Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Jacques Prévert
Based on a Story by: Jean Castanier, Jean Renoir
Starring: René Lefèvre, Florelle, Jules Berry
Running Time: 77 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Jean Renoir is considered one of the great masters of cinema. Two of his films in particular, La grande illusion and La règle du jeu, are often cited as among the greatest of all time. The latter in fact is the only film to have been in the top 10 of every iteration of the illustrious once-a-decade Sight and Sound critic’s list. La règle du jeu is the only Jean Renoir film I’d seen though, prior to reviewing Le crime de Monsieur Lange. After all the critical hype I found myself slightly underwhelmed by La règle du jeu when I saw it. I thought it was decent, but didn’t see what the fuss was about. I was fairly young at the time though and less knowledgable in cinema history, so perhaps a more recent viewing would change my mind. It was this thought that prompted me to give Le crime de Monsieur Lange a try. Plus the set up suggested something with a hint of film noir, which piqued my interest.
Indeed, Le crime de Monsieur Lange begins, like many film noirs, with a murder or at least a character on the run following a murder. The character in question is the titular Monsieur Lange (René Lefèvre), who spends a night at an inn near a border to freedom. Locals in the inn’s bar spot Lange, whose mug shot has been distributed around the country, and some want to tell the authorities. To try and prevent this though, Lange’s partner Valentine (Florelle) sits down with the men and tells them the full story.
This long flashback which makes up the vast majority of the film tells of how Lange manages to get his ‘Arizona Jim’ western stories published by his boss Batala (Jules Berry) at the printing press where he works. Batala is a real piece of work though and only allowed the publication of the stories in order to get cash from a pill company, clumsily inserting lines about cowboys taking vitamin pills to keep them active. This is only a smattering of Batala’s dodgy goings on though. He owes a lot of money to different people, swindling everyone he meets, and has an insatiable appetite for the opposite sex resulting in numerous affairs with young local women. His lowest point perhaps comes when he talks Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaïa) into sleeping with a business partner to keep him on side.
This horrible man is seemingly given his comeuppance when he is killed in a train accident, leaving the publishing company and Lange in particular to thrive as they form a co-operative that finds much success selling ‘Arizona Jim’ around France. Unknown to them though and hinted to the audience is the fact that Batala wasn’t actually killed in the crash and is assuming a new identity. When he learns of ‘Arizona Jim’s success, he wants in on the action.
I’m giving away most of the plot here, which I don’t usually like to do, but Renoir makes enough hints to the audience as to what’s going on that you’re always ahead of the characters anyway. This is one of the film’s strengths; the way it lets the audience feel clever about being one step ahead without making us groan about knowing what’s coming next.
It’s an enjoyable watch, made more so by Renoir’s breezy approach to the material. It moves along at a fair pace and is filled with energy, wit and humour. There’s some surprisingly frank talk of sex and displays of passionate affection on screen too, which likely wouldn’t have passed the censors in Hollywood once the code kicked in. It adds to the life and vitality of the film here.
There’s quite a lot crammed into the film in general, with more characters and side-stories than perhaps necessary, such as a melodramatic but dark subplot about an unwanted pregnancy. Also, the film’s political message, promoting the Popular Front which was, erm, popular at the time, is a little too idyllic and simplistic.
Nevertheless, the film is beautifully made with strong performances. Berry is particularly good as the charismatic but utterly despicable villain. There’s some attractive photography too. Notably, in a climactic scene, Renoir employs an impressively long, elaborate crane shot.
Le crime de Monsieur Lange may not be one of Renoir’s out and out masterpieces, but it’s a hugely enjoyable yarn that’s full of life. Whizzing along at a brief 80 minutes, it’s a pleasure to watch and easy to recommend.
Le crime de Monsieur Lange is out on 27th August on EST, Blu Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks a little soft, but it’s a damage-free print that otherwise is impressive for its age.
There’s only one special feature of note included, LANGE, OR THE SPIRIT OF THE POPULAR FRONT – a 30 min featurette on the link between the film and French politics of the 1930s, featuring Jean Renoir biographer Pascal Mérigeau and French cinema expert Dominique Maillet. It provides an interesting companion to the film.