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Under the Roofs of Paris (Sous les toits de Paris): The Criterion Collection

By 1930, sound technology had changed the way movies were made around the world. But the transition phase was an awkward one and defeated many fine filmmakers. Some of the great directors (such as Chaplin) avoided its onrush as long as they could. In France, director René Clair (1898-1981) is still remembered for films that, with simple elegance, found a clever and graceful middle course between the old ways and the ineluctable march of progress. Clair and other vanguard filmmakers in the silent avant-garde movement discovered that sound technology required larger budgets, which broke the back of experimental film but pushed filmmakers to pursue more audience-pleasing content. Clair's break from the avant-garde toward light melodramas influenced by Hollywood no doubt left some of his contemporaries tugging their beards. Three of his café au laits are today recognized as creative mile markers on the road to modern audio extravagance — À Nous la Liberté (1932), Le million ('31), and his introduction to talkies, a musical romance called Sous les toits de Paris, or Under the Roofs of Paris, an international sensation in 1930 and is still a petite gem of early cinema.

Eschewing the traditional glamorization of wealthy "Paree," Under the Roofs swoops down into the city's crowded tenements and twirls around poor street musician Albert (Albert Préjean), his inseparable friend Louis (Edmond Gréville), and the sensuous Romanian girl of their dreams, Pola (Pola Illéry). Pola is, however, attached to a petty gangster (Gaston Modot), whose hackles are raised by Albert's attentions to his gal. Thrown in jail for a crime committed by the villain, Albert finds that l'amour isn't always a splendored thing after Pola becomes attracted to Louis. There's a rumble between Albert and the villain, then Albert and Louis, before a roll of the dice leads to a bittersweet finale.

Told largely through song and only minimal dialogue, Clair's script was simple and trite even in 1930, and is unblinking in its warm sugariness. But this historical curio remains a charmer. Like À Nous la Liberté it reflects Clair's reverence for Chaplin, and its romanticized view of Paris' seedier side kick-started the populist school in French film, a movement that rippled throughout 20th-century filmmaking. Clair made the telling worthwhile through fluid technique that included poetic visual sophistication — the celebrated opening tracking shot from above and then indeed under the roofs of lower-class Paris still impresses — and groundbreaking use of sound effects and music. He employed sound in a sly and inventive manner, cautiously accepting its possibilities yet not abandoning his art and craft perfected during the silent years. Notice the moments when he innovated the use of sound without the image (a brawl in darkness after a streetlight is shot out) or image without the sound (a scene in a café as viewed from outside). There's a bar fight scene in which Clair seems to poke good fun at the new wax-recording technology when the soundtrack's William Tell Overture skips like a scratched gramophone record, which it turns out to be. Unlike the gaudy sequined extravaganzas of early American musicals, in Under the Roofs of Paris Clair used songs to help paint his canvas and tell his story rather than as mere show-stoppers for their own sake, a strategy he refined further in the exquisite comedy Le million.

Other films from 1930 have aged better, but the romance is tender and Disney-sweet, the music remarkably sturdy and toe-tapping, and the witty comic elements aren't as creaky as you might expect. Like a good wine, there's a bouquet preserved here, a joyously French "April in Paris with Chevalier and a beret" spirit accented by antiquarian Parisian scenes from c. 1929, never mind that they were studio-bound.

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Criterion's Under the Roofs of Paris delivers their customary masterful transfer and optimal image quality from a new digital transfer created from a 35mm composite fine-grain master. The black-and-white balance and solidity are excellent, and you couldn't ask for better definition. However, although the digital preservation is first-rate, the source print is atypically distressed and unrestored. Expect more scratches and other signs of wear than are visible on Criterion's Le million or À Nous la Liberté discs. It's presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The soundtrack's audio restoration and 24-bit remaster can't open up the predictably thin range, so there's no mistaking this for a modern track, but pops, hiss, and crackle are all but eliminated and everything comes through well in firm DD 1.0. The new optional English subtitle translation of the original French dialogue track is improved over previous editions.

The collection of supplementary material features Clair's first film, 1924's Paris qui dort (Paris Sleeps, a.k.a. The Crazy Ray). One of the first science fiction films, this comic fantasia tells of Albert, the night watchman on the Eiffel Tower, who awakens one morning to look down and discover that Paris — heretofore teeming with people, horse-drawn carriages, and motorcars — has come to full mid-motion stop. A scientist's experimental ray has accidentally frozen Paris in time. Albert and an Oz-like collection of tourists, who have just landed in a biplane at Paris airport, steal a taxi, raid the city, and thoroughly take advantage of the situation, surrounded by millions of Parisians as immobile as statues. Originally an hour-long feature, in the '50s Clair pared the film down to this version clocking in at 34 minutes. Paris qui dort is a young and bold filmmaker's expression of motion pictures as a medium characterized by dynamic motion instead of as a static recorder of stagy "action." A treat that still exudes style and good humor, it exhibits Clair's signature camerawork and playful whimsy, and opens with beautiful (and historically fascinating) shots of 1920s Paris from the Eiffel Tower.

This disc also offers an enjoyable and insightful 17-minute BBC interview with Clair from 1966, an original trailer, and a (poorly preserved) prologue that Clair cut from Under the Roofs of Paris in 1950. Finally, a pullout slipsheet contains an informative essay on the film. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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