June 6, 2017
Jean Renoir considered The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) to be a turning point in his career, a film that opened “the door to some projects that are more completely personal.” He would go on to make A Day in the Country and The Lower Depths immediately after (I have written about both in previous weeks), on which he had significantly more control. Lange was originally proposed and conceived by Jacques Becker, and its script was later revised by Jacques Prevert. Renoir invited Prevert on set to collaborate in its production. The film is a provocative blend of performance styles, with the radical Popular Front aligned October Group (Florelle, Maurice Baquet Sylvie Bataille, Jacques-Bernard Brunius) meeting the old-fashioned theatrical boulevardiers, the latter exemplified by Jules Berry’s craven, charismatic depiction of the womanizer Batala, owner and operator of a struggling publishing house. His incompetence and greed take advantage of mild-mannered Western writer Lange (René Lefèvre) until Batala disappears and the company is run cooperatively by its employees. It is a both a joyous vision of a worker-run business and finely tuned character study of what could drive a man to murder.
In 1935 Jacques Becker, one of Renoir’s assistant directors, and Spanish painter Jean Castanier wrote a screenplay for what was then called Sur la cour (On the Yard). They offered it to producer André Halley des Fontaine, who was, per Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography, the “wealthy heir of a family of steelwork owners”. Becker had previously convinced Halley des Fontaine to fund his medium-length debut Pitiless Gendarme and its follow-up Une tête qui rapporte (both 1935). But Halley des Fontaines did not trust Becker enough with the larger investment required by a feature, and so instead turned to Renoir. Becker was furious, for as Merigeau reports it was heavily rumored that Renoir, “learning about what was happening with the screenplay…muscled in on the deal and obviously met with no reluctance on the part of the producer.” Renoir had been in the business for ten years without a real box office success, and was taking work where he could get it, even if it was at the expense of his friends. Becker and Renoir would reconcile a few months after their break, and Becker would work as his assistant director through La Marseillaise in 1938.
Renoir brought Jean Castanier on to write a revised treatment for the film, which they worked on in April of 1935. In this early version the framing sequences were set in a courtroom, not the border hotel it would be shot as. Part of the reason for his eagerness to take on the project might have been its treatment of a cooperative. In his book on his father, the painter Auguste Renoir, he recounts an event was Auguste was seventeen and working at a porcelain factory. Their boss was thinking of selling the business, and was “proposing to create a cooperative. They would pay the boss for rental of the premises with their profits. The workers would share the remainder in equal parts. The idea was to take swift action against the machines that were coming to steal their bread and butter.”
In the film Batalan’s already teetering publishing company is faced with a quandary when Batalon is reported dead. With the help of a loopy creditor’s son and Batalan’s sole surviving heir, an agreement is made to run the company cooperatively, with decisions made jointly by the employees. Lange had sold the rights to his increasingly popular “Arizona Jim” character to Batalan, but is able to share in the profits with his boss’ passing. In the little courtyard outside the office, many more intrigues play out, including laundress Valentine’s (Florelle) single-minded romantic pursuit of the oblivious Lange, a star-crossed affair between another laundry maid Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaia) and Charles (Maurice Baquet), the son of the building’s frequently soused concierge (Marcel Levesque, a favored actor of Sacha Guitry). The movie crackles with life and incident, every nook and cranny of this little courtyard an opportunity for storytelling, and Renoir and his DP Jean Bachelet keep the camera moving to catch each development. This peaks in the final sequence with a brilliantly staged 360 degree pan that encompasses every floor of the office building and the entirety of the courtyard, ending in the fateful crime of the title.
The meeting of Renoir and Jacques Prévert was fortuitous, as both were headed in opposite directions politically. Prévert had become disillusioned with the progress of Russian Communism after a recent visit, while Renoir was still enthralled with its possibilities. Prévert was likely directed to the project by Castanier, a fellow member of the October Group, a leftist theatrical troupe which mounted productions at trade union meetings, workers’ halls, and the open air. Renoir recalled his contributions to the film in 1957: “We worked together. I asked him to come to the set with me. He was there every day, which was very kind of him; and I would say to him constantly: ‘Well, pal, that’s where we have to improvise,’ and the film was improvised like all my others, but with Prévert’s constant cooperation.”
Merigeau writes that Renoir exaggerates both the extent of Prévert’s presence on the set and the amount of improvisation (the film sticks very close to the shooting script). But much of the energy of the film is generated by the generational clash in performance styles. Jules Berry is a phenomenal ham as Batalan, playing to the balcony with his operatic patter and balletic seduction techniques. Sylvia Bataille recalled that Berry told her, “‘You know, Renoir wants him [Batalan] to be cynical, but I’m going to lighten him up and give him some smiles.’ And the more he made him smile, the more cynical the character became.” Batalan is heartless and irresistible, contemptible and magnetic, depicting both the charms and snares of capitalism. Though in Renoir’s films the people are never reduced to symbols, they are far too charming for that.
It is when Berry plays off of Florelle, a whip-smart Joan Blondell type who was part of the October Group, that the movie takes on dimensions of generational exchange or frisson. Berry is grandiloquent where Florelle is rawer and more realist – their exchanges crackle with curdled flirtation. When the cooperative takes over these gendered workplace battles no longer take place, instead it’s a cacophony of voices, disordered but joyous. It is at peak euphony during an office party when the titular crime takes place, where Lange makes a principled decision to take a life. It is understandable theoretically, almost necessary to maintain the communal life so beautifully rendered by the rowdy cast, but Renoir also lingers on the life draining from the victim’s face. For every act, there is a cost. Lange pays his, and escapes over the horizon.
This is the seventh part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The previous entries:
Whirlpool of Fate (1925)
La Chienne (1931)
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)
A Day in the Country (1936)
The Lower Depths (1936)