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The Lower Depths: The Criterion Collection

In a barely standing ghetto, a microcosm of poor people are just getting by enough to survive in their bastardized society. Held in check by a greedy landlord and his conniving wife, the community is populated by a strange collection of cast-offs: There's a character who used to be a part of the bourgeois but fell into poverty and is content with it; there's a prostitute who clings to her love stories that she insists happened to her, even though the name of her lover keeps changing; there's an actor whose insides have been damaged by excessive drinking, but clings to hope of getting cleaned up; there's a tinker whose invalid wife is slowing slipping away; and — most pressingly — there's a thief who swears to give up his trade for the landlord's wife's sister, but the landlord's wife won't let him go unless the thief kills her husband. This was the stage set by Russian writer Maxim Gorky in his play The Lower Depths (which was first produced in 1902), and his work attracted two masters to adapt it to the big screen: Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa. The Criterion Collection's release of both films in a double-disc set allows for a rare chance to compare and contrast two of the cinema's greatest directors adapting the same work. Through this double-feature, one can see how the main themes and concerns of their directors affect how both adapt the play.

Renoir's The Lower Depths (in French, Les Bas-fonds) was made in 1936 and has long been considered one of the director's minor efforts. Yet with Renoir, a minor effort is generally equal or better than the vast majority of any other director's major projects. It also is notable because this was the first time Renoir worked with frequent collaborator Jean Gabin, and their partnership blossoms on screen. Gabin plays Pepel, the thief, and through Gabin's charisma he becomes the main character of this ensemble piece. He's most often paired with the Baron (Louis Jouvet), whom Pepel set out to rob, only to find the Baron penniless on his last night at his estate before he's evicted; the Baron has frittered away his saving due to his gambling addiction, and he follows Pepel to the lower depths. Yet for the Baron, he finds that in his quest to hit bottom, he's actually more content with nothing. The robbery and the odd friendship between the thief and the Baron is Renoir's main revision of the play in this loose adaptation — the other main change is that Renoir finds more redemption in Pepel's love story than either Gorky or Kurosawa. Though Renoir still peppers his tale with a sense of poverty's bleakness, his version brims with the humanity and the love of people that marks his best work, along with his deft skills behind the camera. What makes his Depths rewarding is that it reveals his wit and sense of humor more than his next series of films (1937's Grand Illusion, 1938's La Bete Humaine and La Marseillaise, culminating with 1939's The Rules of the Game, arguably his best). Alexander Sesonske suggests in his included essay that this lightness may have been pressed onto Renoir; external pressures due to the coming of World War II may have forced his hand. Regardless, Renoir's playful sweetness has a sense of melancholy to it, which gives the film the sort of Renoir touch that makes it a minor masterpiece.

Nonetheless, the major work on this DVD release belongs to Akira Kurosawa. His Lower Depths (in Japanese Donzoko) is more directly derived from the source material; though there is a great deal of overlap, Renoir's version opened the piece to include more of the outside world, while Kurosawa clamps down on the ghetto setting and never leaves it, populating the soundtrack with the oppressive sound of wind that keeps the people of the lower depths trapped in their hovels. In a telling move — though this version is more of an ensemble piece than Renoir's — the heart of the film belongs to the traveling pilgrim character played by Bokuzen Hidari, who espouses Kurosawa's Existential Humanist ethos throughout. His character is the one who tries to see the good in everyone in the group, and who suggests how the choices people make and what they believe in are the most important element of life. The film features Kurosawa's greatest star, Toshiro Mifune, as the thief Sutekichi, but because he's such an attention-grabbing presence, his screen-time is minimized to keep him from overwhelming the whole. Still, Mifune delivers a powerhouse performance. Indeed, much of the film's drama rests upon his relationship with the landlord's wife Osugi (Isuzu Yamada) and her sister Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa). Sutekichi plans to leave the criminal life for Okayo, but his old relationship with Osugi hangs over their plans, leading the film to its desperate final act. The claustrophobic setting (there's a vague feeling of watching a prison film) creates a different tension than the Renoir version, and it gives the characters a greater sense of desperation and loss. These feelings are mixed with some (mostly black) humor, but — as Kurosawa shows — he is unflinching in the bleakness of these characters' existences while still acknowledging their humanity. As even Renoir admitted, Kurosawa's adaptation is the better of the two.

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The Criterion Collection release of The Lower Depths presents both films in their original aspect ratios (1.33:1) and in 1.0 mono French (for Renoir's) and Japanese (for Kurosawa's) with optional English subtitles. The transfer for the Renoir film suffers the most obvious flaws — there is some early shaking on the picture, which looks more like a problem of the digital transfer than the film itself. And while both suffer minor print-damage throughout, they showcase how both directors used depth of focus to give their main settings a sense of space. Unlike Criterion's similar double feature for The Killers, this is not a definite set of an adaptation: A version of it was made in Russia in 1952 (under the play's original Russian title, Na dne), and there is no mention of this adaptation or any studies of Gorky's play. That said, it does offer numerous film-specific supplements. Renoir's film is on the first disc, and with it comes an introduction by Renoir (6 min.) — similar to the introductions he's provided for Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game — where he reminisces on the making of the film. Since the included essay seems to suggest this is a minor work, perhaps it's best to view the inclusion of the film as a supplement to the Kurosawa title. The second disc features Kurosawa's effort alongside an audio commentary by renowned Japanese cinema scholar Donald Richie — who is eloquent, if a touch too dry. Disc Two also includes The Lower Depths chapter of the Japanese TV show "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create" (33 min.), and cast biographies by Stephen Prince. Dual-DVD keep-case.

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