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La Bete Humaine is about the visual poetry of Jean Gabin and Julien Carette's begoggled, soot-blackened faces perilously sticking out of their speeding train. Touchingly proud of its source—it opens with a quote from Zola's novel, the author's signature, and his portrait—Renoir's version immediately demonstrates its separate worth with that train footage, shot from every angle. Lightweight only in comparison to the director's masterpieces that precede and follow it, this psychological thriller is the director's tautest. Gabin plays Lantier, an engineer in love with his locomotive. Thanks to the blood inherited from his alcoholic ancestors, he's also a psychopath. "I could tell you a few things," he tells man's worst nightmare, Severine (Simone Simon). He shows her instead.
Renoir's idea that the most basic colors look the most vivid and unreal onscreen is exemplified by all three movies in his unofficial trilogy tribute to the labor of "puttin' on a show," that includes one masterpiece (The Golden Coach) and two gaudy and likeable spectacles (French Cancan, Elena and her Men) that I'm sure gain power when projected large. A direct contrast to these sticky delicacies is Renoir's take on Jekyll and Hyde, The Doctor's Horrible Experiment, shot for French television in 1959 and released theatrically seven years later. The lighting is flat to accommodate the multiple-camera setup, which Renoir employed to free his actors from the always-interrupting "coupe!" The architecture is modern and hard, the score dementedly carnivalesque. Jean-Louis Barrault, elegant and corpse-like as Dr. Cordelier, is a curly-haired, unibrowed anti-Boudu as the evil Opale. The crux of his aim—to escape the limits of polite society—is one that Renoir's worldview would not typically condemn, but going about it by cane-flogging strangers, knocking out crutches, and assaulting little girls reveals that philosophy's logical endpoints.
Renoir was filming La Tosca in Rome in 1940 when Italy entered the war. His friend Carl Koch would finish it, while Renoir eventually made his way to the US, where he would make five films, all shown in this retrospective. The Southerner, a beautiful, sun-dappled work about ambitious cotton-picker Zachary Scott (his best role) is the greatest of these, but it's the tempestuous seaside melodrama The Woman on the Beach, acted with commitment and boiling with bitterness, that's least shakable. Opening with a nightmare, it never drops a queasy, dreamlike tone. Renoir's imprint is less noticeable on Swamp Water, his first American feature, largely due to Daryl Zanuck, who scotched the original ending, briefly replaced Renoir, and handled the editing himself. The auteurist traces that remain keep it interesting, along with the snakebite authenticity of the Okefenokee Swamp location and a welcome top billing for Walter Brennan (although virile Dana Andrews is the lead). Another two great performances—Charles Laughton as a mincing crybaby turned hero speechmaker and George Sanders as a sympathetic scoundrel—keep the pro-French Resistance This Land is Mine from being mere laugh-reel, "those were different times" propaganda.
Though The River is never presented as anything other than an infatuated outsider's perspective, Renoir, an avowed anti-tourist in life in that he avoided obvious sites, had to gently resist attempts by florist-turned-producer Kenneth McEldowney, to include an elephant hunt and the Taj Mahal. He produced one of the all time great color films, a relaxed story about childhood and nature with textures and breezes you can almost feel. The winsome cast is half amateurs, and the director had assistance from Satyajit Ray, one in a long line of great Renoir collaborators that included Visconti, Jacques Becker, and his relatives Pierre, Claude, and Marguerite.
The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion are evergreen and matchless, but 1938's casual and earthy French Revolution drama La Marseillaise deserves a rank just underneath them. If you haven't seen it, it's just one of this retrospective's revelations, contained even in the films you know by heart.