Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
SIFF is bringing in Jean Renoir’s superb 1936 film The Crime of Monsieur Lange for a single screening on June 3. You should see it. It’s not terribly well known in Renoir’s filmography, doubtless because JR knocked off a couple of swell pictures called Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game over the following three years. But it’s a wonderful picture, and reportedly newly restored, although it would look good in 16 mm, frankly.
Scarecrow, of course, has a wealth of Renoir in stock. Too much to cover here, but just to pluck a couple of recommendations from the 1930s: Check out Toni (1935), a tale of provincial crime, a film that has long been applauded for its landmark location shooting and neo-realist approach to storytelling. It’s more than a historical footnote, however. Renoir has already developed a way of seeing, a casual-seeming but precisely observed way of treating people and situations. For Toni, Renoir said that he took an inherently dramatic story and tried to “avoid the dramatic,” which is, in its own way, a radical approach.
And if you’ve never seen La Chienne (1931), do that. Here is a very different tale of murder, taken from the same source novel that birthed the Fritz Lang masterpiece Scarlet Street (1945). And thus we have an opportunity to see how the vision of a great director shapes similar material—in this case, the directing signatures of these two giants are fascinating to trace along parallel lines. (You can also do this—same two directors—with La Bete Humaine and Human Desire, which share the Zola source novel, but those are not among the best films of Renoir and Lang.) La Chienne came early in the sound era, and you can see/hear Renoir pushing the possibilities of what was technically achievable at that time, all of which becomes part of the evocative mood of the film.
Incidentally, when The Crime of Monsieur Lange played in New York in 1964 it was championed by Andrew Sarris at the Village Voice, then in the midst of his push to bring the auteur theory to America. His piece on the film is reprinted here, and is a splendid example of how you do it.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.