The Crime of Monsieur Lange ★★★★★

The world's greatest living director is not Akira Kurosawa or Stanley Kubrick or Tony Richardson or even Martin Ritt. If it is any one person at all, it is Jean Renoir, the true heir of Auguste Renoir and the true father of neorealism and the nouvelle vague. Renoir's career over forty years is a river of personal expression. The waters may vary here and there in turbulence and depth, but the flow of personality is consistently directed to its final outlet in the sea of life. Which brings us to the belated New York openings of Renoir's The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935) and Robert Bresson's Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944). To read the daily reviewers on vintage Renoir and Bresson, one would think that Brandon films had tried to open two nudist movies in St. Patrick's Cathedral. My first response to this Philistinish idiocy is an urgent SOS to all my readers to rush to see the two films before they fade back to the oblivion whence they came.

The conventional American line on Renoir is that everything he made before Grand Illusion in 1937 is primitive and everything he made after it is decadent. Ironically, Renoir has turned out at least a dozen films with more force and insight, but Grand Illusion continues to be preeminent in its obviousness. The Crime of Monsieur Lange is the product of Renoir's communard period, when there was still hope that fascism could be defeated. As was often the case with Renoir, the film was made on a shoestring, with the result that the sound recording, editing, and lab work are not all they should be. This was part of the price Renoir paid to make personal films, and I would say in retrospect that it was worth it. Through Monsieur Lange, the day-dreaming author of Arizona Jim, Renoir expresses the comic yet poignant plight of the artist coping with commerce. Batala, the evil yet charming publisher, probably represents many of the conniving producers Renoir encountered in that epoch. Even when Jacques Prevert's pretentious dialogue tends to inflate Batala into a Don Juanish Hitler, Renoir's relentless humanism preserves the ambiguity of the characterization. When Lange shoots Batala, there is no ideological jubilation, no orgasmic fantasy release. Renoir's camera lingers on the dying man in his incongruous priest's robes.

Renoir's greatness as a director is not so much the consequences of his warmth and humanism as it is the evidence of an integral camera style fully expressive of warmth and humanism. What Renoir had already achieved in La Chienne, Boudu Saved From Drowning and Toni, and consolidated in The Crime of Monsieur Lange was nothing less than the overthrow of the tyranny of the camera set-up. Where even Bresson, for example, frames characters, Renoir follows them. Life is always spilling over a Renoir frame as if the screen were not big enough to encompass all humanity. By emphasizing the flow of his players, Renoir creates the illusion, at least for the unwary reviewer, of a lazy camera and a sloppy style. Actually, Renoir's camera movements are fantastically complex. One of the high points of film history is Rene Leftvre's one-take walk from his upstairs office, past walls and windows as seen from the outside of the building, downstairs to the courtyard, where the fatal rendezvous with Jules Berry is to take place. This one meaningfully sustained camera movement makes most of the new movies in town look like mush.

(Village Voice, April 9, 1964)