The Lon Chaney silent The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an important document, and a pretty good movie, especially if you can see it projected. William Dieterle's 1939 film with Charles Laughton is an outright classic, with iconic casting in every role, but in a way it, like its predecessor, is as much a travesty of Victor Hugo's story as the Disney version. Tragedy is softened, hard edges blurred.
(And actually there's a lot to admire in the cartoon: an epic cinematic scale and vision, use of humor that doesn't actually wreck the serious aspects. It's just that, starting with Quasimodo not being deaf—because he has to sing, you see—means you're not filming Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo at all.)
So it was perhaps inevitable that the French would one day have to show us how it's done, and present a more faithful rendering of the book. To adapt it, top screenwriter Jean Aurenche collaborated with living legend Jacques Prevert, whose script for Children of Paradise had essayed a comparable pageant of love and tragedy in period Paris. The director is Jean Delannoy, perhaps best-known for helming Cocteau's L'éternel retour (Pieral, that film's malevolent dwarf, has a showy turn in Hunchback too).
The resulting film has never been loved. It's not hard to see the problems. Despite vast, monochromatic sets and the Cathedral de Notre-Dame itself as backdrop, Delannoy doesn't seem to have his predecessors' sense of how to make a dramatic moment properly momentous. The scuffle in which Quasimodo tries to abduct Esmeralda is particularly pitiful: a cramped street, a trotting horseback rescuer, no sense of even potential violence. Delannoy constructs beautiful crane shots which float up through multi-level structures and discover characters perching or snooping, but he avoids visceral impact to a superhuman degree. Maybe it's part of the European versus Hollywood thing: atmosphere versus plot.
Gina Lollobrigida is top-billed, and pretty good type-casting as a good-hearted, seductive gypsy. If you watch the English version she has her own voice, and you sometimes wish somebody who spoke English was listening to her: "Take the rope off his neck," comes out as "Take the rape off his nake." But her glances, interactions, subtle changes of expression, are all really good.
Anthony Quinn is Quasimodo, under a makeup which changes every feature (jug ears, squashed nose, dead eye) but somehow makes him look more like himself. Oddly, this works quite well and so does he. While Charles Laughton's sentient gargoyle is a thing of wonder, managing to make you forget the unlikelihood of this baggy figure being possessed of colossal strength, Quinn is immediately credible as strongman (having recently played one for Fellini in La Strada). His physicality compensates for his lack of genius, and he plays the role in a quite unsentimental way that manages to be moving without any visible effort at appealing to our sympathies. Very good.
Alain Cuny, with his granite, hircine features, is a formidable Frollo, the lust-tormented priest who commands the hunchback. Supporting players are weaker, with a flabby Phoebus and a camp Gringoire (dubbed by Robert Rietty in the English version, with an effeminate Irish lilt). Way down the cast, grotesques like the legendary Daniel Emilfork swell the scenes with suitably Gothic physiognomies.
To watch the film in French is to have a new and improved experience. The dubbing of the two leads isn't too obtrusive, and something a bit distracting about Quinn's American accent—a "big goombah" quality that isn't really appropriate to the time and place—vanishes when he becomes Francophone. And judging by the subtitles, his dialogue is better in French. The US version is also shorter, missing useful scenes which help the "network narrative" structure even if they make it less about Quasi, the character history has decided is the male lead.
Such is the grandeur of the 1939 version, nobody's going to prefer this one, or I certainly hope they aren't. But there should be room for a more faithful telling of the story, and so far, this is the best version of that. See it in French. For all the weakness, it has a grand vision.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.