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Notre-Dame de Paris

by Glenn Erickson May 09, 2023

Another CineSavant Revival Screening Review, or in other words, it’s not yet officially available for English-language viewers. This French The Hunchback of Notre Dame may not be the cinematic masterpiece that is RKO’s 1939 version, but it has a literate script, good production values, color and CinemaScope — and doesn’t mar the Victor Hugo original with a false feel-good ending. Anthony Quinn’s Quasimodo is a legit interpretation, and the late Gina Lollobrigida is excellent as Esmerelda. We need this in Region A, with English subtitles.


Notre-Dame de Paris
CineSavant Revival Screening Review
1956 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 120 min. / The Hunchback of Notre Dame / Not presently on Region A Home Video
Starring: Gina Lollobrigida, Anthony Quinn, Alain Cuny, Jean Danet, Robert Hirsch, Philippe Clay, Jean Tissier, Pieral, Albert Rémy, Pierre Fresney, Jean Martin, Danielle Dumont.
Cinematography: Michel Kelber
Production Designer: René Renoux
Costume Design: Georges Benda
Film Editor: Henri Taverna
Original Music: Georges Auric
Adaptation and dialogues by Jean Aurenche, Jacques Prévert from the novel by Victor Hugo
Produced by Raymond and Robert Hakim
Directed by
Jean Delannoy

From back in the 1960s we remember this second version of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame that played on TV quite a bit, and was syndicated in the ‘Million Dollar Movie’ repeating TV showcase. It starred Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida, and we only registered a few mental images from it before it disappeared.

Ms. Lollobrigida passed away on January 16 of this year. We’ve recently been told that the Notre Dame cathedral may re-open in 2024, after suffering a terrible fire in 2019. Someday I hope to say ‘we’ll always have Paris’ from personal experience.

This epic 1956 movie is not yet available on Region A Blu-ray, and we haven’t seen the foreign French disc that was released last Fall. Our CineSavant Revival Screening Reviews attempt to catch up with shows not yet in reach. In the past we’ve generated interest for pictures that did eventually receive U.S. disc releases, like the noirs Pitfall and Try and Get Me!   We’re still waiting for Toho’s Gorath and a decent disc of Roberto Gavaldón’s Macario, but there’s always hope for the future.

Jean Delannoy’s ‘alternate’ version of the Hunchback epic, Notre-Dame de Paris is worth looking into because
a) it’s pretty much forgotten over here,
b) it’s been completely overshadowed by the 1939 RKO classic with Charles Laughton, and
c) it’s much better than its reputation would suggest.

Almost every critical mention of Notre-Dame de Paris classifies it as disappointing and inferior to the older RKO version. The Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror callls it ’embarrassingly awful’ even though they refer only to an English-dubbed version. We’re told that both Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida performed their own French dialogue. Even if it isn’t world-class filmmaking, we found nothing at all awful about this version of Notre-Dame.

We readily agree that William Dieterle’s version is superb. Laughton’s triumphant characterization transcends the notion of a movie monster, with pathos to spare. RKO’s technical artists and craftsme, world-class expressionistic cinematography and editing by Robert Wise lend the show a distinctly European flavor. Laughton generates so much emotional power that no other version compares, not even Lon Chaney’s 1923 Universal Classic.  *

 

But the ‘56 Notre-Dame de Paris has qualities of its own. It’s in French, and its screenplay tells Victor Hugo’s story clearly, touching all bases. As in the novel Quasimodo and Esmerelda are still the main characters, but we also get a feeling that this is a page pulled from French history: Hugo’s original 1831 title ‘Our Lady of Paris’ showcased the great cathedral itself, not the Hunchback. Notre-Dame is surrounded by a warren of narrow streets and makeshift buildings. Future kings will rebuild much of the city in centuries to come, straightening the boulevards with a master plan. The epic drama holds contrasts of wealth and power, crime and innocence. Cruel civil-church politics make life difficult for both the beautiful and the downcast.

On a feast day King Louis XI (Jean Tissier) stands aside as the poor throw a gala street party with almost no rules. Struggling poet Gringoire (Robert Hirsch) prepares a play that dies in rehearsals because nobody takes him seriously. The Gypsy beauty Esmerelda (Gina Lollobrigida) is said to be ‘from Egypt.’ She tells fortunes with the aid of a trained goat, and mesmerizes the crowd when she dances. Her allure is so intimidating that even Clopin, the chief of the beggars and thieves (Philippe Clay) admits that he can’t touch her. [Note: the use of the word ‘Gypsy’ has become an ethnic slur, with the accepted word now being Romani.]

