The Lower Depths

I’ve put off watching Renoir’s Les Bas-fonds for years because I’m not big on theatrical adaptations for the screen and I can only take so much literary caterwauling about the lower classes, and welding the two together has never been a party for anybody. And to tell the truth I did get more than one flashback to John Frankenheimer’s version of The Iceman Cometh tonight, especially when the action would grind to a halt so the idiot savant accordion player could dance around like a monkey or the idiot savant actor could deliver another monologue about the germs infesting his body, but the movie winds up transcending, by a wide margin, all the deadeningly meaningful crap that Gorky stuck into his play. Renoir made it in ’36, hot on the heels of The Crime of Monsieur Lange and A Day in the Country, and he co-wrote it with Charles Spaak, who he’d collaborate with again on his next film, Grand Illusion, so we’re actually in pretty good hands here. For another thing it stars Jean Gabin as, not even a two-bit, but a one-bit house burglar, who unexpectedly starts accruing some lucky breaks, and Louis Jouvet, as a worldly baron whose life is headed in the opposite direction thanks to a nasty gambling habit. (The close-up in which we realize that he’s lost everything at the banco table–his hand can’t light the cigarette that would’ve been a victory signal had he won–is one of the famous shots of the ’30s.) Neither man is much impressed by the turns their respective lives have taken, and Jouvet even seems to embrace life only after he’s landed in Gabin’s flophouse–his walk takes on such a laid-back style that his legs arrive at his destination a half-step before the rest of him does. Gabin and Jouvet have half a dozen richly comedic scenes together–in one of them they lie in the grass and have a boisterous conversation while Jouvet plays with a snail as it crawls across his wrist–and it’s like seeing the great scenes between Brando and De Niro that The Score promised but refused to give us. But there’s one shot where the movie suddenly becomes a true Renoir picture: a fade-in, on the piping of a musician’s band uniform, slides backwards like a car pulling out of a garage into a tracking shot that keeps reframing the action and evolving until it blossoms into a leisurely stroll through a crowded beer garden almost two minutes long. Intrusive tones and echoes from other movies, some of them not even made at the time, had me thinking the film was about to take a tragic turn at three or four different points, but it never does, not for long anyway–instead things end with a giddily happy image of the hobo life that looks backwards to À nous la liberté and ahead to Sullivan’s Travels. Somehow I’d forgotten one of the basic facts of life: Jean Renoir would never sing a dirge for the poor.

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