In 15th-century France, Chief Justice Claude Frollo (Hardwicke), a powerful religious demagogue and noxious hypocrite, spies gorgeous gypsy dancer Esmeralda (O'Hara) at a church service. Seized by lust, he sends lonely, deformed Quasimodo (Laughton), a bell-ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral, to abduct the beauty. When Quasimodo is caught and publicly flogged for the outrageous kidnapping attempt, Esmeralda offers the poor creature water and comfort, inspiring his unconditional love and devotion.
This peerless adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic anti-clerical novel features a triumphant, heart-rending performance by Laughton, who's virtually unrecognizable beneath his grotesque costume and makeup. With its moody atmosphere and expressionistic set design, "Hunchback" rivals the 1923 silent original, which starred Lon Chaney, but it is the superb acting by Laughton, O'Hara, and Hardwicke, as the hate-mongering hierarch, that make it the finest of all screen versions. Dieterle's commanding direction of all the details, from the medieval gloominess to the tragically human storyline, holds it all together. You'll fall hump over heels for "Hunchback," a gothic love story like no other.