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Saturday, August 27, 2016

LA CHIENNE (1931)

After convincing his producers of his ‘Talkie’ bona fides with an efficient little farce (ON PURGE BÉBÉ/’31), Jean Renoir made his second sound film, what might be called the first real Renoir (and first masterpiece) in this remarkably fluid, location besotted pic. Shot in the working-class nabs of Paris, with live street noise adding realism to a seamy melodrama, it helps the interlocking elements acquire a naturalistic bent. At heart, it’s a crime-of-passion story well-stocked with the coincidences and delayed justice you might find in a James Cain novel. Michel Simon, cashier & amateur painter, leaves his gorgon-of-a-wife (to a presumed dead first husband!) to pursue his art & a young mistress. No innocent she, her pimp takes all she gets . . . including Simon’s amateur paintings which wind up sold as her’s. That means the mec is also pimping for Simon! Naturally, things end in murder, miscarried justice, embezzlement and exile from bourgeois society (if not without a bemused twist). The film barely shows it’s age in the 2014 restoration out on Criterion; and not only in its physical condition. It’s strikingly fresh in thought, technique & acting style. Renoir finding his form all at once.

DOUBLE-BILL: Fritz Lang remade two Renoirs: LA BÊTE HUMAINE/’38, disappointing as THE HUMAN BEAST/’54; and LA CHIENNE, triumphantly transmogrified into UFA/German Expressionism-meets-Hollywood as SCARLET STREET/’45. Stylized & artificial where Renoir is naturalistic, Lang is only slightly hampered by censorship issues (sex; prostitution; criminal justice) as he emphasizes suspense elements. Not that character isn’t part of the mix. There’s nothing in CHIENNE to quite equal the vision of Edward G. Robinson at an ironing board, wearing a kitchen apron as he slices calf’s liver before dredging it in flour.

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