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and the TV miniseries Captain and the Kings before headlining this Lew Grade production. Never was a Jean Valjean so lusciously hunky. And never was Javert such a stuffed bird — naturally, since he was played by Anthony Perkins in full taxidermized Mother Bates dudgeon. Directed by TV-movie specialist Glenn Jordan (The Picture of Dorian Gray), and adapted by indefatigable screenwriter John Gay (who also scripted a TV version of Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the film is notable for the strongest supporting cast of any Mis movie: John Gielgud as Gillenormand; Ian Holm as the nasty innkeeper Thénardier; Calude Dauphin as the kindly Bishop of Digne; Cyril Cusack as the gardener Fauchelevent; Celia Johnson as Sister Simplice; and Flora Robson as the Prioress. The guest spots offer regular respite from the so-so plot précis of this middling epic.

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 EnemyI 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)

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.

(READ: Tom Hooper on casting his 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.

2. Les Misérables, 1937 U.S. radio series

Orson Welles was a busy boy in 1937. The previous season his Mercury Theatre had enthralled Broadway with a quartet of plays, including Dr. Faustus (Welles as Faust) and the all-black “voodoo” Macbeth; the young impresario had directed and coproduced all four. In the 1937-38 season, while wowing radio fans as Lamont Cranston on The Shadow (with Agnes Moorehead as Margo Lane), he would stage four more Broadway triumphs: Julius Caesar (Welles as Brutus), Shaw’s Heartbreak House (Welles as the octogenerarian Captain Shotover), the pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock and a lightning-farce update of the Elizabethan play The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Those exploits would make Welles a TIME cover boy on May 9, 1938. Later that year, he’d stoke a national panic with the Mercury Theatre’s radiocast of The War of the Worlds. By then he was all of 23.

(READ: the 1938 Orson Welles cover story)

But in the summer of ’37, the young man already known as Awesome Welles needed a warm-weather outlet for his tireless talents. That came when the Mutual Broadcasting System commissioned him to stage a radio version of Les Misérables: seven Sunday-evening half-hours, broadcast live, from July 23rd to Sept. 3rd. He cast the piece with familiars from his stock company — Martin Gabel as Javert, Ray Collins as Thénardier, Moorehead as Mme. Thénardier, Alice Frost as Fantine, Virginia Nicholson (Welles’s first wife) as the older Cosette — and with colleagues from radio, notably Frank Readick as the Bishop of Digne. Welles, of course, played Jean Valjean and read the narration; he also wrote the radio adaptation and directed it.

(READ: Corliss on Orson Welles’ radio work)

The series, which runs 3hrs., 10min., is radio soap opera at its most elevated and thrilling. Welles split the story into seven chapters: 1. The Bishop, 2. Javert, 3. The Trial, 4. Cosette, 5. The Grave, 6. The Barricade and 7. The Final Episode. Except for the disposable fifth episode, which affords Collins too much leeway for broad comedy as a gardener and gravedigger, each chapter boasts its own dramatic arc; the seventh recaps the narrative up to Javert’s death, for latecomers, as a prelude to Valjean’s reconciliation with Cosette and God. Creating Les Miz without pictures, Welles exploits the medium to its full dramatic, oral and aural effect. He applies to radio the bold use of sound effects, crowd scenes and background music that he had experimented with in the theater, even as he would import many of his radio techniques when making his first Hollywood film, Citizen Kane.

(READ: Corliss on Orson Welles and Citizen Kane)

Beginning each broadcast with Hugo’s introduction — “So long as ignorance and poverty remain on earth, these words cannot be useless” — Welles underlines the novel’s social outrage, no less pertinent to 1937 America, when unemployment rose again at the beginning of President Roosevelt’s second term. Welles as Javert and the rest of the cast wrench full force from the personal injustices in the story. Welles as narrator uses his sonorous bass voice to paint a world of bitterness. Of the abashed and abused Fantine, he wonders, “How could she pay? She couldn’t. How could she live? She learned.” He describes the Thénardiers as “cunning and rage-married [great phrase], a hideous and terrible pair… a ferocious mistress, a malignant master.” And he indicts whole cultures — perhaps ours as well as Hugo’s — when he asks, “What is the history of France? It is society buying a slave. From whom? From misery. A soul for a bit of bread.” Seventy-five years later, we hear an eloquently morose God speaking through Valjean’s capacious heart and in Javert’s vengeful voice.

(LISTEN TO: the full 1937 Les Misérables radio series

Bonus Entry: On a Sunday evening in Oct. 1942, Welles guested on Fred Allen’s comedy half-hour, Texaco Star Theater. After suffering some raillery on his “superman myth” (“You said when a person rang my doorbell, 16 peacocks flew out of the transom, 21 guns went off in a salute and I came out of four doors simultaneously”), Welles says he wants to produce a new version of Les Misérables: himself as Jean Valjean, Fred as as Javert and everything shared 50-50. In the first scene, Valjean soliloquizes in a garret and flees when Javert raps on the door; in the second, Valjean delivers a logorrheic farewell to freedom as Javert blows his police whistle. Fred is furious — “But you took both 50s” — until Orson assures him that the final scene “is all yours, Fred. Your speech is the climax of the entire play.” In the sewers, Javert has finally trapped Valjean, who still won’t shut up. “The water in this sewer is rising,” Welles intones. “I am six-feet-nine. You, Javert, are five-feet-two…. Now, Javert… pronounce my doom! Speak, Javert. Speak.” The script reads: “Allen: (gargles water and tries to talk).”

(LISTEN TO: the 1942 Fred Allen Show with Orson Welles)

1. Les Misérables, 1933-34 French film

Cramming 1,400 pages of Hugo into a couple of hours, most movie versions of the novel play like illustrated Cliff Notes. Moviegoers, like high school students, could condense the story into 20 words: Jean Valjean, bread, jail, escape, priest, silver candlesticks, regeneration, hiding, Mayor, Javert, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, revolution, sewer, Seine, reconciliation, death. For the majority of the movie versions, the trick was to slightly expand this check list, find similarities between Hugo’s Paris and Charles Dickens’ tragicomic London, hit the major marks and skedaddle on out. French director Raymond Bernard took a different tack: assembling a cast headed by Harry Baur as Valjean and Charles Vanel as Javert, Bernard turned the novel into a three-part saga of nearly five hours and made it a vivid, independent cinematic experience.

(READ: Jesse Dorris’s Q&A with Hugh Jackman, the singing Valjean)

Available in an Eclipse/Criterion package that includes the director’s equally impressive 1932 war film Wooden Crosses, this Les Miz was released as three separate films: Tempest in a Skull, The Thénardiers and Liberty, Sweet Liberty. In 1936 it played in U.S. theaters in a 2hr., 45min.-cut; then the film disappeared until Bernard restored it in the 1950s to a nearly complete version that runs 4hrs., 42 min. While creating the fullest, most faithful movie version, Bernard also deftly compressed whole sections of the novel into the briefest, most telling vignettes — as when Valjean’s second imprisonment is encapsulated by an outside view of his cell’s iron bars, which dissolves to the same shot with the bars bent apart; the convict has again escaped.

(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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