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Complex, intelligent early epic score from North
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2007 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
It's fair to say that of all the adaptations of Victor Hugo's historical epic Les Miserables, one has rather overtaken the rest to become, in the public consciousness, the only one worth knowing about - of course, I refer to the extremely long-running musical. Therefore, 20th Century Fox's 1952 film version has been forgotten by most - directed by Lewis Milestone, with a cast led by Michael Rennie, it is actually pretty fondly-remembered, though has not so far been released on DVD. Milestone worked with an array of top-drawer composers on his films (Aaron Copland scored three of them!) and amongst them was the great Alex North, in the earliest stages of his career at the time of this film. His three previous scores - A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman and Viva Zapata! - are better than most film composers manage in decades-long careers, so to say he had an auspicious beginning to his would be something of an understatement.
Les Miserables opens with a sriking, powerful main title - something for which North would become well-known - and opens up another wonderful score from the composer. The lengthy "This is For Your Memory" is a character study, so characteristic of North, delving deeply into Jean Valjean's psyche, brilliantly so. "Bishop Peruses Passport" is a touching piece, with a lovely theme. The very brief "Jean Turns Toward the Door" is the score's first piece of action - it may only be thirty seconds long, but what thirty seconds they are! "Potter Shop" is a change of pace - a lovely, romantic, lighthearted cue, it may sound dated today but is still completely charming.
"Fantine Collapses" introduces a simply gorgeous piece, the score's most beautiful, with a heartmelting violin solo playing North's exquisite music - and even if there was no credit available, you'd only have to listen to this piece to know the orchestra was conducted by Alfred Newman, with his trademark sound adding the final gloss. Even the very finest scores, which are excellent throughout, sometimes have one piece in them which is so extraordinary that even the brilliance of what surrounds it can be overshadowed - and in Les Miserables, that piece is "Barricade", twelve minutes of film music genius, in which North uses all his acumen to create a breathlessly exciting piece showcasing the various sections of the orchestra in very different ways. It is music of the highest intelligence - film music of the highest quality. The brass clusters may be a little familiar from other North scores, but they are no less effective; and the constant pounding piano adds a rhythmic pulse that has been used by the majority of film composers in action music ever since.
Because of the relative obscurity of the film, Les Miserables has been unknown to many North fans - until now, with producer Nick Redman rescuing it (as he has so many other wonderful scores) from the Fox archives, and it being released by the Varese Sarabande CD Club. The sound quality is pretty wonderful given the 55-year vintage of the recording, Robert Townson's liner notes are informative and entertaining, and this is a winning package all round.