The Best Director, Ever

Nobody said that to Fritz Lang when he had the nerve to direct two American remakes of Renoir films, both largely inferior. The better one is Scarlet Street (1945), Lang’s version of La Chienne (The Bitch), about a painter taunted into the murder of his beloved mistress. Although Edward G. Robinson is excellent, as usual, he’s still not Michel Simon, and the rest of the film is equally down a few notches—obvious where Renoir was subtle, exaggerated where Renoir was pure. Lang’s Human Desire (1954) practically pales out to nothing next to the original, La Bête humaine, with poor Glenn Ford incapable of competing with Jean Gabin, the greatest star actor in French film history—the one who did four of the best films of all time with Renoir, now widely acknowledged as France’s greatest filmmaker. Though Lang’s remakes actually imperiled for a while the Renoir negatives, Jean never spoke a harsh word against Lang. But Dido Renoir, Jean’s second wife and the love of his life, never forgave Fritz.

When I first met Renoir sometime in 1965, he had already directed his last feature—The Elusive Corporal (1962), an energetic, youthful World War II POW drama (available on DVD in the Lionsgate collection)—and would create only one other work on film, for French television: the beautiful autumnal omnibus picture Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (1969), not currently available. Renoir himself, at age 75, introduces each of the four very different stories: a stylized Hans Christian Anderson tale; a sardonic mock-opera about a woman’s love of her electric floor polisher; a belle epoque song of lost love performed by Jeanne Moreau; and a return to ’30s realism with a pastoral triangle comedy-drama that is vintage Renoir. Again, you’re reminded this is the same man who not only wrote but performed the most profound line ever spoken in pictures. In The Rules of the Game, the artist played by Renoir at 44 says early in the film, in long shot, the French equivalent of (my translation): “The only terrible thing in life is that everybody has their own good reasons.”

The man I knew would have written that; he had compassion for people, and he was self-effacing, modest about his work, thankful of praise. Sometime in the late 1960s the L.A. County Museum of Art did a virtually complete Jean Renoir retrospective, and I went to every film, then spoke to Jean about them. Extremely taken with Boudu Saved From Drowning—the ironic and satirical saga of a bum floating down a river whom a middle-class family “saves”—I went right over to the Renoirs’ beautiful Beverly Hills living room and raved about the film, quietly observed by the giant Renoir portrait of Jean at 15 with a rifle (now at the L.A. County Museum) and a few small Cézannes. Jean smiled and looked delighted: “Oh, thank you so much! You are very kind.” After more effusiveness, I asked what he himself thought of the picture. “Oh, well,” he said with his strong French accent, “you know, we made it in the early days of sound, and sometimes the sound is not so good. Also, because we had no money, we had to buy the film stock as we went along, and some of it does not match, and sometimes the cutting is a little too fast, and sometimes it is too slow, and the music is not so well recorded, but I think, maybe, it is my best picture!”

His living room was a joyful place in that house (gone now), which he and Dido built in the early ’40s, after he left France because of the vicious initial reception he received for The Rules of the Game (it was resurrected in the ’50s by the New Wave). He didn’t make another film in France for a decade and a half, and never resided there again. Jean and Dido became American citizens and moved into their home on Leona Drive, off Benedict Canyon. He became close friends with many Hollywood icons: Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and Charles Laughton, and the much-neglected major American playwright, Clifford Odets. In his brief but heartfelt and unpretentious memoir, My Life and My Films (Da Capo has it in print), Renoir says the reason he didn’t go back to Paris was because he didn’t want to move so far away from his L.A. friends, most particularly Odets, whom I got to know a little bit and who told me he adored Renoir.

Everyone in Hollywood did, actually, but still, he did not enjoy much happiness in the Hollywood studio system. While in France in the 1930s, Renoir made 14 features; in the 1940s, living in America, he made only five, yet they are all quite clearly Renoir pictures. (George Cukor once told me that Jean had said to him, “Oh, years ago, all Hollywood pictures were great.” And George had said, “Oh, no, not really.”) The only one of Renoir’s American films currently available on DVD (through VCI Entertainment) is the best of the bunch, The Southerner (1945), with Zachary Scott and Betty Field as a couple of poor tenant farmers trying to survive. For the record, the others are Swamp Water (1941), partially shot on location in the Okefenokee Swamp, much against Fox Studio’s wishes; This Land Is Mine (1943), with the inimitable Charles Laughton as a cowardly schoolteacher during a World War II occupation, never specified as, but clearly meant to be, France; Renoir’s version of The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), with Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith; and, the most damaged by studio interference and cutting, The Woman on the Beach (1947), with Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan.

Also, released for the first time in 1946 was a beautiful short feature Renoir shot 10 years earlier called Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country), based on a de Maupassant story. The shoot ran into bad weather, which made it impossible to finish a couple of sequences. For years, Renoir was hopeful of getting the money to complete the picture. Eventually, it was decided that the piece worked quite effectively without the missing scenes. Renoir has a small role as a rural restaurateur. It contains one of the most haunting close-ups in screen history: the look on the face of a young woman who is about to lose her innocence. (It’s only available on British DVD, through the BFI.)

In the ’50s, Renoir went from being an expatriate French director living in Hollywood to an international filmmaker—beginning with The River, one of the great color films and among the most moving of Renoir’s pictures, about an English family living in India, specifically three Westernized young women. It’s available in a gorgeous print from the Criterion Collection, as is the boxed set of French Cancan; The Golden Coach (1953), with Anna Magnani; and Elena et les hommes (1956), with Ingrid Bergman. French Cancan is one of my favorite films, a kind of an homage, Renoir called it, to show business. The extended climactic cancan, by itself, is among the most amazing and moving dance sequences ever shot.

Truffaut was so in love with The Golden Coach (La Carrosse d’or) that he named his production company after the movie, Les Films du Carrosse. Others in the New Wave particularly liked the English-language version—Renoir’s own preference over the Italian—but the picture never connected with contemporary audiences; neither did Elena. Perhaps they are both too artificial, though the stylization is the driving force of both pieces. Renoir once said, “Reality may be very interesting, but a work of art must be a creation. If you copy nature without adding the influence of your own personality, it is not a work of art.” French Cancan, though also somewhat stylized, comes across more believably and was a huge success with the French public. This enabled him to make his last, fascinating three films, none of them popular: the aforementioned The Elusive Corporal; the science vs. nature parable Picnic on the Grass (1959); and Renoir’s modern Jekyll and Hyde variation, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (1959), starring a terrifying Jean-Louis Barrault, shot TV-style with multiple cameras—a daring, youthful experiment for a man of 65—again, a way of maintaining continuity for the actor for as long as possible, like live theater or live television.