To pan the Hunchback of Notre Dame would be like kicking a cripple. But a few mild prescriptions might bring the grotesque old man back to the health he deserves. Charles Laughton is superb in the lead role of Quasimodo, but some of the supporting parts, the photography, and the music fall just short of the excellence such a film must have.
Maureen O'Hara's performance is generally creditable, except for an over-long but traditional tear jerker sequence in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Miss O'Hara mars her efforts by relying on the same facial expressions she used when her lover left her in a previous movie, and her father's boat sank in the one before that.
As Frollo, the warped High Justice, Sir Cedric Hard wicke is the menacing, sadistic, downright despicable villain he should be. But Edmond O'Brien in the role of the young poet Gringoire is a little too enthusiastic and shallow when he shouts about the destruction of a printing press, "Its home you may destroy, but not its spirit."
Proportionately, the lesser the character, the meaner the line, as when the King of the Beggars says to Gringoire, "Good intentions never put an onion in your soup." And showing the effects of spotty scripting, the beggars' hangman, deprived of Gringoire's neck, laments, "It was such a nice neck." Comic relief of this sort seems out of place.
Now and then the camera work goes amiss when photographer Joseph Martin covers his lens with a black mist. He has presented at least half the film in almost complete darkness, and at times the scene could as well be a parody of Dante's Inferno. The music too does not seem to fit the action in some places, a little too blaring when Captain Phoebus captures Quasimodo, a little too violiny when Esmeralda prays to the Virgin Mary.
But far from spoiling the entire film, the mediocre effects offer a forceful contrast to the great moments in this "Hunchback." Laughton is magnificent at the Feast of Fools and in the pathetic tower sequence with Esmeralda. The crowd scenes are uniformly impressive, and the film in all is more than entertaining.