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The Lower Depths (1936)
The Lower Depths (1957)

The Lower Depths (2 versions)
Criterion 239
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 characters.

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 pervasive despair.

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 country scene.

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 torturous dramas. 1

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Renoir introduction, essay in insert booklet.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Lower Depths (Kurosawa) rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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