With the advent of sound, acclaimed French director and cinematic pioneer Rene Clair found himself conflicted. Sound offered a new tool to apply to his craft but he worried that the introduction of dialogue would lead to the corruption of pure vusual technique. Silent films demanded that directors find new ways to communicate visually with their audiences and he worried that sound, by making narrative exposition easier, would validate lazy production habits. Rather than become mired in his fears Claire took the bull by the horns and in the process created one of the most innovative motion pictures to come out of the first half of the 20th century.
Le Million is a lighthearted comedy concerning a malingering artist who, on the very brink of financial ruin and possible imprisonment, discovers that he's won a huge lottery prize. Upon returning to his flat to collect the winning ticket he realizes that he's left it in the pocket of a jacket that he gave to his girlfriend to mend. Meanwhile the girlfriend, unaware of the existence of the valuable lottery ticket, has given the jacket to a homeless man who subsequently sells it to an opera singer that plans to use it as costuming in an upcoming show. What follows is an invigorating chase comedy that seems as fresh today as it must have been in 1931.
Le Million would have been a classic based on the fine acting, careful character development and genuinely funny situations alone but Clair's clever use of sound made it an instant legend and an immutable milestone in the history of motion pictures. Looking at the film seventy years later it seems to be a very conventional musical replete with resourceful sound effects and a subtle, ironic score that drives the narrative forward swiftly and cleanly. Taken in its contemporary context though Le Million was a film the likes of which had never been seen before. Almost all of the tricks and twists that Clair used in Le Million's sound track were his own inventions and they made a huge impression on both the audience and his peers. Hitchcock and Chaplin acknowledged Clair's work as a major influence and a firm argument can be made that Le Million spawned the entire American musical genre.
Criterion comes through again with a stunning restoration and transfer of a classic and important film. Le Million, though nearly seventy years old, looks crisp and clear on this disc. The print itself shows some scratches and streaking (which is to be expected) but these flaws are so subdued as to be almost unbelievable. The contrast, shadow detail and black levels are near perfect and if one didn't know better Le Million could be mistaken for a movie half its age. The full frame transfer shows no digital artifacts of any kind and is entirely free from edge enhancement effects.
The sound track, so much a part of Le Million's fabric, is every bit the equal of its video counterpart. There is some minor hiss and a few pops here and there but the overall impression is of a well-mixed, clean and even presentation. The dynamic range is surprisingly broad and the dialogue is easily understandable throughout (if you speak French.)
Le Million's ancillary content is fairly middle of the road for Criterion. There are new English subtitles that claim to be much improved from previous versions, a small collection of production stills and the usual color bars. The primary extra feature is a fascinating television interview with Clair (broadcast in the mid 50's) in which he discusses at some length his approach to sound in the movies and his theories on film making in general. I found this segment to be very informative due in large part to the incisive questions posed by the American interviewer.
Le Million is a release in the finest Criterion tradition. It's a classic film of considerable merit that can still entertain a modern audience. I give it my highest rating: Collector's Series.