Rewind: Writers of the World, Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose but Your Boss

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René Lefèvre and Nadia Sibirskaïa in Jean Renoir’s digitally restored “The Crime of Monsieur Lange.” Credit via Film Forum

Perhaps the most delightful of Jean Renoir’s films, “The Crime of Monsieur Lange” is a defense of murder — on political grounds.

The movie is so jaunty that it could easily be reconceived as a musical comedy, albeit one that could never have been made in Hollywood, even before the Production Code. Indeed, “Monsieur Lange,” which was released in France in 1936, would have to wait 28 years for its American theatrical premiere.

Structurally, “Monsieur Lange” — at Film Forum for a week in a new digital restoration — is a sort of trial. On the lam and making for the border, the naïve, unexpectedly successful pulp writer Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) and his lover, the vivacious laundress Valentine (Florelle, a star at the Moulin Rouge), stop for the night in a rural inn and are recognized as fugitives. While the exhausted Lange sleeps, the irrepressible Valentine explains why he shot his erstwhile employer, the unscrupulous publisher Batala (Jules Berry), and, acting as a de facto lawyer, argues Lange’s case before a suitably proletarian jury.

The movie unfolds in flashback. Lange, whose invented alter ego is the western hero Arizona Jim, is a dreamer. Batala, a fast-talking swindler, is the reality principle. (Berry’s cynical seducer anticipates his role as the Devil in Marcel Carné’s wartime fantasy “Les Visiteurs du Soir.”) After Batala skips town ahead of his creditors, Lange and his associates turn the press into a self-governing workers’ cooperative, founded largely on the popularity of Arizona Jim. Then the exploiter returns …

Renoir’s first real critical (if not commercial) success, “Monsieur Lange” was a collaboration with the screenwriter Jacques Prévert that captured the spirit of the French Popular Front. Batala is easily read as a comic-opera fascist, and Lange as an unwitting working-class hero. The sense of solidarity is infectious. A current equivalent would be the mordantly humorous cinema of Aki Kaurismäki. But the spontaneity of an extended drunken dance by Marcel Lévesque (a comic foil in Louis Feuillade’s silent serials) and the joyously imperfect moving camera are pure Renoir.

“The Crime of Monsieur Lange” opened belatedly in New York on a bill with Robert Bresson’s austere melodrama “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,” made in 1944. Although not dismissive, the review by the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther suffered from an absence of historical perspective.

Making the point that neither “Monsieur Lange” nor “Les Dames” would “stand comparison with the technically more expert films of today,” Mr. Crowther ignored their deliberate departure from the Hollywood conventions of the 1930s and ’40s. Both movies, he wrote, “manifest shortcomings that were no less critical at the time they were made, and time has only served to date them further, so that now they appear complete antiques.” It is his critique that is dated, rather than Renoir’s film.

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