Friday, April 13, 2012

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939)

William Dieterle's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME was the last film RKO released in the 1930s. It was a nice way to end the decade, an artistic triumph that also raked in the cash and paid off a huge gamble (the budget for the film was 1.8 million, big money in 1939). In a year widely considered to be Hollywood's high point--the year of GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and STAGECOACH among many others--HUNCHBACK still stood out as a masterful achievement in filmmaking. The happy news is that the subsequent years have done little to diminish its beauty.

Adapted from Victor Hugo's doorstop of a novel, the film centers its plot on the heartbreaking figure of Quasimodo, the lonely hunchback of the title, who lives in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral. When a gypsy girl named Esmeralda is framed for a murder she didn't commit, Quasimodo rescues her from the gallows and shelters her in the bell tower. In the streets of Paris below great events play out, as crowds of thousands battle over the rights of nobles and the sanctity of the church, all of them fighting to one degree or another over who will decide Esmeralda's fate.

Dieterle's handling of these scenes is impressive. This is how you shoot thousands of human beings at once. And the sets that RKO constructed are among the most gloriously realized in all of film. Dieterle started out in German Expressionism and would later make significant contributions to noir (THE ACCUSED, DARK CITY), but this may well be his most darkly beautiful film. Working with cinematographer Joseph H. August (who had done similarly magnificent work on John Ford's THE INFORMER), Dieterle created
a film of vast shadows, a gothic epic that melds its literary origins with a rich Expressionist style.

This isn't to say that the film--for all its style and grace--is perfect. It occasionally falls prey to one of the main pitfalls of the historical epic, the tendency to flaunt a retroactive political correctness. In this case, we are given frequent scenes of the wise and kindly Louis XI immediately recognizing the universal good of such things as the printing press. It should suffice to say that the real Louie was less wise and kindly than his representation here.

Yet those scenes stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the film, in particular to the scenes of Quasimodo himself, played in a heroic performance by the incomparable Charles Laughton. While Laughton wasn't the first actor to tackle the role, he nailed it with such specific humanity and empathy that it seems unlikely his achievement will be surpassed. Watch the scene of his whipping. After a misunderstanding lands him on the whipping post, he is stripped and brutally flogged by a hulking torturer. Left to roast in the sun for an hour, he calls out for water. The scene has obvious parallels to the scourging of Christ, but it doesn't feel heavy-handed. When Esmeralda takes pity on him and gives him something to drink, Laughton is so fully realized--terrified and dignified at the same time--that scene can work on both a literal and symbolic level.

This kind of thing is hard to do right. Underplay it and you make the hunchback a bloodless symbol. Overdo it and you make him a mawkish figure of pity. Laughton is simply perfect, embracing the character's startling deformity of body as well as his beautiful deformity of spirit. He grasps the essential truth of the kindly bellringer, that in the cold and selfish world of "normal" people, Quasimodo's great deformity is that he is a truly good man.

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