The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Rejected Cornerstone

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Note: This post was originally written a few days after the Notre Dame fire on April 15th, 2019.

“All over France, in every city there stand cathedrals like this one, triumphant monuments of the past. They tower over the homes of our people like mighty guardians keeping alive the invincible faith of the Christian. Every arch, every column, every statue is a carved leaf out of our history.” Harry Davenport as King Louis XI

We often say rather facetiously “if only these walls could talk,” referring to those hallowed grounds imbued with a history of ages gone by, whether they reach near or far into the past. However, it’s necessary to acknowledge, with a place such as Notre Dame de Paris, such an aphorism rings true. It takes on resonant meaning the very week I write this.

Only a few days ago, this landmark of Paris (even preceding the Eiffel Tower) was stricken by a fire that ran rampant, even torching the iconic central spire, so it came crashing down. Given the context and what this structure stands for — even as implied by this film — it’s no small surprise the news grieved, not simply an entire nation, but the world-at-large.

It is part of the reason I desired to watch this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s lauded novel. It is a bit of a memorial, but also an act of solidarity. We need to remember these bastions of history because they carry so much worthwhile beauty within their walls.

As would have it, this version of the famed Parisian tale begins with the two pillars of authority within the film, rather like the towers of Notre Dame themselves, albeit one good and the other bad. The King (Harry Davenport) is an open-minded, bright-eyed, and benevolent ruler, who looks at advancements like the printing press with only mild amusement. He sees no harm in the people being able to spread ideas.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Frollo (Cedrick Hardwicke), is the local judge and arbiter over the judiciary system. To mollify the production codes, he was changed from a religious hypocrite to a far more secular villain as his behavior is unbecoming a man of the cloth. Disney’s version would rectify this minor faux pas and yet for the longest time, this tweak went all but unnoticed. The sentiments and moral dilemmas work out much the same. Likewise, there’s little doubting the weight of the other performances in this version.

Like A Tale of Two Cities or Les Mis, both adapted throughout 1930s Hollywood, the palpable world being constructed here is one of the most prominent assets of this period piece. I might be biased toward these literary adaptations of old. They certainly are not faithful distillations of their sources; they’re processed through the mechanism of Classic Hollywood, and yet they never cease to amaze me for the sheer amount of atmospheric world they are able to put forth on the screen.

Case and point is the initial street carnival hitting the audience full-on with a flurry of activity, gaiety, and sensory overload in every area. There’s no way to fill in all the background with computerized extras or scenery and so what you see is what you get, from a mass of cackling gypsies to a giant hog on a spit, to all sorts of medieval dunces, stilt walkers, and street performers milling about. It’s true such an arena would be impeccable for a fruit fight and of course, there is one.

Charles Laughton’s turn as Quasimoto is a highpoint in an illustrious career because he willfully commits to the character in all of his outward ugliness and ostracization, while still endowing him with the tenderness dwelling therein.

At times, it’s a near-silent performance, which makes it potentially more compelling — so much is left to posture and expressions — the nuances of behavior speak volumes on his behalf. Dialogue might turn into a crutch for other characters, but very rarely for him. His words — when used at all — are chosen carefully and, thus, there is a meaning behind them well worth considering.

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For the day and age, there is arguably no better lass to portray Esmerelda than Maureen O’Hara as youthful, fiery, and supernally beautiful as she is in this very moment. Whether she’s a convincing gypsy or not, it’s easy enough to believe she draws the admiring eye of nearly every mortal man.

So many eligible (and not-so-eligible) men vie for the affections of the striking, thoughtful, free-spirit. She is smitten with the handsome Captain of the Guards: Phoebus (Alan Marshal), who returns her favor. Another is the scorned poet Pierre Gringoire played by an initially unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien, due to the utter youthfulness of his features. Quasimoto harbors his own crush on the pretty maiden, though his is not the only unrequited love.

