If you know the work of Jean Renoir, indisputably one of the world's great directors, it's likely for one of his serious meaning of life films like "Grand Illusion" and "The Rules of The Game." "The Crime of Monsieur Lange," by contrast, is one of the master's least known films, but offers the most pure fun of any of them.
Playing in a new 4K restoration at Laemmle's Royal, this joyous, ebullient 1936 film is an unlikely venture for several reasons, and all the more enjoyable for them.
For one thing, title character Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre), is a quite improbable hero, a shambling dreamer accurately described as having his head always in the clouds.
Also, as the title indicates, the film involves a sordid crime, and features a completely reprehensible key player, an unscrupulous conniver and womanizer who seems, at least on paper, impossible to tolerate.
Yet what elevates "Lange" is its wide range of idiosyncratic, delightful characters, its belief in humanity in all its crazy variety, and its abundance of high spirits and raffish charm that are absolutely contagious.
"Lange" was also the only collaboration between Renoir and another giant of French cinema, screenwriter Jacques Prévert, known for collaborations with director Marcel Carné including "Port of Shadows," "Le Jour Se Leve" and the classic "Children of Paradise."
Though the bulk of its story unfolds in flashback, "Monsieur Lange" starts at an inn at the French border, where the locals notice that a newcomer, now asleep in his room, just might be the Monsieur Lange wanted for murder by the Paris police.
As discussion focuses on whether he should be turned in, the man's companion, the vivacious Valentine (a scintillating Florette) enters the room. "I've loved other men, but it's him I love now," she says candidly and offers to tell Lange's story and allow the listeners to decide his fate.
Lange lives and works in a courtyard-facing building complex that contains the publishing house that employs him and the small laundry that Valentine runs.
Though he works hard during the day, Lange lives for his nights, when he stays up late writing pulp fiction about a heroic character named Arizona Jim who "rides hell for leather" in pursuit of desperadoes.
A classic romantic, Lange has a map of America with Arizona circled on it on his garret wall, holsters and chaps nailed beside it, and a purity of vision in his heart.
Lange is part of a makeshift community that includes cycling enthusiast Charles (Maurice Baquet), in love with Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaïa), one of Valentine's laundresses.
Hovering over it all like a silver-tongued devil is Batala (a marvelous Jules Berry), an unscrupulous hustler and womanizer who runs the publishing house that employs Lange.
An early advocate of branded content, Batala bulldozes Lange into signing a contract he doesn't read and publishes his Arizona Jim stories amended to include the hero stopping at key moments in the action to ostentatiously swallow Ranimax pills, something which understandably infuriates the author.
How one thing led to another, including the crime of the title, is best left to the film to reveal, though it is worth noting that the story's enthusiasm for turning the publishing house into a cooperative is linked to French electoral politics of the day.
But much more than its politics, "The Crime of Monsieur Lange" is known for its irresistible exuberance, a spirit epitomized by a scene featuring a hoard of crazed French lads storming a newsstand, screaming "Arizona Jim, Arizona Jim" and buying up all copies of the magazine as soon as they're delivered. It may not sound like much, but it is a gem.
As to the last word on Renoir's charming film, let's leave it to fellow filmmaker François Truffaut, a working critic before he was a director.
"Of all Renoir's films," he wrote, "Monsieur Lange is the most spontaneous, the richest in miracles of camera work, the most full of pure beauty and truth. In short, it is a film touched by divine grace."
“The Crime of Monsieur Lange”
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles.