Sunday 6 May 2018
Le crime de Monsieur Lange 1936
This film is on Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Films List by Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel
Cinema Reborn’s Film Festival, today, afforded me the opportunity to finally catch up with this highly regarded Jean Renoir film. When Time Magazine‘s critics, Corliss and Schickel, put together their list, they chose just one Jean Renoir film and it wasn’t the (often) more highly acclaimed Le Régle de jeu (1939) or La grande illusion (1937) – both of which frequently recur on Top Ten and Top 100 Lists – it was Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936). That choice took me by surprise and made me keen to be able to judge for myself.
The main story is told in a flashback, where a woman (Valentine) defends her lover’s actions (Amedee Lange), to the patrons in the café section of a hotel. They have recognised Lange as the man the police are searching for and they spend some time debating whether to turn him in or not. While Lange rests in the room next door, Valentine comes out and tells them that the man in the next room, whose future they’re deciding, needs to have them hear his story. Valentine tells them that she thinks the circumstances of the crime will change their opinion of his actions. She hopes to convince them not to turn Lange over to the authorities.
The main character in the first half of the film is a publisher, Batala, who wheels and deals with his creditors to keep his publishing company afloat. He is a man without scruples who lies and cheats his way through life so that he can have what he wants (to be important), and do what he pleases (to have power). Batala is a good natured man, with a winning-way with his employees and the girls who work in the laundry downstairs. He is 300,000 francs in debt to one man alone (Meunier Snr.), and owes money to many others.
A clerk, Lange, at the company aspires to be a writer and Batala tricks him into signing away his rights to a character Lange created called Arizona Jim. When Batala disappears, presumed dead in a train accident, the son (Meunier Jr.) of the major creditor creates a cooperative with the people who work at the publishing company. Instead of selling their printing presses and getting as much of his dying father’s money back, he joins with them to create something in which they can all share. When Lange’s weekly stories about the Arizona Jim become enormously popular everyone in the enterprise reaps the rewards of Lange’s comic-book-hero stories.
One day, out of the blue, Batala turns up, disguised as a priest. He’s learned of the great success of Lange’s character and intends to exercise the rights in the contract Lange signed with him. When Lange understands that Batala plans to destroy the cooperative, take back the publishing company and take the profits from Lange’s best-selling character, Lange kills him.
The film is French, and was not subject to something like the American Hays Code. This meant that a film could end with someone committing a crime and getting away with it. It’s a bold move by the writers and the director to show Valentine and Lange have been safely escorted over the border in the last scene.
There are many implications in this denouement that are relevant to the kind of social unrest existing in France at the time, let alone France’s neighbour, Germany. Hitler was building weapons and creating a massive army, moving one step at a time, taking bits and pieces of Europe (a mixture of annexing and strongarming) over a period of several years, until someone – a country – had the guts to say, “Enough.” That didn’t happen until Hitler marched his troops into Poland when Britain’s government finally took off their blinkers and acknowledged that Hitler had broken every promise he had made to the United Nations and was intent on making as much of Europe part of the New Germany as was possible.
Le crime de Monsieur Lange was released in 1936. Looking back with eighty-years of hindsight, the skullduggery of Batala, his dictatorship, his lack of concern for anyone else, and his psychotic devotion to his own welfare, comfort and happiness, comes across as megalomaniacal, like Hitler. If someone like Lange had shot Hitler instead of Batala, the next decade would most likely have turned out very differently. It’s simplistic to state such a thing, but it is true.