DVD Verdict
Home About News Blu-ray DVD Reviews Upcoming DVD Releases Contest Podcasts Forums Judges Contact  

Case Number 04719: Supreme Court

Buy The Lower Depths: Criterion Collection at Amazon

The Lower Depths: Criterion Collection

The Lower Depths (Les Bas-fonds)
1936 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
The Lower Depths (Donzoko)
1957 // 137 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Criterion
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron and Judge Dan Mancini // July 6th, 2004




 

All Rise...

Judges Bill Gibron and Dan Mancini team to bring you an exceptionally detailed review of two takes on the same material by two of the world's finest directors: Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa. This review is truly not to be missed.

The Charge

"That is a much more important film than mine."—Jean Renoir on Akira Kurosawa's The Lower Depths

Opening Statement

Most, if not all of us, have experienced the Depths: Depression, disappointment, or just a disastrous day where nothing seemed to go right. Life is a constant carnival ride between the basics of happiness and the upper echelon of disenchantment. And whether it's the doldrums of the blues or the pits, we've all been there and allowed sorrow to swallow us up, if only temporarily. Unfortunately, there are those of us for whom the initial foray into the den of despair was only a rest stop toward a further exploration of misery. In these low depths, life is an unbearable series of setbacks, a realm where reality seems to be fighting you hourly for your very sense of self. Trauma becomes torture, and bad luck careens into catastrophe at the whim of a wicked world. But it is the rare person who can enter into, and survive, the lower depths, the penultimate chasm between death (the lowest depth, by the way) and living human destruction. For anyone unlucky enough to experience this kingdom of squalor with its bleak boundaries and bottomless well of sorrow, the realities of living and dying are so skewed that they both seem like the same thing most of the time.

It is this realm of the irredeemable that Maxim Gorky explored in his classic 1902 play The Lower Depths, a deep, dark den of despair from which no soul could escape. The translation of such a miserable message into the medium of film has only been accomplished three times. In 1952, a Russian version was released, but the best-known examples of Gorky's glum gathering of symbols of Soviet repression were by, arguably, two of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Thanks to the efforts of the Criterion Collection, we are finally allowed to witness the wonder of two cinematic titans taking on the same basic storyline. For Frenchman Jean Renoir, his 1936 trip into this realm was merely an excuse for some Hollywood inspired hope. But it was the master, Akira Kurosawa, who truly uncovered the horror and humiliation of being someone swallowed whole by The Lower Depths.

Facts of the Case

• The Lower Depths (Les Bas-Fonds) (1936)
Judgment: 90
In a flophouse in Paris, a group of social outcasts measure out their miserable existences in empty conversation and melancholy misery. Run by the ruthless Kostylev and his horrible wife Vassilissa, the bums and derelicts that reside in this repulsive shelter represent the entire scope of sub-society. From Kletsch the cobbler and his dying wife to Pepel the thief who's having an affair with Vassilissa while keeping his more emotional eye on her sister, Natacha, a cross section of strife lives in the tattered walls of this human landfill.

When Pepel breaks into the home of a nobleman, he learns that bad luck can befall even the most bourgeois member of society. When the Baron does a favor for the burglar, the crook returns the gesture and invites the destitute dandy to come live at his hostel. No longer able to tolerate her lover's wandering eye, Vassilissa offers Pepel an ultimatum: help her get rid of her husband, or there will be trouble—not just for him, but for her sister as well. When an arranged relationship between Natacha and the local housing inspector ends in misery, the wrath of the Kostylevs is leveled on their residents. It will take an anarchic act, a revolution of sorts, to help these homeless, helpless people feel a small sense of dignity, here in The Lower Depths.

• The Lower Depths (Donzoko) (1957)
Judgment: 100
Kahei (Bokuzen Hidari), a traveling Buddhist priest, arrives at a flophouse in Edo (now Tokyo). There he finds a group of desperate souls, including a cynical gambler (Koji Mitsui), an alcoholic former actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) with a failing liver, a hooker (Akemi Negishi) with a heart of gold, a man who may have once been a samurai (Minoru Chiaki), and a tinker (Eijiro Tono) eager for his ailing wife (Eiko Miyoshi) to pass away so he can make a second go at his career.

Also among the desperate poor is a rough-and-tumble thief named Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune) who's having an affair with the landlady, Osugi (Isuzu Yamada), though he loves her younger sister, Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa). Turmoil erupts in the flophouse when Osugi's husband discovers his wife's affair, and she tries to convince the thief to murder him in order to solve all their problems.

The Evidence

Jean Renoir's version of Max Gorky's classic play is supposed to be influenced by the rising tide of Nazism in France when the film was made (1936). But in light of what would happen to the world once Hitler's war machine really roared into action, the hints in The Lower Depths are almost transparent. In his classic masterpiece, 1939's The Rules of the Game, Renoir makes a valid statement about the malaise of the upper class allowing a rancid philosophy—in this case fascism—to take hold in Europe. But where the totalitarian ideal flourishes inside the flophouse of Depths is hard to decipher. Perhaps it resides in the iron fist/moral dichotomy of the landlord. A sly and sinister old man with one hand in the Bible and the other in the ever-emptying pockets of his tenants, he is a decent representation of a siege state ethos. Using Christian charity to rationalize his redolent behavior, he is a cruel, calculating man, always looking for ways to play his renters—or worse, his family—against each other in a desire for more power and control. He fences for Pepel, but denies the criminality in the act. He beats his sister in law to get her to slave for him, yet he views his abhorrent behavior as the only way to teach her to behave. For the poisonous proprietor, the boarders can be used and abused as a means to his insular, selfish ends. Similar to tyranny, where people can become the fodder for furthering the government's goals, the landlord is dictator over his own despondent domain in Renoir's view.