Frollo, as painted here, is no Disney villain — harsh and corrupt he may be — but there is something buried there to feel sorry for, even as his soul is twisted up inside. Tormented by an infatuation he cannot seem to quell. Ultimately, what remains is his vindictive polemic against gypsies and anyone he deems to be pernicious to his self-prescribed social order.

Here the narratives channels this undercurrent of Aryan prejudice sweeping the European landscape, this heavy strain of anti-Semitism that, ironically, brought a plethora of talent to Hollywood. The parallels are too overt not to comment upon. It goes to show how the social climate of the time cannot be completely stripped away from material which, while timeless, also has striking ties to the contemporary moment.

On a lighter note, what better vagabond to be King of the Hall of Miracles than the one and only Thomas Mitchell. His year would yield performances in a staggering five movies — all of them classics — including Gone with The Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, and this film. What’s more astounding is the consideration that this might be the weakest of all the pictures he was in! One can never discount the inevitable shadings of color he adds to any ensemble.

The Christ metaphors with Quasimoto are also blatantly clear. He is crowned the King of the people on the first day only to be ridiculed and mocked in the streets the next. He is the scapegoat, taking on all the people’s ills, grievances, and malevolence upon his head. Even the local leaders, as reflected by Frollo, look down on him in disdain and utter malice. So Quasimoto’s station in life is that of a total outcast, despised by everyone.

There is only one person who has pity on him and it is, of course, Esmerelda. She showed it before, marrying the poet to save him from hanging, and this is her second act of goodness. The wheels of justice can be harsh as she is sentenced to death, based on the bleatings of a Goat named Aristotle. The logic used is not unlike Witches sinking during the Salem trials. Her innocence falls on deaf ears, not as a result of clanging bells, but instead, even harder hearts.

There is a certain gravitas with the young vision of beauty bowed on the steps of the cathedral, awaiting her execution. The lingering essence is very much the same to Dreyer’s seminal masterwork Joan of Arc. A figure of such common virtue subjected to such ignominy on such a grand scale.

Again, the Christ-like metaphors cannot be dismissed as yet another martyr is unfairly condemned for practicing witchcraft. It takes one outcast rescuing another and seeking sanctuary in the house of God. While it might seem an antiquated tradition, there is something impactful about the walls of Notre Dame being a haven to all who call upon them.

The final storming of the cathedral feels more like disastrous miscommunication than a fully-fledged battle for the heart and soul of the city. Regardless, the last note is a resounding one. Esmeralda ends up with her man. Quasimoto, in a realistic development, despite being a hero, is forced to carry on his life of solitude.

Though he might not be the most prominent feature of Notre Dame de Paris, it becomes increasingly apparent he is like the cornerstone  — a vital component — mostly rejected and forgotten by the world around him. He did everything out of deep, abiding love, requited or not. Much the same might be said of Laughton’s performance. The whole story falls apart without him, and he handles each scene with his usual aplomb and theatrical bearing.

4/5 Stars

The Suspect (1944)

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It is very much a male-oriented film in subject matter and frame of reference with Charles Laughton commanding center stage. He is the very figure that we are meant to empathize with as an audience. But it’s precisely those qualities, along with the presence of director Robert Siodmak, that make it remarkably straightforward to read The Suspect as film noir even given its Edwardian setting.

Veiled in the murky London fog are the mundane strains of noir popping up within the home and the shrouds do well to imprint the British streets with a certain darkness in tone and shading.

In fact, it would be similarly done in other pictures such as The Lodger (1944) and Gaslight (1944) but this one, in particular, can be tied back to the genre’s unhinged male paranoia. Because the dark predilections of noir have often been tied to an overwhelming form of matrimonial suffocation. Not only wives nagging but also the embodiment of the femme fatale to reflect men’s fears returning from WWII to find a new movement of independent women.

The Suspect fits seamlessly into the former category. Is it right to read all of this into the movie in hindsight? I will allow others to enact final judgment but for my own purposes, I will choose to see it in this light. Though it lacks a true femme fatale, it is loaded with blackmail and the threat of scandal that leads to an underlying sense of utter despair.

