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

I recently read that if a Hollywood director is given the choice between cutting or panning at the end of a scene, he or she will always cut. This keeps things moving, and eradicates any detail that doesn't further the plot.

Viewing the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, from an American scene-cutting point-of-view, something is clearly wrong. First of all, there doesn't seem to be much of a plot. Not that the "action" is confusing, neither is the storyline boring; the plot just flows very simply. Furthermore, the director seems more interested in the characters' emotions and the atmosphere of the city than the plot.

Esmeralda enters late-medieval Paris illegally and is hounded by guards and later by the lust-driven Dom Claude Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke). As Esmeralda temporarily chooses to exile herself from her fellow Gypsies, Quasimodo makes several temporary escapes from his forced exile in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Like Esmeralda, he only finds trouble in the streets of Paris. Quasimodo's "ugliness" incites crowds to behave in the most monstrous way, while Esmeralda's beauty incites lust and love wherever she goes.

Emotions run deep in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Charles Laughton plays Quasimodo with great depth and sensitivity, displaying the touching complexity of someone who craves human contact even from those who may do him harm. The crowds jeer him and believe he is a monster, but he is still willing to be their King of Fools.

Perhaps the most emotional scene occurs when Quasimodo, who is whipped for abducting Esmeralda, is left on the public platform. He cries out repeatedly for water, and the crowd only laughs. When Esmeralda walks by and realizes what has happened, she climbs the platform and the crowd is hushed. She brings the pouch from her belt and offers him water.

Hunchback is a film about human loneliness and isolation. Even the beautiful cinematography of the city is cold and full of shadows. Esmeralda is a fugitive because Gypsies are excluded from the city. Quasimodo, because of his deformity. Even the tortured villain, Dom Claude Frollo, has isolated himself from others by turning away from human compassion.

The acting throughout Hunchback is excellent. This was the American film debut of Maureen O'Hara, while Laughton and Hardwicke had worked previously on the English stage. Edmond O'Brien as young poet Pierre Gringoire also creates a memorable role.

Perhaps German director William Dieterle's familiarity with Expressionism helped him to paint the vivid emotions displayed in this film. Laughton, who also understood the emotional lyricism of the story, would later direct the frightening masterpiece The Night of the Hunter. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a sad and beautiful film that shows the power of allowing the camera to linger on the human face and surrounding scenery.

[ by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr. ]

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