UNDER THE ROOFS OF PARIS
Review by Michael Jacobson
Albert Prejean, Pola Illery, Edmond Greville, Gaston Modot
Director: Rene Clair
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 92 Minutes
Release Date: September 24, 2002
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!