Maxim “Gorky” is the famous nom de plume, meaning “the bitter one” in accord with the writer’s Socialist Realism criticism of Mother Russian political and social structures, particularly those prior to the Communist Revolution of 1917. The novelist, short story writer and dramatist’s most popular work for the “gutter” stage, THE LOWER DEPTHS/NA DNIE (1902) has twice been converted into film, in French as Les Bas-fonds by Jean Renoir in 1936 and in Japanese by Kurosawa two decades later.
Renoir fled the Nazis to settle in the United States, but, of an eventual three dozen total, his most memorable films were done in the three years after the Gorky adaptation and before his departure: La Marseillaise (with father Pierre) and La Bete Humaine (both also 1936), and masterworks Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1938). Included in the Museum of Modern Art’s series of films from or connected with Albatros, the Paris production company of talented Russian emigres to whom Renoir was related through political sympathies, LD won an award as the best national film of the year but comes up shy of the director at his peak mere months later.
With the approval of the playwright, who died unexpectedly prior to release, and co-scripting with, among others, Charles Spaak (also of GI), Renoir shifted the stage’s Czarist Russia to an unidentified outside-of-time neither-Russia-nor-France. In black and white, strikingly framed and composed as befitted the son of the acclaimed Impressionist painter, the ninety-three minutes points his customary criticism of the upper and bourgeois classes and compassion for the poor and marginalized.
Enhanced by an unexpected infusion of wry humor, the whole, however, is weakened by stage talkiness and stock characterizations like the sin-obsessed greedy landlord and the woman-obsessed police inspector (played by Vladimir Sokoloff and Andre Gabriello). And while playwright and film director both portray the flickering hopes of les miserables, the sunny upbeat conclusion with a road journey of love triumphant is soupy Hollywood pretty, more jarringly so in light of ‘30s reality in Communist Russia and Fascist Europe.
This was the first of several notable collaborations between Jean Renoir and Jean Gabin, of whom the director marveled that “I have never seen such a cinematic power.” His characters tough when need be but often with a heart of gold, Gabin did not attain the international status of American counterparts or later countryman Belmondo, though his Pepel here (Toshiro Mifune in the Kurosawa) is a thing of beauty as petty thief, lover, decent guy and free spirit.
He lives in a fleabag flophouse where, a cross-section of society’s poor and outcast, Eugene O’Neill boarders drink, gamble, philosophize, and live and die on pallets on the lower floor. Up the wooden steps are the quarters of elderly landlord Kostylev and his younger lusty wife Vassilissa (Sokoloff, Suzy Prim), she foolishly believing that Pepel will continue their affair by whisking her away from all this. But the thief is ever more aloof, because he is not committed to her but, still unaware himself, intrigued by her younger sister Natasha (Junie Astor).
Soon the Baron (Louis Jouvet) joins the down-and-outers. Elegant in the highest social circles, he is addicted to cards and has lost money, house, furnishings, clothing and valet Felix (Leon Larive). Pepel breaks in to rob him, and, bailiff’s repo men due the following morning, the Baron offers the intruder everything, which is no longer his anyway, and the two men become friends in mutual disdain of the unjust social system. Rich or poor is the same to the formerly glamorous man, who adjusts happily to his new (lack of) status and enjoys sleeping in the open air.
The boarding house inmates talk a deal too much, but their hearts are good. Some will remain, some sink lower to disappear, still others are rescued by death or by a sanatorium or by the country’s vast fields. And some, in an unwarranted sentimental ending, are saved by hope and love. Still, middling Renoir is the equal of some others’ better work.