Hunchback of Notre Dame - 1956
Hunchback of Notre Dame - released Dec 19, 1956 (Italy) and Nov 3, 1957 (USA). Directed by Jean Delannoy
Two version of this film were shot simultaneously, one in French and one in English.
Often maligned as an inferior version of the often-filmed Victor Hugo tale, the 1956 Hunchback of Notre Dame does have several aspects that recommend it. Anthony Quinn has many good scenes as the legendary bell-ringer, and Gina Lollobrigida plays Esmarelda with an authority about being the center of men's attention that isn't as naive as Esmarelda was played in the better-known 1923 or 1939 versions. The widescreen technicolor photography is also a plus, and Hugo's book gets to the screen with the tragic ending intact, without the Hollywood happy-ending modification.
On the other hand, the deficiency in the film direction (Jean Delannoy does the honors) mar the 1956 Hunchback. For comparison, a critical scene in the 1939 Hunchback is Charles Laughton's Quasimodo swinging down from the Notre Dame cathedral and rescuing Esmarelda. That scene has an epic scope (even on a 3x4 black and white format) and a physical sense of the amount of space Quasimodo crosses in order to save the girl, all of it underlining the heroic nature of Quasimodo's feat, and the sheer shock of his action amid the turmoil around the mass of peasants come to see another heretic-burning. In Delannoy's direction, this becomes a minor scene made to look so small (Quinn simply runs over, grabs Esmarelda, and sprints back through the doors of the church in a distance of perhaps only 40 feet) that the movie stops being a film at all but looks like a filmed stage-play with a small number of people meant to represent a crowd, instead of being an actual crowd.
Other scenes are done-well, and Delannoy moves the camera around to let us better see and understand the story, such as the siege of the Cathedral when Quasimodo battles single-handedly to maintain Esmarelda's safety in sanctuary.
As good as Anthony Quinn is at times in playing Quasimodo, scenes are uneven and in some places he stops being the hunchback and becomes the powerful, booming-voiced Quinn. At times, Quinn gives Quasimodo an edgy, potentially-violent sense that actually helps bring out the frightful possibilities of the character as either a force for good or ill, and that adds a dimension beyond the previous incarnations of the character in the American movies. But even with good scenes with Quinn (or Lollobrigida, or the villain Frollo played by Alain Cuny), overall there is a rushed aspect to the production, especially in the latter part of the story, which indicates either budget constraints, lack of rehearsal, or other issues prevented the film from simply being better made.
Original Page April 27, 2016
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