It might be a film peculiarly of its time, but it was certainly a historic time. Pablo Picasso met Dora Maar during a shoot, while she was working as the set photographer. Arguably, it was the greatest commercial triumph (if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms) for the Groupe Octobre, including screenwriter Jacques Prévert, and it firmly established director Jean Renoir’s Popular Front bonafides. Eighty years later (post-Vichy), it looks like an idealized picture of a France that never really was. There will be many injustices perpetrated, but the titular act will not be one of them in Renoir’s restored The Crime of Monsieur Lange (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
The rustic locals drinking swill in an inn on the Belgian border recognize the exhausted guest is the fugitive wanted for murder. However, before they drop a dime, they give his brassy blonde lover Valentine Cardès time to plead his case while he sleeps. She is the laundress who works across the courtyard from the publishing company where Amédée Lange was employed. The pulp serial enterprise was owned and mismanaged by Monsieur Batala, a sexual predator, who once had an encounter with Valentine. She was tough enough to survive relatively intact, but such may not be true for his latest conquest Estelle, who happens to be the reluctant ex of Lange’s younger brother.
We learn in the extended flashback, Batala started publishing Lange’s western serial, featuring the paragon of virtue, Arizona Jim, to forestall his creditors. Of course, he first cons Lange into signing away all his rights. Before he can fully exploit them, Batala disappears as one of the presumed victims of a train derailment. Initially, his workers, creditors, and heir are left holding a bag full of debt, but they forge a collective agreement. All seems to be going swimmingly well in a Paris Commune sort of way. Yet, something will shortly drive Lange to commit murder.
In retrospect, the politics of Crime now look quaint, almost to the point of childishness. Yet, in light of recent events, it is suddenly topical again. As revelations involving The Weinstein Company and other studios continue to come to light, we can now understand Hollywood better. For years, their villain of choice has been the business executive, even though tens of millions of their customers safely worked in corporate America without ever being asked to help cover-up a murder or release a patently unsafe product. It is obvious filmmakers have just been projecting the predatory nature of Hollywood on other industries they have had little or no contact with. Indeed, Batala is a clear archetypal forerunner to the disgraced mini-moguls currently getting pilloried on Twitter. He is even an entertainment exec (publishing—it sort of counts).
As dated as Crime is in many respects, Renoir restless camera and Florelle’s endearingly energetic portrayal of Valentine (both actress and character preferred to be known by a single name) make the film quite lively. As Batala, Jules Berry is also spectacularly slimy and lecherous. He makes Batala a classic screen villain, who has been imitated and ripped off in hundreds of thousands of subsequent films, most of which probably did not even realize it.
Even though René Lefèvre plays the title role, it is really more of a supporting turn (in his own story). Still, he is convincingly guileless and almost childlike in his enthusiasm for the pulp action and values of the American west. It is definitely more of a curiosity than a grand cinematic statement, but Crime has a distinctly wistful charm. If you only see one Renoir film, it should absolutely, positively be Rules of the Game, but The Crime of Monsieur Lange is still worth seeing as a time capsule from another era when it opens this Friday (11/17) in New York, at Film Forum.