Thursday, March 4, 2010

Film #14: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)

Title That I Can Understand: The Crime of Mister Lange

Director: Jean Renoir

Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (a summary of the plot; spoilers and all. Fair warning):

In Paris, France, Amedee Lange, a kindly, slightly naive employee for a small publishing company, toils nightly over a series of American western stories featuring a character named Arizona Jim, though the owner of the company simply laughs off any notion of actually publishing them. This owner, one Batala, is a complete scoundrel in a never-ending verbal dance to avoid facing his creditors and past lovers. On the verge of being sued, he gathers the companies funds, packs up and runs, leaving his company to deal with the disaster in his wake. Shortly after Batala hops a train out of town, we hear on the radio that the train has crashed, killing all aboard.

After the publishing company hears the news and panics for a short while, the remaining writers and artists, assisted by Batala's far more humane son, create their own co-operative and decide to publish the Arizona Jim tales. The stories become incredibly successful, and the co-operative find themselves in a new-found state of financial and social well-being, with even the shy Amedee finding love with Valentine, a beautiful and kind-hearted laundress who works nearby.

Just when things are at their height, Batala re-emerges. He had avoided death on the train and slinks back into the publishing office, threatening to reassert control over everything, take all that the co-operative has created, and perhaps even fire everyone out of spite. Upon revealing this dastardly plan to Amedee, the newly successful writer, refusing to allow the wanton destruction of so many people's lives, kills Batala and flees. At the border of France, Amedee and Valentine tell their tale to some local fishermen who have sympathy and help them flee across the border, presumably to safety.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing & before any research):

Excellent movie, and this is saying something. I was exhausted when I started watching this, and the white subtitles were sometimes washed out by the white on the screen. Still, I was happy to fight through my fatigue and the visual barrier and see this film through to the end.

The story is told in classic flashback format. We actually open at an inn on the French border, and Valentine tells the whole tale to a bunch of locals. It works really well, as we immediately learn that this quiet and unassuming guy, Amedee, has killed someone. Great hook, right? It worked for me.

In a tight 80 minutes, you get a great feel for the setting, the characters and all the relevant plot points. It may be a touch rushed at times, but not distractingly so. I quickly developed sympathy for characters like Amedee, Valentine and others, while it took all of two minutes for the bile to rise in my throat at the sight of Batala. The publishing company owner, among a few other ancillary characters, may be a tad 2-dimensional, but he's certainly believable enough as a shifty, sleazy, if semi-charismatic, scumbag. It's another movie like Baby Face where a lot goes down in a concisely-told tale. I presume that this speaks to the director's skill.

The story itself is an interesting with one very deep question at its heart: Would you kill an inveterate leech of a human being to preserve the happiness of dozens of good people? It's one thing to ponder this hypothetical question on your own; it's another to see it play out amongst very believable, if fictional, characters. The murder doesn't come until close to the end. The rest is build-up and serves to create the power of the film.

Here's a clip from the end of the film. The subtitles are in Spanish, but just know that at this point, Batala, bastard extraordinaire, has returned and is explaining his plan to rob and gut the cooperative. Just watch Amedee's face towards the end - you can see the gears turning in his head, doing the math and having it all equal his final decision to murder:

Some may point out that none of the "good" characters is particularly strong. Amedee, the protagonist, is a bit of wimp in some ways, despite his good heart. Valentine is compassionate, but is overcoming past mistakes. The other characters' flaws are more glaring, but I think all of these add the humanistic element to the movie. By the time Amedee is faced with the choice to kill Batala, you completely realize what's at stake - the hard-earned joy of many very real people.

The acting may not be the best I've seen of the early films, but it's strong. A few of the simpler characters don't demand much range, so it's passable. The key roles of Amedee, Batala, and Valentine are played very well by Renee Lefevre, Florentine, and Jules Berry, respectively. This is all that matters.

I'd recommend this to anyone who likes old films and doesn't mind reading subtitles. The only drawback is that, right now, this one's a bit tough to find. It's not available on Netflix, so I had to order a VHS copy and pay $20.00 for it. Maybe it'll come out on DVD in the near-future, or you can find a copy at a video shop specializing in foreign and independent movies. If so, give it a shot if you want to dig into the past of solid cinema.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love It (done after some research on the film):

The handful of modern-day reviews of The Crime of Monsieur Lange seem to agree - it may not be absolutely perfect, but it's very unique in its mastery of telling an engaging, thoughtful tale that marries social commentary with genuine compassion, without either one becoming overbearing. Here's the short review by a fellow at TIME.

Apparently, the whole story of the cooperative springs from Jean Renoir's early affiliations with the far left movements in 1930s France. I suppose we're meant to see Batala as representing the thoroughly corrupt heads of industry. It may be a bit of a caricature, but it still works. The critiques I've read point this out as well as how Renoir didn't allow these elements to overwhelm the movie, raising it well above mere propaganda. This critic at Rotten Tomatoes puts it well.

The other lasting element is, as I had noticed, the very human characters. In later films of the French nouveau era that I've seen, like Breathless and Cleo 9 to 5, I feel like these "humanistic flaws" would become so commonplace and numerous that they led to characters who evoked no emotion from me, whatsoever. Decades before these, though, Renoir had the balance just right.

That's a wrap. 14 shows down. 91 to go.

Coming Soon: The Awful Truth (1937):

I've never seen this one, so my march through the unknown continues. Cary Grant's usually awesome, but this one is dubbed a "screwball comedy," which is a genre that I usually can't stand. Maybe this one will surprise me.
Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.