King Louis XI is a wise and old king and Frollo is the Chief Justice. Frollo gazes on the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, in the church during Fool’s Day and sends Quasimodo to catch her. Quasimodo, with the girl, is captured by Phoebus, Captain of the Guards, who frees the girl. The courts sentence Quasimodo to be flogged, and the only one who will give him water while he is tied in the square is Esmeralda. Later, at a party of nobles, Esmeralda again meets both Frollo, who is bewitched by her, and Phoebus. When Phoebus is stabbed to death, Esmeralda is accused of the murder, convicted by the court and sentenced to hang. Clopin, King of the Beggars; Gringoire, Esmeralda’s husband; and Quasimodo, the bellringer, all try different ways to save her from the gallows.
The peak of art in Hollywood cinema
A sweeping claim? Perhaps. But despite the presence in Hollywood over sixty subsequent years of Ford, Wyler, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese et al, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains as fresh, as emotionally resonant and yes as powerfully artistic as the day it was made. What constitutes ‘art’ is of course a personal matter, just as the Breughel-like compositions of Hunchback might be as mystifying to someone whose favourite film is A Clockwork Orange (Lichtenstein?). But what makes Hunchback so satisfying as art is precisely that its makers didn’t set out with art in mind. Dieterle and his co-creators embarked on the project with the aim of telling a great yarn, making it look authentic, and above all ENTERTAINING the audience. It is to this end that the Grand Guignol excesses of the novel were trimmed or altered, and the Hollywood bittersweet ending imposed. Audiences filed out with their Kleenex in hand having witnessed a three-ring circus of a movie, then went home to read the war-soaked newspapers.
Virtually every frame of this movie could be taken in isolation, made into a poster and hung on a wall. Examples include Gringoire cradling the dying Clopin as a rivulet of lead trickles past in the background, the voyeuristic eye of Quasimodo peering through fence palings at the dancing Esmeralda – I could go on and on. And pervading it all is the magnificent score of Alfred Newman, surely his finest ever.
Rather than sing its obvious praises, the film can simply speak for itself. As narrative, as character, as cinema craft, it is totally successful throughout. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my favourite film of all time, bar none. Ten out of ten