Made in France in 1936, Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange crested a wave on French Popular Front sentiment, in which a coalition of leftists and liberals organized to make a stand before the onslaught of European fascism. The moment was almost too utopian—and it didn’t quite work, of course, for France succumbed and the collaborationist Vichy government betrayed every ideal the Popular Front upheld. The film rings with bitter power for the latter-day viewer who knows a little of this history, but regardless, the outright charm and optimism of this work should be enough to endear it to anyone.
Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) is a daydreamer in love with pulp fiction, particularly Western tales of the American West. He stays up all night writing stories about a hero named Arizona Jim. When Lange is in a bind, his boss, Batala (Jules Berry), a small-time magazine publisher, insists to an investor that Lange is the hot new writer whose masterpiece will be out on the stands (judicious advertisements included) very soon. Lange starts writing his pulp stories, gleefully unaware that Batala is using him as a cover.
Before long, however, Batala has to flee his creditors and leave the city, leaving Lange and the rest of the staff to their own devices—and the mercy of the creditors. In a moment of uncertainty after news of Batala’s death, the community decides to run the office as a cooperative. One of the investor’s sons comes along and decides it would be a good idea to fund the enterprise, even though he initially has no idea what a cooperative is. It’s all very “springtime”: love blooms (for Lange as well as others), Arizona Jim is a huge success, and the community is happy.
The downside is that the news of Batala’s demise proved inaccurate; he survived the train wreck and passed as a priest for months while the cooperative prospered. On the night that Lange and his friends celebrate a potential film deal, Batala returns to reclaim his fortune. Renoir shot the climactic moment of Lange’s inevitable “crime” in a famous circular pan, making the bizarre choice of following Lange as he enters a courtyard, but as the character approaches Batala and moves out to the right of the frame, the camera moves left, scanning the empty courtyard that’s the site of the community’s life and productive activity. This evokes social roots, rather than personal ones, for Lange’s vengeful action against Batala.
This was Renoir’s unique, and quite spectacular, strength: linking narratives of complex human beings to progressive sociopolitical readings. And The Crime of Monsieur Lange is an exemplum of this skill with unsurpassed charm to boot. Jacques Prévert’s screenplay is so light on its feet, so “French,” what with its whimsy and deep romance and periodic invocations of the spirit of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” This is the sort of film that leaves one, smiling, with the conviction that sometimes crime does indeed pay.