The Lower Depths (2 versions) Criterion 239
B&W 1:33 flat full frame Street Date June 22, 2004 $ 39.95
From the play Na-Dnie by Maxim Gorky
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Once again Criterion gives us two versions of a movie in one disc set; in this case a classic
Russian play interpreted on opposite sides of the world, twenty years apart. There's
quite a contrast between French filmmaker Jean Renoir's slightly optimized 1936 effort, and
Akira Kurosawa's more faithfully grim 1957 movie. Both reach DVD in excellent condition.
A slum flophouse in a Russian town/Edo-era Japan where the lowest of the low
congregate, is run by a landlord who charges exhorbitant rents and plays pious while fencing loot
stolen by Pépel/Sutekichi (Jean Gabin/Toshiro Mifune). The thief breaks his relationship
with his landlord's grasping wife in favor of her abused unmarried sister. Among the other residents
are a fallen nobleman, a sick old woman, an actor who may be going mad and several other eccentric
1937 / 90 min. / Les Bas-fonds, Underground Starring Jean Gabin, Junie Astor, Suzy Prim, Louis Jouvet, Vladimir Sokoloff,
Jany Holt, Robert Le Vigan, René Génin
Cinematography Fédote Bourgasoff
Editor Marguerite Renoir
Original Music Jean Wiener
Written by Eugène Zamiatine, Jacques
Companéez, Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
Produced by Alexandre Kamenka
Directed by Jean Renoir
Jean Renoir and his writers substantially enliven and brighten Gorky's "proletarian struggle"
drama. The denizens of the flea-pit flophouse of Kostylev (Vladimir Sokolof of
The Magnificent Seven) are
idealized and two roles greatly enlarged: The thief Pépel played by the very young Jean
Gabin, and the dispossessed Baron played by Louis Jouvet. Much of the opening is given to an
invented story of how the Baron joins the rabble in the flophouse; he and Pépel meet
during a humorous attempted burglary and become fast friends.
This has the effect of softening the movie, but it also places the action in the grimy cellar
in a larger context, emphasizing the contrast between the elite casino patrons and the sick and
dying living in the cellar with thieves and alcoholics. These other inhabitants serve as local
color for the main love triangle, and even the Baron steps back into 'best buddy' status while
we concentrate on Pépel's sorry romance with Natacha (Junie Astor), the Cinderella-like
abused sister. The film leaves the flophouse again for a lengthy scene set in a beer-garden like
area. All the swells flirt with their dates while the fawning proprietors provide seduction
assistance; Pépel charges in to claim his woman with a resolve that contradicts the play's
In both versions of the story, an involuntary killing is pinned on the thief by his spiteful
ex-lover; the main alteration under Renoir is that the solidarity of the other unwashed renters
appears to lighten Pépel's sentence or cause it to be dismissed. He and Natacha are able
to walk down the road to a possible brighter future. Renoir has painted enough
grim negativity that the intent of the play is not compromised, even if its tone
is; we've no guarantee that Pépel and Natacha aren't on a hopeless quest.
A forceful suicide scene is probably the final stroke of Gorky's play and Renoir stages it for
maximum impact. An abrupt cut interrupts just as the hanging body is about to be revealed, a cut
that disrupts a camera move. It leads me to speculate that the sight of the corpse was censored
at some point and not restored.
This gallic Gorky adaptation has some powerhouse acting. Gabin is forceful and Jouvet soulful,
especially when they philosophize by the bank of a river. The scene is a perfect
example of Renoir's easygoing style. When the hypocritical Kostylev, his fiery wife Vassilissa (Suzy
Prim) and the oily Inspector (André Gabriello) try to force a marriage on Natacha we
squirm right along with her.