But it’s necessary to backtrack and explain how events come into being. Charles Laughton is an honest gentleman who works as a bookkeeper only to go home to the ball and chain.

We get a taste of his insufferable wife (Rosalind Ivan) amid turbulent interactions with their grown son (Dean Harens) who vows to leave their home for good because he can’t stand his mother. It feels as if she’s been cast as the devils incarnate and she might as well be next to Laughton’s portly angelic character. There’s a glassy-eyed sincerity to him that plays softly to our ears thanks to an at times rasping delivery. A quiet charm exudes from him all the time. Everyone but his wife seems capable of seeing it.

One such person is Mary Gray (Ella Raines), a woman with the most stunning of wardrobes, both prim and proper and certainly capable of employment. Except she’s had an awful go of it trying to find a job and kindly Mr. Marshall can’t be of much help in that regard. However, what he can offer is a bit of innocent companionship because he imagines that they are both a bit lonely — which of course is very much the case.

At this point, he’s finally found a little enjoyment and there’s nothing more than a desire to have someone to relate with. Still, Mr. Marshall deems it most prudent to break off his friendship with Ms. Gray because after asking his wife for a separation, he is alerted that there is nothing doing. Worst yet, the cackling witch makes his life even more horrible; because that’s precisely what she has been created to do.

The next major event is all too expected, so expected in fact that the film doesn’t even bother showing it. The death or murder or accident is left off of the celluloid though certain outcomes are heavily implied. It’s partially jarring as we hardly have time to track with this jump in the sequence of events.

Again, there are happier times ahead as now Philip has married the lovely girl and they are blissfully content together as companions. But another villain is invented (or rather has been waiting in the wings). A lecherous next door neighbor who’s an incorrigible wife beater adhering to a “hurt or be hurt philosophy.” He is willing to falsely testify that he heard Mr. Marshall arguing with his wife the night before her “murder.”

Something must be done about it. This time the desperate Philip takes the firmest course of action he can muster to stop this affront. And suddenly events turn slightly intriguing becoming Rope (1948) for a man that we hold some empathy for and that’s where any amount of tension is born.

In fact, the duality in the marriages is one of the most fascinating motifs. Because you could easily see in an alternative turn of events some sort of killing off of respective spouses for an agreeable partnership to be forged. And that’s very well what this picture might have been if not for the presence of Ella Raines. She’s very much vital to the outcome without ever trying to be. Since it’s true that she has no motive, what she offers is seemingly so amiable and a very legitimate reason to murder in one man’s eyes.

To Laughton’s credit, whatever he was supposed to have done, he never ceases to have a conscience nor a capacity to love. Thus, it makes the police investigation surrounding him one that is imbued with meaning. We care what happens to him and to Mary as well. While we aren’t given much of anything, the final notes hint at something not completely inhumane. That’s all I can give you.

3.5/5 Stars

 

It Started With Eve (1941)

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We enter a newsroom that feels like it could be ripped out of His Girl Friday (1940). The editor is lining up his copy for the following day with a big front-page spread on the renowned millionaire Jonathan Reynolds (Charles Laughton). They just need him to die and they can print it.

Of course, at this point, it looks like it’s all but in the books. He’s a very sick man, on his deathbed, straining at what look to be his final gasps of air. His son (Robert Cummings) is rushing away from his vacation to be at his father’s side before it’s too late. The doctor fears the worst but his son makes it back from Mexico City in time to catch his father.

They share some tearful exchanges. Then, comes the fateful moment where his dad asks to meet his new fiancee. Wanting to honor his father’s last wish, Johnny goes pell-mell to his fiancee’s hotel but she can’t be found anywhere and he tries everything.

In a frantic moment of duress, the man makes a decision that will forever alter the course of his life. A hatcheck girl at the hotel (Deanna Durbin) becomes the perfect stand-in for his fiancee on a dime.

