By James Leahy

The received wisdom is that any feature film you may want to watch is available these days on video. Is it? Last year BFI Distribution re-released Renoir’s Le Crime de M. Lange (1936) to celebrate the centenary of the director’s birth. It was an excellent choice. The film brings together two of the most important figures in ‘30s filmmaking, Renoir and the screenwriter and poet Jacques Prévert, as well as being a personal favourite of many of the director’s contemporary admirers. However, there’s no sign of it in the catalogues of the British video distributors. Moreover, a couple of days spent searching for it in Paris earlier this year ended when both the major video stockists confirmed that it was not available.

Of course, sub-titles can only hint at the wit of Prévert’s dialogue, particularly when it’s delivered with the impeccable if improvised timing of Jules Berry, who gives one of the greatest performances in screen history. Similarly, the richness of the ensemble acting, the density of the interaction between word and image, the emphatic use of space and body language to generate meaning, together with the political situation with which the film engages, may pose problems for a modern British audience unaccustomed to such intoxicating filmmaking. However, there’s no similar excuse for the absence from the French video catalogues of this masterpiece, the one and only collaboration between two of France’s greatest artists this century.

We hope the article below will be the first of a series about films which ought to be available on video and aren’t. Please write and tell us about them, in not more than 300 words, making it clear why you find them exciting and important.

The Angel and the Vampire

His name alone is enough to establish that Lange is the angel, the good guy. It’s not so obvious that Batala, the bad guy, dressed typically in black, is a vampire. When we first see him he’s disguised in an overcoat, but he’s been up all night and as soon as he enters his printshop he’s insisting his illustrator draw a bigger bloodstain for one of his pulp policier magazines. When the laundress Estelle faints in his arms, he waxes lyrical about the beauty of her eyes, but it is her throat, white and vulnerable, that catches the viewer’s attention. He exploits his work-force and his lovers, and swindles everyone who trusts him. Finally, he returns from the dead, thus forcing Lange to commit the crime which gives the film its title, possibly the most ‘necessary’ of those murders Auden wrote about. “Capital,” Marx wrote, “is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”

However, the film was released around the start of an election campaign in which the Popular Front alliance of Socialists, Communists and Radicals seemed to offer the best hope for halting the advance of the Fascists and Nazis, and it explicitly engages with the issues some contemporary commentators deemed likely to lead to a Fascist take-over in France: political cover-ups and Stavisky-like corruption; attempts to blame disasters such as the Paris-Strasbourg train disaster on the work-force. Thus, in a nod to the diversity of forces in the anti-Fascist alliance, one which was, in emotional terms, probably compatible with Renoir’s characteristic generosity towards his characters, the film also features a good (if dumb) capitalist, visually Batala’s mirror image, except for his youth.

Lange himself, an unworldly writer and dreamer who becomes caught up in the struggles of his neighbours, and thus discovers the real world of choice and action, seems to echo the political progress of some of the many intellectuals who helped inspire the formation of the Popular Front.

The film tells two love stories and shows the effects on health of bad living conditions. There’s the founding of a co-operative (compare the staging of this sequence with the staging of the scene in La belle équipe when Gabin bullies his mates into joining him in a comparable venture). It ends with the verdict of an informal ‘people’s court’ and a vision of hope for the future. It has sets and locations that powerfully evoke its urban setting. And all this in just 80 minutes! All it lacks is that 360° pan the great critic André Bazin thought he saw.

At one time, Renoir was criticised for making a film about printers rather than the industrial working class. He was, of course, producing an entertainment film, not a political tract, and he succeeded triumphantly. Moreover, these days the film’s diagrammatic account of mass culture and pulp fiction seems quite close to contemporary concerns. As Lange’s lover, Valentine, says when Batala describes his ideas for a new weekly: “Everybody wants to be a cop these days!” She’s right, you know… Just look at this week’s Radio Times!