In general terms I know the story of Jean Valjean, the main character of Victor Hugo’s classic novel. I’d seen two other filmed versions of the story but admittedly that was maybe thirty years ago when I was devouring movies on late night television. So while I did remember some key plot points I’d forgotten much over the years which only added to my enjoyment of this superbly directed Lewis Milestone version that cast Michael Rennie in the famed role.

And no I haven’t read the novel which was originally published in 1862 so I have no real way of knowing whether this or any of the many other version that starred the likes of March, Gabin, Ventura, Jordan, Neeson or Jackman are any closer to the original source story.

For this version released by Fox, the story unfolds in three chapters over the course of it’s 105 minute running time. Our version opens in an early 1800’s French courtroom where an uneducated Rennie is charged with the crime of theft. He’s stolen a loaf of bread to feed a starving mother and child. His sentence? Ten years at what appears to be hard labor. When we next see Rennie we will find him heavily bearded and bedraggled manning an oar in the belly of a ship, chained and shackled to a bench with other forgotten souls. It’s at this point that we’ll meet Robert Newton as Javert, the man who will haunt Rennie’s character for the length of the film. To Newton the written law is an unbreakable code which he adheres to and one which allows him to unleash his cold wrath upon the poor and destitute. In his mind there is no compromising when it comes to the rule of law.

Ten years will pass and Rennie will find himself a free yet marked man. He may be unchained but he is still a convict and thief in the eyes of the people who shun him as he travels from town to town. After losing his temper in an inn and fleeing from the police that he’ll find refuge in the home of a kindly Bishop played by Edmund Gwenn though his housekeeper Elsa Lanchester suspects Rennie may cause more trouble.

The kindness that Gwenn bestows upon Rennie will have a profound effect upon his life and shortly after their meeting Rennie will save a small child from a runaway carriage which in turn leads him to selling the silver that Gwenn had given him in exchange for a pottery business under the guise of a new name. Wealth and nobility soon follows as does being elected as town Mayor. Clean shaven and rather dashing, his life will take a turn again when Newton resurfaces as a newly assigned officer to the district. Rennie is fearful that he’ll be recognized and sent back to prison for breaking the law as a convicted man who has hidden his identity and his failure to report his whereabouts to local authorities which is punishable by a return to prison for life.  The only one knowing of his past is the loyal James Robert Justice.

Soon Rennie will cross swords with Newton who can’t quite place the one time convict just yet. When our by the book officer of the law intends to send a prostitute played by Sylvia Sidney to prison for fighting back against an attacker, Rennie, intervenes and in the bargain gains both an enemy in Newton and an adopted daughter from the dying Sidney as played by the stunning Debra Paget. Soon the truth will come out as to Rennie’s real identity and he will find himself on the run again reuniting with Justice and Paget in Paris.

This will present the third and closing chapter of our tale which involves rebellion, Newton once again finding his pray and a romance for Paget when a young freedom fighter comes into her life played by Cameron Mitchell. (Have you ever noticed how much a young Mitchell looks so much like a young William Shatner?) Considering the final reel of the film played very much like the Frederick March and Richard Jordan versions I had already seen I can only suspect that the novel has a similar ending for our main characters, Valjean and Javert.

I found this edition of the much filmed story to be thoroughly enjoyable with one time Oscar winner Milestone doing a splendid job behind the camera for producer Fred Kohlmar. Not surprising considering Milestone copped a best director Oscar for the 1930 wartime classic All Quiet On the Western Front while Kohlmar produced many classic titles. Among them Kiss of Death, Picnic and Pal Joey.

Seeing Michael Rennie take on the lead role in this adaptation of Hugo’s novel is a good reminder that he was far more than just a good second lead which is how I sometimes view him thanks to films like The Robe and it’s sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators. Of course most film buffs will know him best via Robert Wise’s sci-fi classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still. Much of Rennie’s work post 1960 seems to have been in television including a long run as Harry Lime on the TV version of The Third Man.

Robert Newton as Javert is in fine company. Others who have taken on the role include Charles Laughton opposite March, Anthony Perkins opposite Jordan, John Malkovich hunting Gerard Depardieu and more recently Russell Crowe opposite Jackman. Sadly, Newton, much like Errol Flynn was a heavy drinker and would be dead like Flynn at the ripe old age of 50. He’s probably best remembered today for his Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 production of Treasure Island.

Best piece of trivia I can bestow upon you? How about the cameo appearance of Miss Elsa Lanchester. One would assume she might have been onset for the 1935 version from director Richard Boleslawski when her real life hubby Charles Laughton’s Javert was obsessed with tracking down Freddie March’s Valjean.

For those interested in tracking down this version of the often told tale, it’s available as a double bill with the 1935 version on DVD. Guess I’ll have to finally revisit the March version after all these years though I did recently score the Gabin movie from 1958 which I hope to get to in the coming year.