Frantic, he promises her 50 bucks and takes her to his father’s bedside. They share a poignant exchange and Johnny thanks her for her services and thinks that is the end of it — of his father and his relationship with this woman — but he’s terribly mistaken on both accounts.

Against all medical opinions of the family doctor (Walter Catlett), Mr. Reynolds makes a miraculous recovery and is back to his old ways craving cigars and steak for breakfast. It’s joyous news until he wants to have breakfast with Gloria Pennington whose actual name is Anne Terry.

Now his son is in a jam and he pulls Anne away from her train to Ohio to keep his father happy by maintaining the charade. Now he’s in deeper than he wants with one “fiancee” hitting it off with his father and the other with her mother waiting to be introduced to Mr. Reynolds. Needless to say, the local bishop (Guy Kibbee) gets the wrong idea about the boy he has known from youth who has become a degenerate philanderer supposedly keeping company with two different women.

Johnny could care less. He’s still in a bind and his main goal is to get everything patched up by paying off this girl again and enlisting the help of the doctor to introduce his fiancee into their home very naturally before the big party his father is throwing. It’s easy enough to tell his father that they have a lover’s quarrel and the “engagement” is off.

And yet, Anne doesn’t let it go that easily and she returns to profess the error in her ways and make up. Because now she has a larger stake in this new relationship. She’s a struggling musician who has heaps of talent. It’s just that she’s never gotten a chance to share it with someone important. This is her one shot at a big break. But far from being an opportunistic girl, she also adores this man and to some extent likes his son for a certain amount of sensitivity that he has.

Durbin and Laughton are brilliant fun together because he remains the crazy glue that holds this “romance” together. While things look like they have run their course and Johnny has salvaged everything the way they were originally meant to be, Mr. Reynolds goes off script and does the unanticipated, he drops everything at his gathering to see Ms. Terry.

But of course, we already know they aren’t a real couple and so it makes for an initially awkward and then a surprisingly jovial evening, finished off with a lively round of the conga. Mr. Reynolds succeeds in almost giving his good doctor a heart attack and sends his son for a real loop. In another fit of Deja Vu, Johnny races after Anne’s departing train to catch up with her once more. This time for good.

Charles Laughton is undoubtedly the M.V.P. of the picture providing a delightfully grouchy yet lovable turn hidden behind a mustache and a happy old boy persona which channels a bit of a naughty schoolboy at that.

Cummings has a knack for the clumsy, flustered comedy that comes as a result of his initial bumblings. He and Durbin work through the hilarious miscommunications that ensue beautifully as standard procedure in such a screwball musical. Instead of kissing like normal people they giggle, cackle, pinch, bite and do about everything else including play fight around the interior study. But if that isn’t love then I don’t know what is.

4/5 Stars

 

The Big Clock (1948)

TheBigClock.jpgWith its rather dreary title aside, The Big Clock is actually an enjoyable thriller that works like well-oiled clockwork. It’s true that oftentimes the most relatable noir heroes are not the hardboiled detectives, although they might be tougher and grittier, it’s the hapless everymen who we can more easily empathize with. Bogart, Powell, and Mitchum are great but sometimes it’s equally enjoyable to have someone who doesn’t quite fit the elusive parameters that we unwittingly draw up for film-noir. Ray Milland is a handsome actor and he was at home in both screwball comedies (Easy Living) and biting drama (The Lost Weekend). He’s not quite what you would describe as a prototypical noir hero.

In some fascinating way, The Big Clock falls somewhere in the middle of those two reference points and to explain the very reasons it becomes necessary to start from the beginning. In fact, our story opens in a cold open that’s foreboding, shadowy and tense. The reasons being we don’t quite know yet and that’s how we get to know George Stroud (Milland), a workaholic chief editor of a crime magazine. He’s got a lovely wife (Margaret O’Sullivan) and a kid but, really, he’s married to his vocation. He’s never even been on a proper honeymoon.

