It’s a matter of settled faith for me that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are actually named Jean Renoir, William Faulkner and Bob Dylan, so I see it as a boon for all mankind that Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange is finally available on DVD. To me it’s more than just “a great film”—it’s almost the pure embodiment of everything I like about movies, right down to its modest budget.
Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) is a dreamy, unassertive clerk in Paris who spends his nights alone writing stories about “Arizona Jim”, his fictional cowboy hero who deals out trouble to bandit and Indian alike. But by day Lange must submit to his employer, the comic-book publisher Batala—a fast-talking, double-dealing cobra played by Jules Berry, and one of the great satanic bosses in cinema history. Batala mercilessly exploits his workers, stealing their time and ideas and labor, but saving his greatest efforts for the female employees whom he wishes to bed. When he’s reportedly killed in a train wreck, his old employees don’t waste a second on crocodile tears, choosing instead to celebrate their freedom by converting the dead man’s company into a worker-owned cooperative. It isn’t long before their honest labors make “Arizona Jim” a hit across France, and its success causes Batala, who’s only been hiding from his creditors, to return from the dead like a Goldman Sachs vice-president, ready to reassert the status quo.
If it sounds like there’s a lesson here, you’re onto something.
The scriptwriter Jacques Prévert filled out this simple story with a host of characters, all of whom have their own feelings and concerns: a sassy, maternal blonde who takes an interest in the newly invigorated Lange; a naïve laundress (the achingly beautiful Nadia Sibirskaïa) and her boyfriend, who have to decide what to do after Batala knocks the girl up; a homely streetwalker who strolls into the action for a single scene, bringing out a side of the timid Lange we wouldn’t have suspected otherwise. (One of the movie’s most pleasing qualities is its sane attitude towards sex.) Renoir, too, was feeling his oats, using playful wipes to transition between scenes (and even through walls), following the delivery boy on a heady bike ride through the streets of 1936 Paris, and capturing the final confrontation between Lange and Batala in a single sinuous shot that’s been fucking with the heads of movie critics ever since.
In theory at least*, The Crime of Monsieur Lange could work splendidly as an Americanized remake. I’m not holding my breath for that to happen, though, because it’s so obviously a communist film, even if it’s “communist” in the most positive, small-c sense of the word. Renoir made Lange following the Popular Front’s victory in the 1936 elections—one of those halcyon moments in history, the way November 2008 was for America, where hope and reason briefly flourish before weariness and rage set in again. Today The Crime of Monsieur Lange necessarily looks slight beside the behemoths Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, nor is it the near-perfect distillation of emotion that A Day in the Country is. But it blazed a trail for the great democratic comedies of Sturges, Altman and Demme, while its warmth, high spirits and palpably civilized values are as pleasing as ever.
* In 1986 Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning was Americanized as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with painfully predictable results: director Paul Mazursky hammered away at Boudu’s trenchant and poetic takes on class and conformity until a Bette Midler comedy fell out of it.