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UNDER THE ROOFS OF PARIS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Albert Prejean, Pola Illery, Edmond Greville, Gaston Modot
Director:  Rene Clair
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  92 Minutes
Release Date:  September 24, 2002

Film ***

The advent of sound into motion pictures in the late 1920s and early 30s was inescapable.  Some filmmakers, like Charles Chaplin, managed to buck the trend a lot longer than others.  Some, like French director Rene Clair, found himself begrudgingly moving forward with the times a lot sooner than they would have liked.  But aversion to sound didn’t always translate to a lack of skill in using it.

Clair’s first sound film, Under the Roofs of Paris, expounded upon the way sound was used in early talkies.  As with the groundbreaking The Jazz Singer, Clair still managed to craft a silent film by and large, but bring in the spoken words when necessary.  He used it for song and music, but also to move the story along at key points.

It’s fascinating the way he constructs sequences out of silent film pantomime, with spoken words not audible (as though the music were simply drowning them out)…then there will be a break between tunes, and the characters will speak a few lines before starting up again.  For the most part, Clair blends the best of both worlds believably…my favorite such sequence comes near the end, when two men carry on a discussion on the OTHER side of a glass door, so that we see them, but don’t hear them…Clair was constantly finding ways to make the absence of spoken words a viable part of his narrative.

The film fascinates for its historical context, though truth be told, this picture doesn’t quite carry the magic and charm of Clair’s later works like A Nous la Liberte or Le Million (both also available from Criterion).  The plot is tired silent film melodrama with nothing new to offer from the characters to the storyline, and even at a modest 92 minutes, the picture could have successfully told the same story and been notably shorter…sometimes the style overtakes the progression of the tale.

Said tale involves a street musician, Albert (Prejean), who falls in love with an immigrant girl, Pola (Illery), but at the same time, becomes the enemy of Fred (Modot), a gangster who wants Pola to himself.  Much of the story centers around how Albert and Pola are thrown in together when Pola can’t go back to her home, and the comedy comes from Albert’s futile attempts to gain the upper hand on her while she’s in his house.

Eventually, Albert goes to prison for a crime Fred was responsible for, and while there, Pola takes up with his best friend, Louis (Greville).  When Albert comes out, he finds he has to deal with not only the enraged Fred, but the heartbreak of losing the woman he loves to his closest friend.

The plot isn’t the attraction here.  The real soul of the film comes from Clair’s visual and sound techniques.  His camerawork is often notable, from the terrific opening and closing moving shots that take us from the roofs of Paris to the streets below and back again, to the simple fact that he didn’t always keep his cameras still while his actors spoke (a common curse in the early years of talkies).  His dislike of using sound in films didn’t make him any less prolific at it, though one could argue that he comments on his disdain for sound in an amusing sequence where a phonograph record of the “William Tell Overture” starts skipping like mad!

Tripe melodrama aside, Under the Roofs of Paris remains a must see for serious cinema students as a landmark early talkie, and one of the best earliest uses of sound in motion pictures.

Video **1/2

Good transfer, bad print.  This is a film that is horribly in need of restoration…constant spots, splotches and scratches are hard to ignore.  The black and white photography looks solid underneath it all, but until someone pours a budget into clean-up, this is probably as good as we can expect. 

Audio **

Early talkies had their soundtracks recorded on phonographs, so not much can be done about the noise and scratchiness in the background.  That being said, this original mono offering still services Clair’s sound considerably well, with dynamic range provided by the music and all of his cues and dialogue intact.  As good as can be expected for a 70 plus year old soundtrack.

Features ***1/2

The disc merits an extra ½ * in this department for the inclusion of Rene Clair’s terrific directorial debut, the 34 minute Paris qui dort.  This 1923 featurette shows Clair’s comfort with the silent medium…it’s filled with amazing camerawork and visual imagery, including terrific shots overlooking Paris from the Eiffel Tower!

The other plus is a 17 minute 1966 BBC interview with Clair, which is a very enjoyable piece.  Mr. Clair is an intelligent, well spoken man who shares his thoughts on the development of the cinema as both a revolution and as popular art.

The disc rounds out with an original trailer and a deleted scene cut by Clair himself (sort of a prologue).  A nice package for film fans!

Summary:

Under the Roofs of Paris works as a historical curiosity more than as a piece of entertainment in its own right, but for cinema students, it’s still a prize worth checking out to see one of the earliest good uses of sound in film and for Rene Clair’s sense of style on both the audio and visual fronts.  The addition of Clair’s first film makes this an even more attractive DVD offering.