Under the Roofs of Paris (René Clair / France, 1930):
(Sous les toits de Paris)

"Words and music, one franc," the dawn of French talkies. It opens above the roofs of Paris, actually, in a celebrated crane shot which swoops down to a studio evocation of a proletarian quarter where the street singer (Albert Préjean) has the latest ditty. In the crowd is the pickpocket (Bill Bocket) blithely plying his trade, also the indecisive Romanian gamine (Pola Illéry) and her underworld beau (Gaston Modot), the singer's pal (Edmond T. Gréville) completes the ménage. René Clair has a way with a chanson, it makes its way through a multi-floor house in tandem with the camera in lambent anticipation of Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis prelude. "Sous les toits de Paris, tu vois ma p'tit Nini..." "Enough already! We know that one." The city is a gaslit vision of cobblestone streets and tango bars, at once Belle Époque and just after the arrival of sound, complete with beguilingly wonky synchronization. Dialogue is purposely minimalized throughout, whispered into ears, drowned out by accordions, cut off by glass doors. One scuffle is delayed by lack of proper switchblades and finally staged in the dark (a train leisurely puffs through off-screen), another is scored to the William Tell Overture by way of a scratchy saloon gramophone. The key in the coquette's purse, the bachelor's bed not quite shared at night, the high-heel alarm-clock, the neon-lit Cupid's arrow—the gentle Clair bizarrerie. "Oh, I just love a brave man!" Modot figures tellingly decades later in a pair of sumptuous expansions, Becker's Casque d'Or and Renoir's French Cancan. Cinematography by Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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