THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (REVIEW)
Dir. William Dieterle
Reviewer. Dan Cook
One of the most impressive productions of 1930’s Hollywood, William Dieterle’s lavish adaptation of Victor Hugo’s literary classic THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is a feast for the ears and the eyes - a tour de force of performance, direction and design which remains a triumph of movie extravagance. Having already established himself as an actor of great talent throughout the decade in films as diverse as THE OLD DARK HOUSE and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, Charles Laughton delivers the performance of a lifetime as Quasimodo, the disfigured bell ringer of Notre Dame cathedral who finds himself charmed by the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (played by Maureen ‘O Hara in her first American feature film) who herself has been framed for murder by the lecherous and corrupt Judge Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke).
This wasn’t the first cinematic Hunchback to grace the silver screen. From the very beginnings of the art form, directors have tried to put their own unique stamp on the story, with versions dated from as early as 1911, 1917 and 1922 all turning up in the silver screen archives. However, in 1923, Lon Chaney memorably bought to the screen the first definitive Quasimodo in Wallace Worsley’s celebrated retelling which saw the notoriously chameleonic actor undergo one of his most extraordinary transformations to both critical and commercial effect. In fact, for the 1939 remake, producers primarily wanted his son Lon Chaney Jr. to step into the acrobatic shoes of his father and play the iconic hunchback. As well as Chaney Jr., RKO also suggested other horror stars such as Boris Karloff, Frederic March and Peter Lorre to take on the role of Quasimodo before finally settling on Charles Laughton - a decision that would result in one of the finest performances ever given.
Buried under the many pounds of Parc Westmore’s impressive makeup and prosthetics work, Laughton is almost unrecognisable here but through expert body performance and posture, his Quasimodo becomes so much more than a typical screen monster. Throughout the film, his hunchback becomes a figure of ridicule, of pathos, of fear and of great empathy - particularly in the startling flogging scene which would later inspire the most moving scene in Disney’s magnificent animated retelling some 57 years later. Combined with Joseph H. Augusts gorgeous monochrome cinematography and Van Nest Polglase’s awe-inspiring set design, this cruel sequence elevates this ‘Hunchback’ from being not just a good film to a truly great one and it is all credit to Laughton as an actor for making his potentially cartoonish Quasimodo into one of the most relentlessly pitiful characters in cinema history.
But while Laughton’s malformed bell ringer may be the title character, it is Maureen O’ Hara’s seductive Esmeralda who proves to be the driving force behind the plot and she commands the screen with a delicate yet formidable performance. Only 18 years old at the time of filming, O’ Hara had previously made waves in Hitchcock’s ‘Jamaica Inn’ but it was her role as the forsaken gypsy which really put her in the public spotlight and would set her on the path of becoming such a vital asset in later movies such as John Ford’s Best Picture winner HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and the 1947 festive classic MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET to name just a couple. On her own, she’s quite brilliant but it’s the moments in which she shares time with Laughton or Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s villainous judge Frollo that her true acting prowess comes to the fore and it really is something special to behold.
Shot on one of the biggest sets ever constructed for a motion picture and made for a then sizeable budget of nearly $2m, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is a masterpiece of craft, skill and vision that, on restored Blu-Ray, looks simply stunning. Combining elements of romantic drama, gothic horror and even musical theatre, it is an experience that should be enjoyed by everyone who calls themselves a movie fan and while Disney may hold the crown for the best ‘Hunchback’ in my eyes, this is an extremely worthy runner up.