Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

Just about everyone knowledgeable seems to agree by now-nearly two decades since his death-that Frenchman Jean Renoir, youngest son of the great Impressionist Auguste Renoir, is the best film director the Western world has known (I’d vote for the Japanese Kenji Mizoguchi as the Eastern world’s finest), and so it’s a very Happy New Year that this week will see one of Renoir’s most defining, charm-filled, yet profoundly subversive works, 1936’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange [Sunday, Jan. 11, CUNY, 75, 3 P.M.]. The title in its original French- Le Crime de Monsieur Lange -contains a play on words that reveals part of the picture’s thematic intention: In English, the “g” in Lange is hard, as in “sang,” but in French it is soft, as in “angel,” which is in fact spelled in French “L’ange.” So the French audience is prepared to see The Crime of “Mr. Angel “; this becomes all the more piquant when we realize-early on, because the bulk of the story plays in a long flashback framed by bar scenes-that the crime is a murder. The reluctant killer (René Lefèbvre) turns out to be one of the kindest, most considerate, chivalrous, fair-dealing, innocent and appealing young dreamers you could ever imagine. (And you may immediately recognize the deep influence this particular character had on François Truffaut’s signature figure in a number of films, always personified by Jean-Pierre Léaud.) The other fugitive in the story is Monsieur Lange’s girlfriend, Florelle, a co-worker at the publishing house that Lange and others first worked for and then ran, with Lange himself supplying their most successful pulp serial, The Adventures of Arizona Jim -all westerns written by Lange himself, though neither he nor anyone there has ever been to America. The man whom Lange kills is the owner of the publishing house, and is among the smarmiest, most insidious, politely vulgar, strangely banal of heavies. And remember that at the time Renoir made this poetic comedy-drama of a justifiable homicide, Hitler and Mussolini were already in power: One of the beautiful things about the picture is the keenly observed human microcosm created through the shared community of the publisher’s offices. Superbly played by an ensemble called the Groupe Octobre, the film was co-written with the legendary French screenwriter and poet, Jacques Prévert, most famous for 1945’s Children of Paradise and the original French lyrics for that classic sad love song, “Autumn Leaves.” The picture is filled with simple, yet complicated, and remarkably fluid long takes-an entire scene played without cutting-which Renoir pioneered, starting in the early sound period, as a way of preserving the actor’s total concentration and immersion in the role, as when the curtain’s up on stage, but with the extreme mobility of the roving camera eye. Crime comes in the middle of Renoir’s extraordinary first mature period, beginning with his first talkie, La Chienne (1931) through Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), A Day in the Country (1936), Grand Illusion (1937)-the first foreign-language film ever nominated for the best picture Oscar-to La Bête Humaine (1938) and culminating with the sublime The Rules of the Game (1939). After that film’s initial failure, Renoir left France and settled eventually in Beverly Hills, from whence he had a fascinating American period and a gloriously international final flowering. For me, Renoir provides in movies what Mozart provides in music: the ability to disturb and to heal both at once. His work also reminds those of us who really care about movies, and people, that no special effects or spectacle can ultimately match in emotion the sharp and honest revelation of human truths. Also worthwhile from France this week is René Clair’s ever-delightful 1931 musical comedy, À Nous la Liberté [Sunday, Jan 11, CUNY, 75, 9 P.M.] which greatly influenced Chaplin’s Modern Times , which was released five years later, and shares Charlie’s dismay with the glories of technological progress and big business.

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week