Jean Renoir’s first sound film, a tragicomedy from a low-grade novel, is a magnificent social portrait and an embittered analysis of money’s pernicious role in everyday life. Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon, perfect) is a full-time cashier; sustaining him through a miserable marriage is his passionate avocation: painting. Naïvely failing to recognize her as a prostitute, one night, walking home, he meets Lulu, who is being beaten by Dédé (Georges Flammand, both creepy and brilliantly funny), whom he fails to recognize as her pimp. They have an affair, Maurice doesn’t know, so that he can underwrite Lulu and Dédé’s existence. But Maurice’s wife, taking all his money, gives him a tiny allowance; so Maurice steals at home, embezzles at work. Eventually Dédé connects with an art dealer and Maurice’s paintings, with which he has gifted Lulu, make money, but none at all for the artist. Maurice doesn’t even get the credit; Lulu has signed them as “Clara Wood,” purportedly an American. Maurice doesn’t mind the shortchanging, though, so long as he has his Lulu. When he discovers that Lulu and Dédé are lovers and she derides him, however, in an offscreen fit of rage he stabs her to death. Circumstantial evidence lays the rap on Dédé, who is guillotined. Meanwhile, Maurice, who has lost his job as a result of the scandal, ends up a homeless tramp, at the last watching his self-portrait being carted away by a posh buyer.
Dark, biting, hilarious, Renoir’s film shines brightest on a Montmartre street as residents, including children, gather around a street singer and a violinist, perhaps his daughter, as the killing occurs upstairs. When he picks up his coins, the singer—another impoverished artist—embodies Renoir’s theme.
Fritz Lang’s Hollywood remake, Scarlet Street (1945), is thin, tawdry, sensational.
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