Esmerelda instead sets her cap for the handsome soldier Phoebus (Jean Danet), who reciprocates enthusiastically despite being engaged to a noble woman. When Esmeralda realizes that Phoebus is insincere she puts off his advances. Esmerelda is her own woman but has a big heart. Poor foolish Gringoire wanders into the thieves’ ‘Court of Miracles,’ where Clopin prepares to hang him as an outsider. Gringoire can be spared if a woman offers to marry him, but the hags of the Court turn him down. Esmerelda then steps in and marries the poet to spare his life. He’s grateful, even after learning that he won’t share her bed (the Gypsy marriage has a four-year term!).

 

The deformed, hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo (Anthony Quinn) can speak but can’t hear, having been deafened by the giant bells of Notre-Dame. His ugliness gets him elected King of the Fools, but no sooner is the feast day procession underway than it is interrupted by Quasimodo’s guardian, the Archdeacon-judge Claude Frollo (Alain Cuny). Frollo is offended by sensual excess in every form. He uses the passive, obedient and slow-witted bell ringer as a personal servant, and sometime henchman.

King Louis is moving about the city incognito, observing the festival activities. Some church officials bring Louis to observe Frollo, who is conducting sub-scientific experiments in a hidden laboratory. Is Frollo is doing anything heretical?  Louis has no opinion, beyond joking that maybe Frollo can use his alchemy to make more gold.

Celibate and frustrated, Archdeacon Frollo lusts after Esmerelda but is too ashamed/conflicted to admit it. He orders Quasimodo to kidnap her, ann effort thwarted by Phoebus. It leads to Quasimodo’s classic public whipping. Esmerelda is the only one to offer him water.

 

Things get worse when Phoebus and Esmerelda get together for a full night of passion. The jealous Frollo wounds Phoebus with Esmerelda’s knife, and a false accusation leads to her arrest and conviction as a sorceress. A foot clamp torture device obtains a quick confession. But Quasimodo saves Esmerelda from the gallows, with the cry of ‘Sanctuary,’ and initial attempts to arrest her in Notre-Dame are stopped by the law. A terrible, unnecessary conflict arises — when Clopin’s army of beggars comes to save Esmerelda, Quasimodo counterattacks from the battlements, thinking they mean to harm her.

We recall that Hollywood’s Code-Approved version romanticizes, sanitizes and ‘democratizes’ everything. RKO’s Louis XI (Harry Davenport) might as well be a closet New Dealer, as he tries to dispense justice and do the right thing for the people. All ‘evil’ is assigned to the twisted Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), not the political divide or an unfeeling church. The inquisition angle is downplayed. At the finish the King pardons Esmerelda (Maureen O’Hara) and the Gypsies. Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien) is a viable suitor for Esmerelda; they go off together at the end as a happy couple.

This French Delannoy version also simplifies Hugo’s original, just not as much. Esmerelda’s origin mystery is omitted, as are more political complications. Her demise is not the squalid, grossly unjust spectacle of the book, but it’s still tragic and pitiful. Delannoy does retain the macabre spirit of the novel’s original epilogue. Years later, a pair of skeletons are found in a charnel house, one of them with a grossly misshapen spine. The sanitized American version wouldn’t touch that half-necrophilic finale, which is still a creepy surprise to readers of Hugo’s novel.

 

Yes, Delannoy’s Notre-Dame de Paris can’t equal the cinematic fireworks of the RKO classic. But the characters take more of a beating in RKO’s version. Hardwicke’s Frollo is tempered so as not to portray a church-related official as an unrestrained sex fanatic. The King is treated almost as comic relief. The biggest surprise in the ’39 version is the young, slim and romantic Edmond O’Brien, who waxes poetic-manic with Thomas Mitchell’s Clopin without overacting.

The strong suit of the ’56 Delannoy version is its literate and concise screenplay by Jean Aurenche and Jacques Prévert, the same Prévert who wrote or co-wrote the classics Le Jour Se Leve,  Remorques,  Les Visiteurs du SoirChildren of Paradise and Les portes de la nuit. At just two hours, the story doesn’t seem rushed. It didn’t become a box office triumph for its producers, the prolific Hakim Brothers. They continued to produce great films by a pantheon of directors: Jean Renoir,  Julien Duvivier,  Jacques Becker,  René Clément,  Michaelangelo Antonioni,  Luis Buñuel.

In the French version, Gringoire’s character is not as romantic — he’s another confused individual caught in the street culture. Jean Tessier’s Louis XI is a less benign, calculating politician. He wants his edicts to have a legal justification, and cares about the public only to the extent of avoiding a revolt. He seizes on the underworld’s attack on the cathedral as a good excuse to suppress the unwanted Gypsies. Alain Cuny is excellent as the sex-maddened cleric Frollo. He exudes authority without making a public show. Having experience with all kinds of men, Esmerelda instantly recognizes Frollo as Bad News. This French film could be rated ‘G,’ but it doesn’t take detours to evade basic sex issues.

 

Gina Lollobrigida’s dancing has the aid of Léonide Massine, noted choreographer of The Red Shoes. She’s both sexy and graceful, especially so when compared to her rival Sophia Loren’s clumsy attempt at Flamenco in the previous year’s The Pride and the Passion.

Maureen O’Hara’s Esmerelda generated considerable heat in 1939, but Lollobrigida is and has more leeway to be a genuine dame for the ages. The Italian star always applied herself, and she’s well-cast as Hugo’s tragic heroine. She tended toward lower-wattage femme fatales (in Trapeze, released the same year), and was just okay as a comedienne. Away from our Production Code, Gina’s Esmerelda can be passionate and lustful without shame. She maintains a fierce independence — she chooses her lovers, not the other way around. It’s too bad that Esmerelda is so susceptible to Phoebus’s good looks. He doesn’t die in this version, but he’s also not her knight in shining armor.

Anthony Quinn’s Quasimodo seems more truthful to the book. Charles Laughton transformed the bell ringer into a much bigger figure, a noble primitive who utters profound philosophical dialogue. It’s his picture all the way through. The ’56 Quasimodo messes up Quinn’s handsome face but skips the protruding eyeball. Quinn-modo’s backbone isn’t as severely bent — he’s less of a toad and more of a hulk. A familiar face in the Paris lanes, this Quasi is not an outright freak-monster, even if his inability to communicate means that nobody takes him seriously.

This was a couple of years after Quinn’s first foray into European film work, seeking quality roles. He seems to have been lured by Federico Fellini and stayed to play support in Kirk Douglas’s Ulysses and the lead in Pietro Francisi’s Attila. That last film was opposite Sophia Loren. How would The Mighty Quinn have compared the two Italian bombshells?

In the old RKO version Esmerelda charmed Quasi, almost as Ann Darrow charmed King Kong. This French version doesn’t play up their direct relationship quite as much. They reach a bit of an understanding atop the cathedral, but in most situations he’s an uncontrollable oaf due to his deafness. Esmerelda can’t stop him from pouring molten lead onto the mob trying to rescue her. Just the same, this Quasimodo still loves her as much as anyone.

True, there’s nothing to match the staging of Laughton-Quasimodo’s spectacular rescue stunt, snatching a condemned prisoner right from a scaffold.  The maneuver always earns spontaneous audience applause. Quinn’s Quasi just drops from a rope, minus Olympian acrobatics. But he gets the job done: Sanctuaire! Sanctuaire!

 

Push come to shove, Jean Delannoy’s direction is in no way as good as William Dieterle’s. The film has many handsome and large sets — several streets, the Court of Miracles, and big sections of the cathedral, but Delannoy tends to shoot from standoffish proscenium angles. Anything closer than a wide medium shot is avoided, likely due to difficulties with early CinemaScope lenses. A couple of singles on Quinn are just plain out of focus. Too many scenes array the actors left-right on the X Axis, with lines of extras behind them. Esmerelda’s dance is staged this way, mostly in unbroken shots. Even with the flat blocking, she’s a knockout cavorting in her tight red dress.

The lens problem makes some of the sets seem smaller than they are, and reveals that the crowd scenes aren’t as big as they might be. The movie never looks cheap but too much of the interior lighting tends to be high-key and flat. Some of the best material makes good use of designer René Renoux’s impressive street sets. One ‘Y’ intersection is beautifully lit for night. It reminds us of Alexandre Trauner’s evocative, stylized Rue de Casanova in Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce.

That creepy original epilogue is another important plus. Quasimodo’s primal love for the street angel Esmerelda comes with a death pact that most audiences will take as macabre. Residual memories of the uplifting Charles Laughton version did this show no favors. It’s also possible that French critics just saw director Delannoy as a hack incapable of finessing the classic material. We love the RKO version, but this ‘pageant approach’ is a more than worthy alternate version.

 


 

We’ve not seen any video disc of Notre-Dame de Paris. A promising French release came out last October and is still offered at Amazon.fr.  But it apparently does not include English subtitles, making it fairly useless for français-challenged U.S. fans. If a CineSavant reader has information to the contrary, we’d like to know.

We need to add that we were impressed by the music score by Georges Auric. The big orchestral main title cue gets the show off to a very strong start.

Most of us have only seen this show dubbed into English, on old pan-scanned TV prints from half a century before. We’ve waited a long time!

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Notre-Dame de Paris
Not presently on U.S. Home Video
Reviewed: March 7, 2023
(6893notr)

*  Curiously, when Aurora plastic models issued a Universal monsters contruction kit for “The Hunchback” their Quasimodo seemed based more on images of Anthony Quinn or James Cagney, than Lon Chaney or Charles Laughton.

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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

Here’s Guillermo del Toro on The Hunchback of Notre Dame:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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