Editor’s Note: This review is excerpted from Judge Barrie Maxwell’s Precedents column, René Clair: Three Releases in the Criterion Collection. For more details on the film, please refer to the column.
This was Clair’s first sound picture, but one that he undertook with some skepticism over the value of sound, feeling that it might actually detract from the film experience by causing a conflict with the powerful visual language that silent films had so carefully built up. The results belied Clair’s initial distrust, however, for the film displayed innovative uses of sound that added richness and depth to the experience rather than having words simply amplify actions on the screen. There was some of that of course, but Clair often avoided plain exposition by having the dialogue sung — a common device in all his films of this period. Otherwise, his use of sound tended to substitute for action and vice versa. So when you hear a particular action, you don’t see it; and when you see something, it’s usually in silence.
The story is very simple, even for the time, and tends to be the weakest aspect of the film. Albert, who appears to sell sheet music for a living and promotes it by singing the songs in the streets of Paris, meets an attractive young woman named Pola and the two begin a tentative relationship. Fred, a local petty criminal is also interested in Pola and warns Albert not to interfere. Albert ignores Fred and soon he and Pola appear destined to marry. Then Albert gets jailed for a crime that one of Fred’s accomplices was responsible for and while he is in prison, Pola falls for Albert’s best friend Louis. When Albert is finally freed, he finds that he must contend with both friend and foe for Pola’s hand. Despite the weakness of this plot, the way it is presented, almost as a series of vignettes, is what allows it to work sufficiently to maintain our interest while Clair tries out sound for the first time.
The degree of his success is evidenced by a myriad of examples. The most interesting is the fight between Albert (played by Albert Préjean) and Fred which takes place in semi-darkness illuminated only by street lights with the sound of a passing train and the puff of its engine’s smoke the only evidence of its presence. The sounds of music and laughter throughout the film often seem to come from elsewhere with Clair keeping us separated from the source by closed doors or apartment walls and floors. At a local bar, the William Tell Overture seems to start up from nowhere, but soon proves to be a gramophone recording when the sounds start to repeat itself and we see the bartender finally switch it off. (Did Clair like this idea enough that it led to his using the gramophone as a key element of his later À Nous la Liberté?)
Criterion’s DVD of Sous les Toits de Paris presents the film full frame in accord with its original aspect ratio. The transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain master and has a number of imperfections consistent with the age of the source material and the fact that no full-blown restoration was involved. Speckles and scratches abound and there is some marked distortion of the image on a couple of occasions. At its best, the image is sharp and bright, but more often than not, there is a washed out nature to it. Shadow detail in the darker scenes is often below average. Still, given the expected level of demand for this title, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever have any better, and if that’s so, I don’t think you’ll be too disappointed by Criterion’s efforts.
The DVD offers a French Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track that has apparently been subject to restoration as a result of efforts by the Forum des Images in Paris. The audio is quite acceptable, although age-related hiss is noticeable. English sub-titles are provided.
The disc supplements include Clair’s fascinating 1924 feature debut Paris Qui Dort which he later edited into a 34-minute featurette (the version on the disc). The film is also known as The Crazy Ray, and features the same Albert Préjean who is the lead in Sous les Toits de Paris. It’s a pleasure to see this very fascinating film in a more complete form than the previously available 19-minute version included on Image’s disc of The Bells, although the Image version was tinted which I found preferable. A second supplement is a three-minute deleted scene that originally appeared at the start of Sous les Toits de Paris, but it’s clear that Clair’s decision to cut it makes the scenes of the Paris roofs that now open and close the film more effective bookends for it. A 1966 BBC-TV interview with Clair, conducted by Dilys Powell, is useful although not particularly intriguing. A trailer rounds out the disc.