In an old filmed introduction director Renoir talks about his cast and makes mention of the film's
failure to look Russian, which bothers him a lot more than it does us. The day I become more familiar
with sleepy French riverbanks, I'll worry about this one being inadequate to represent a Russian
The French disc in this set is another finely-crafted Criterion restoration that has that soft
and glowing look of French B&W cinematography of this period. There's one repeated setup from
the balcony of the flophouse that balances
perfectly the light on foreground and distant elements. Besides the Renoir intro there are no
more extras except for an excellent insert essay by Alexander Sesonske. He stresses the politics
of 1936, saying that Renoir wanted to soften Gorky's play to popularize the Soviet Union in the
face of the rising threat of Germany.
1937 / 137 125 min. / Donzoko Starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Kyoko Kagawa, Ganjiro Nakamura,
Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Akemi Negishi, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Koji Mitsui, Eijiro Tono
Cinematography Kazuo Yamasaki
Production Designer Yoshiro Muraki
Original Music Masaru Sato
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni
Produced Edited and Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa is no stranger to stage adaptations and his intense version of The Lower Depths
is faithful to the restrictions of the play. In this Japanese re-thinking we never
leave the flophouse, which has become some shacks at the bottom of a literal
pit. The inhabitants still describe it as a hell, and the only outsiders we see (until
the police arrive late in the story) are two monks who use the pit as a garbage dump. Kurosawa's
camera angle makes it look as if our characters all live at the bottom of the horrible trash
hill at the end of Buñuel's Los Olvidados.
Despite the obvious stardom of Toshiro Mifune, there are no favored characters here and
Kurosawa sticks to a strict ensemble format. His
camera angles are oppressively limited - several views on a square sleeping room,
with a few angles outside when the action can't be contained indoors. Things stay wide and static
except for the occasional telephoto pan with a moving character.
Fans seem to prefer Kurosawa's more fanciful and flamboyant features. They have something of a
point, as Kurosawa purposely limits our ability to identify with any of the characters. The love
triangle does without an unwelcome beau for the Natacha character, but the aftermath of the killing
is much more deterministic and downbeat. The concluding suicide in this one is reported from
offscreen and brings the picture to an abrupt and nihilistic end. Gorky's play is famous and
well-regarded, but one can imagine it inspiring a thousand Barton Finks, all writing meaningful but
One thing Kurosawa doesn't try to do is place the story in Russia! Instead he chooses the distant
past of the "Edo Period." Since the characters live in primitive isolation, little has to change.
Toshiro Mifune is fine as the thief
Sutekichi, although we naturally expect to see more of him. Isuzu Yamada as the cruel sister Osugi
and Kyoko Kagawa as the good sister Okayo are veterans of both Kurosawa and Ozu pictures. The
most easily recognizable actor is Bokuzen Hidari, the fellow with the impossibly sad grimace from
The Seven Samurai. But several other actors from that movie are here as well, including
Minoru Chiaki - as a "former samurai" counterpart to the original's Russian Baron.
The Japanese-version disc contains an audio commentary by Donald Richie, an absorbing and sometimes
humorous TV documentary about the
film from the series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create and thorough cast
biographies by Stephen Prince. The booklet has a detailed essay by Keiko McDonald and Thomas Rimer.
The double-disc set uses the two-sided format to give both features equal billing. For shelf
display, two paper inserts cover the front and back to display the usual vital statistics - the
box cover illustrated above is actually the front insert card. I recommend that the buyer unpack
the disc carefully, roll off the daub of rubber cement that holds each of the paper inserts,
and tuck them into the case behind the insert booklet. The booklet is also double-fronted, and
its pages meet in the middle aligned in opposite directions. Criterion's disc producer for this
admirably high-minded double bill is Kim Hendrickson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lower Depths (Renoir) rates:
Supplements: Renoir introduction, essay in insert booklet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lower Depths (Kurosawa) rates:
Supplements: Commentary, half hour tv show, bios (see above)
Packaging: Both discs in double Keep case
Reviewed: July 6, 2004
1. The play also seems to
be an influence on Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim, not just for the ending suicide but also
for the general view of life as a hell with humans trapped in various intolerable situations. Lewton
came from a Russian background and is said to have tried to talk David O. Selznick into filming
War and Peace instead of
Gone with the Wind.