(director/writer: Jean Renoir; screenwriters: from the novel by Georges de La Fouchardière/André Girard/André Mouézy-Éon; cinematographers: Theodore Sparkuhl/Roger Hubert; editor: Marguerite Renoir; cast: Michel Simon (Maurice Legrand), Janie Marèze (Lulu), Georges Flamant (Dédé), Magdeleine Berubet (Adele), Jean Gehret (Dugodet), Alexandre Rignault (Langelard), Lucien Mancini(Wallstein), Roger Gaillard (Sergeant Alexis Godard), Marcel Courmes(Colonel); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pierre Braunberger; Kino; 1931-France-in French with English subtitles)

“The three leads gave superb performances.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jean Renoir’s (“La Marseillaise”/”The River”/”The Grand Illusion”) second sound film and his first film to gain him international recognition, is about the cruelty of human behavior as seen through the eyes of a weak-minded respectable middle-class man brought down to the gutter by a low-class prostitute who he thought was just a vulnerable woman who loved him. Renoir and co-writers André Mouézy-Éon and André Girardadapted it for film from Georges de La Fouchardiere’s pulp novel. The seedy controversial material caused it to be banned in the United States until released 44 years later in 1975.

A Punch and Judy puppetry prologue introduces the film as a morality play, a comedy of manners, and a slice-of-life social drama.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

The meek Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon) is an unhappily married man and a discontented bank office clerk. To escape from his shrewish domineering wife (Magdeleine Berubet) and boring job, in his leisure time Legrand paints. He falls for the manipulative femme fatale prostitute Lulu (Janie Marèze), the bitch of the film, never realizing she’s a streetwalker after accidentally meeting her in the street and coming to her aid because he felt sorry she was being abused by the drunken man with her. To win her over, Legrand starts stealing from his employer to keep her living in style. The poor sap sets her up in an apartment and fills the place with his unsigned paintings that his sneering wife wants out of their apartment or she’ll toss them in the junk yard. When Legrand runs out of funds to support Lulu, she sells his paintings to an art dealer. In order to inflate the price, her lover pimp Dédé(Georges Flamant)signs the paintings as the work of the fictitious international artist named Clara Wood. To Lulu’s surprise the paintings bring in a good price and there’s a growing demand from them. Legrand doesn’t realize that Lulu only loves Dédéuntil he catches them in bed together. When he finds out that she only played him for a sucker, he goes into a jealous snit and violently kills her. In one of cinema’s perfect endings, Dédé gets convicted of the murder and goes to the gallows.

The unsentimental story was shot on location in the noisy streets of Montmartre.

When the film was completed, the same love triangle played out in real-life. Simon had a thing for Marèze, but she preferred Flamant. When Flamant was driving Marèze in his American car along the Riviera, they had an accident and she died.

The film was also responsible for Renoir’s wife Catherine Hessling divorcing him, as she wanted the title part. When the studio insisted on Marèze, Renoir didn’t fight it strongly enough for Hessling and the couple split. It might not have been a good thing personally for Renoir, but it was a good thing for the film as the three leads gave superb performances.

The melodramatic morality play was vigorously remade by Fritz Lang as Scarlet Street (1945) with Edward G. Robinson, but had to put up with the Hays Code.