And the reason for all this is Mr. Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) the newspaper magnate with the vice-like grip and enigmatic way about him. He’s very practical in how he shows his displeasure (docking pay and firing employees at will) and it also allows him to exercise complete control in all facets of his business. That and the fact that his life is constantly on schedule, perfectly epitomized by the giant clock that has become the emblematic tourist attraction of his empire.

It’s a fascinating reflection of modern times circa 1940s Hollywood with international communication, journalists, and media conglomerates helping the world to function on a national level with mass media. Oddly enough, the story hardly conjures up Citizen Kane but instead the crime-filled frames of While the City Sleeps.

This film functions on two layers due to the fact that someone has been murdered. The blame is being pinned on a phantom man who looks strikingly like our hero, but simultaneously, the evil lurks close at hand. And things begin to fall into place. Strout is called upon to close in this criminal but only he knows that the man they are trying to capture is him. It’s complicated by the fact that, conveniently, he’s also the only one who knows for sure of his own innocence. After all, he would have known if he murdered someone. Here lies the tension as the film comes full circle back to its beginning – back to its climactic moments. Now we comprehend what’s at stake.

But what sets The Big Clock apart is the satisfaction in every little human interaction. The many characterizations are surprisingly lively and are at times fit more for a comedy than the darkened hallways of film-noir. Rita Johnson takes well as a bit of a femme fatale while Laughton pulls off his role with a certain sphinxlike iciness. Meanwhile, Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester delivers a scene-stealing performance as an eccentric artist who finds herself at the center of this entire investigation because of one of her very outlandish (and incriminating) paintings. And as every noir needs a thug, a menacing, mute Harry Morgan carries the mantle as is necessary–thank goodness he got promoted to M*A*S*H in due time. Everyone else, from the bartender to the elevator girl, to bar regulars all have wonderful moments to shine and show some personality that fills out the frames of the narrative.

Furthermore, John Seitz’s photography is on point, his camera roving with the necessary precision making for dynamic sequences while also developing the perfect tonalities of light and dark within the corridors of the mega news conglomerate. Director John Farrow is not all that well-remembered, but either way, The Big Clock stands tall as a quality film-noir that still somehow finds ways to be invariably funny. It’s a rare but still greatly welcomed combination.

4/5 Stars

Advise & Consent (1962)

Advise-&-Consent-(1)This is an Otto Preminger film about politics. That should send off fireworks because such a divisive topic is only going to get more controversial with a man such as Preminger at the helm — a man known for his various run-ins with the Production Code. All that can be said is that he didn’t disappoint this time either.

Who knew a film revolving around the seemingly simple task of passing the president’s nomination for the new Secretary of State could be so complicated and lead to such turmoil?  True, the nomination of Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) might be controversial, but there’s a lot more to it than we initially conceived.

There’s the obvious political angle on Capitol Hill involving a Subcommittee chaired by majority member Brigham Anderson from Utah (Don Murray). Meanwhile, the majority leader is working behind the scenes to gather the necessary support, since he is loyal to the president, despite his share of doubts. However, old curmudgeon Seeb  Cooley (Charles Laughton) is prepared to unleash all his fury and political wiles to stop the nomination in his tracks. Soon it seems to be working well enough.

But that ends up being hardly the half of it. There’s perjury, the aging president (Franchot Tone) is biding his time, and Brig begins to receive threatening telephone calls at home. At first, they seem wholly unsubstantiated, but it seems there really are some dirty little secrets to be drudged up on him. As one who is faithfully looking to uphold their position and do a credible job accessing Leffingwell, it looks like someone really doesn’t want him to reject the nomination. Brig doesn’t end up having time to find out.

And so the day of decision in the Senate Chamber turns out to be an eventful one, bringing old rivals together and resolving the issue of the nomination once and for all. It seems that so much legwork was done all for naught, but that’s politics for you.

Advise & Consent is a fascinating representation of the political system because it involves so many interconnected, intertwining conversations and interactions going on behind the scenes. There’s the pomp & circumstance, the traditions that go with these posts, but it’s actually all the side conversations behind closed doors, in private, where the real work seems to get done. Preminger uses extended shot length to allow his audience the luxury of watching events unfold methodically while using a fluid camera to keep them from being completely stuffy. And his laundry list of stars great and small lend a depth to Capitol Hill.

