Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), directed by William Dieterle.

Young gypsy Esmeralda arrives in Paris and is loved by a poet, a soldier, and a self-loathing judge. She takes pity on the hideously deformed cathedral bell-ringer and gives him water when he is publicly flogged. He loves her too, and when she is about to be hung for murder and witchcraft, rescues her and takes her back to his cathedral towers.

Single-handedly he repulses the attacking mobs, even pouring boiling tar on them! She has a good heart but can't love him in that way. Of course not.

Riding away with her young man she turns to look back at him. Says the hunchback to the gargoyle: "Why was I not made of stone like thee?"

The Blu-ray is a revelation. I don't remember when I last saw this; it was probably a video tape. This disc seems like a whole new movie. The texture and detail require high definition and many of the brighter scenes are wonderful here.

The cinematography is much more impressive than I remember, making good use of the vast set construction and cast of thousands. The editing seems quicker and more dynamic than usual for that era. Robert Wise was one of the editors, but I don't know who was responsible for what. When Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda from the gallows he does a long rope-swing directly into the camera; that must have been exciting in the theater!

The story and acting are a bit of a jumble. On one hand we have a degree of costume film cuteness common in the 1930s, probably from stage-influenced exaggerated mannerisms. On the other hand the moral tone is dark with much cruelty and violence. There isn't much fantasy gloss to the clothes, streets and buildings: it's often pretty grubby.

Charles Laughton's hunchback was an iconic image of the 20th century. Seeing it with new eyes: it is a remarkably fine performance. He is unabashedly hideous, but in this beauty-and-the-beast tale his beauty emerges in his loyalty and humble devotion to Esmeralda, and in his pride: he does not cry out when flogged, and initially refuses water.

Maureen O'Hara: you could make a poster art catalog of just her face from this picture. The filmmakers knew what they had.

Edmond O'Brien, age 24, has his film debut as the romantic lead. I never imagined him as a young man before; he always seemed a film noir adult.

Available on Blu-ray. The image quality is variable, but when it's good it's excellent.