The Siren registers polite disagreement with Dave Kehr of the New York Times, and his review yesterday of new DVDs. I hope he didn't mean it when he said that the 1948 Anna Karenina and the double DVD set of the 1935 and 1952 Les Misérables were destined to sit "somewhere on a back shelf in high school libraries, to be shown whenever an English teacher feels like taking an afternoon off." Both releases have a great deal to offer film lovers.
The Siren saw that version of Tolstoy quite some time ago, and while Vivien Leigh could not compete with memories of Garbo in the same role thirteen years earlier, Ralph Richardson was a superb Karenin. It was also directed by Julien Duvivier, a fine talent who achieved greatness more than once with films such as Un Carnet de Bal and Pepe le Moko. As for Les Misérables, the Siren hasn't seen the 1952 version, though Robert Newton supposedly does a good job as Javert, and Lewis Milestone was no slouch. But releasing the 1935 version is a genuine event, for it contains Charles Laughton as Javert, a role recorded at the pinnacle of his artistry. It's been darned hard to find for lo these many years, despite virtues such as cinematography by the great Gregg Toland. The director was Richard Boleslawski, a veteran of the Moscow Art Theatre whose role in bringing the Method to America led Simon Callow to call him "Moses, or perhaps John the Baptist." Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester (Madame Magloire in the 1952 version), thought it Laughton's finest performance. And Gloria, if you are reading this and you have a multi-region DVD player, Amazon has it for $13.99, and they ship to Spain. The Siren's copy is on its way.
Finally, a word about Orson Welles as Rochester in Jane Eyre (1944), also released this week. The Siren cheerfully acknowledges her own Welles worship, but she still thinks his performance has been short-changed. Rochester in the novel is a frequently menacing figure, who at first frightens Jane as much as he fascinates her. The Siren sees little similarity between Welles's Rochester, with his air of privilege and his acid sarcasm at Jane's expense, and Heathcliff, the half-wild, uncouth orphan, desperately in love with a woman he cannot have. (Perhaps the association comes from Laurence Olivier. He was mesmerizing, but he played Heathcliff throughout with an accent more redolent of the Old Vic than the stable.)
Joan Fontaine did indeed play the spirited Jane a mite too close to Mrs. de Winter territory. But I would not call the novel's Rochester downtrodden, as Mr. Kehr does, not even at the end when, as Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "the blind and crippled Rochester is no less masculine than before." Rather than playing it safe, as a straight figure of romance, Welles brought out the neurosis in Rochester to a marked degree while retaining the arrogance of the aristocrat. That was a definite risk. As David Shipman put it, Welles "moved and looked the part, darkly romantic, but it was hard to believe that he wasn't as insane as his wife."