Although Henry Fonda might be the headliner the film’s focus is wonderfully distributed by the well-balanced cast of players. In fact, you can easily make the case that this is Walter Pidgeon and Don Murray’s film with the decrepit-looking Charles Laughton (who unfortunately passed away months later) falling close behind. Murray is the principled tragic family man, while Pidgeon is wonderfully cast as a veteran white knight of politics. Laughton while beleaguered, still manages a wry performance worthy of his final screen appearance.

Preminger also includes his longtime collaborator Gene Tierney in her return to the screen in a small but crucial role and Lew Ayres as the benevolent V.P. Harley Hudson. Even Peter Lawford is involved in a role supposedly inspired by his real-life brother-in-law incumbent president, John F. Kennedy. Some notable inclusions in the cast include the formerly blacklisted actors Will Geer and Burgess Meredith. One notable part that didn’t end up being cast was Martin Luther King Jr. in a cameo as a Senator from Georgia. Although it truly would have been a lightning rod of a political statement, in reality, Preminger didn’t end up needing it. His film already used words and covered topics hardly touched previously thanks to the watchful eyes of the Production Code. It didn’t need more dynamite.

While Advise & Consent may not be the greatest of political films or the most stirring, it still certainly has its share of riveting moments. Most anything from Otto Preminger is bound to be interesting and this one is no different.

4/5 Stars

Spartacus (1960)

91a01-spartacus_sheetaIn this epic film starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick, a slave turned gladiator leads a revolt against the Roman empire. Spartacus leads his fellow plebeians in a sacking and burning of the countryside while slowly gaining followers. Along the way he is reunited with his love (Jean Simmons). However, soon all hope of triumph or escape is gone and Spartacus must face the Roman legions in one final battle. Utterly overwhelmed by the other forces, his followers are slaughtered and taken prisoner. With all hope gone he must kill his friend (Tony Curtis) and then face death himself by crucifixion. But all is not lost because his wife and child do get away allowing his legacy to remain. Overall this film is good but it does have flaws, one of them being the casting of Tony Curtis with his New York accent. Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov all have important roles in this film as well.

5/5 Stars

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

83767-nightofthehunterposterDirected by Charles Laugton and starring Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish, with Shelley Winters, the film tells the story of a preacher who epitomizes a wolf in sheep’s clothing. While serving a short sentence in jail, this “preacher” (Mitchum) learns from another man who is to be hanged that he hid $10,000 near his home. Intent on finding it, the fanatical man slithers his way into the life of the man’s widow (Winters) hoping to find the money by using her kids. They are adamant to not tell where it is and they soon discover what kind of man he is. After he murders their mother, the two children flee down the river. There they are taken in by a hospitable Christian woman (Gish) who has other orphans. They grow to love and trust her as their own mother. However, the sly preacher is bent on taking them away along with the money. Gish realizes his evil and has none of it. In the final scenes it is proved that love always wins over hate. This movie is certainly chilling, and disconcerting but the latter half I found especially good. Laughton deserves credit and the acting was good as well.

4.5/5 Stars

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich with direction by Billy Wilder, this courtroom drama follows the trial of a man accused of murder. Laughton is an English defense attorney just recovering from a heart attack. However, soon he gets so intrigued by Power’s case that he agrees to defend him. Power’s character Vole seems to be falsely accused for the murder of a widowed woman he hardly knew. He does have an alibi in his wife (Dietrich) but she seems to refute Vole’s words and the case takes a bad turn. Through a flashback we see into their complicated past. The befuddled Laughton finally catches a break and is able to prove Dietrich is lying. He has been victorious in defending Vole but then the plot takes a cruel twist. What was reality before now seems to be completely false. Adapted from a story by Agatha Christie, this film has good characters and a brilliant climax.

4.5/5 Stars