There is a difference between the depths that Renoir wishes to illustrate and the similar circumstances formulated by Kurosawa. For the Frenchman, we are witnessing the nadir of the human spirit, of man's inhumanity to man. This is made clear from the very first scene, when the Baron gets a complete dressing down—social, political, and financial—at the hands of his superiors. Even though he is a nobleman, and a member of the privileged class, his errant behavior (resulting in an enormous gambling problem and an even bigger issue of embezzlement) has forced his fellow aristocrats' hand and he is reduced to a bum in the matter of a short couple of days. Renoir seems to be suggesting that all members of the bourgeoisie (they are a favorite target of the director's, after all) have legacies built on such similarly faulty foundations. For Akira Kurosawa, the depths become poverty at its most basic. His characters live in a hellhole hovel barely able to keep out the chill of the air. From above, garbage is dumped on the house (by Buddhist monks, no less), many members of the community considering the residence part of the landfill. Indeed, the people who populate this rundown shack are viewed as trash, not only by the locals, but also by each other. The constant chatter over money, the squabbling for pennies or silver, illustrates the financial basis in Kurosawa's story. It was also part of Gorky's theme, but when viewed in light of the squalor Kurosawa shows us, it's hard to see how everything in the master's Depths is not centered around wealth.

There's every indication Akira Kurosawa was aware of and had probably seen Jean Renoir's version of The Lower Depths when he set out to make his own. Kurosawa loved foreign cinema, having been exposed to it throughout his youth. His older brother, Heigo, was a benshi (a live narrator of silent films; the Japanese didn't utilize intertitles) in the 1920s, and provided Kurosawa access to silent classics by everyone from D.W. Griffith to Sergei Eisenstein from the time he was 10 or 12 years old. He continued watching films from all over the world throughout the rest of his life. It's unlikely he'd have missed a picture by a French director of Renoir's stature about a subject so close to his own heart. It's fairly obvious from the end product that Kurosawa chose to tackle Maxim Gorky's stage play because he knew he could make a film entirely different from the French master's, entirely his own.

The Lower Depths is one of two stage-to-screen adaptations made by Kurosawa in 1957. The other, Throne of Blood, was based on Shakespeare's Macbeth and is the more renowned of the two. But The Lower Depths is as good a film—along with Red Beard, it's one of the director's hidden gems, underappreciated by Western audiences—and a superior example (perhaps, the superior example) of Kurosawa's sensitive and dynamic approach to the adaptation of others' source materials. In Throne, Kurosawa relocated the Bard's drama to feudal Japan, ditched all of the original poetry in favor of a stylized Japanese he crafted himself, and freely altered characters and scenes in order to fit his own purposes. It's an approach that served him well, and one he'd repeat in transforming the Ed McBain crime novel King's Ransom into 1963's High and Low, and Shakespeare's King Lear into 1985's Ran. By contrast, The Lower Depths is a close adaptation, maintaining Gorky's single flophouse setting (though moved from early 20th-century Russia to mid 19th-century Japan), most of his dialogue, and his theme. It's ironic that Depths proved to be such a powerful and effective work because Kurosawa's only other attempt at close adaptation was a disaster. 1951's The Idiot—based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky—is one of the few clunkers in the director's middle period. It's a mostly rickety affair in which Kurosawa sacrifices his own sensibilities at the altar of his favorite writer.

Gorky's play explores the question of whether it's better for his destitute slum-dwellers to face the harsh and probably inescapable realities of their situation, or hang on to romantic notions of economic and psychological escape. Faced with hopelessness, it's human nature to manufacture hope, even if it's illusory. But is this a good thing, or bad? It's a dialectic exemplified in the characters of the gambler and the pilgrim. The former is savvy and jaded, unwilling to indulge in fantasies and intolerant of his fellow denizens' flights of fancy. The latter—a Buddhist priest in Kurosawa's film—is the source of many of those flights of fancy. It is he who regales the cirrhotic actor with tales of a mountain-top sanitarium that will fix his liver and break alcohol's hold on him so he can return to his former glory on the stage; assures the tinker's dying wife that there is certainly life after death (though he isn't so sure himself); and urges the prostitute to hang on to her memories of a lost romantic love even though they're probably confabulation, a defense against the realities of her sexual debasement. Kurosawa finds harmony with Gorky's theme and brings it under the umbrella of his own preoccupation with the paradox central to his best work, that human nature is defined by our equal capacities for compassion and cruelty. The result is a unique act of adaptation in Kurosawa's oeuvre, one that is as faithful to the source as it is harmonious with the filmmaker's other works.

It's the film's tone, more than anything else, that makes it Kurosawa's. Unlike Gorky's relentlessly bleak source material, or Renoir's snappy version in which Pepel is a bon vivant temporarily down on his luck, Kurosawa's picture is a black comedy. He doesn't impose this tonal shift on the material artificially. It arises out of his theme of compassion and cruelty, and his approach to character. In Kurosawa (the best of his films, anyway), we always glimpse the universal through the minutely studied detail of individual characters. One could argue that Gorky's characters are specific types designed to elucidate his pre-determined philosophical musings, while in Kurosawa theme appears to arise organically out of close observation of round characters (that may not be how it actually works, but that's the illusion he creates). The poverty-stricken souls in Kurosawa's The Lower Depths are just as miserable as those in Gorky's, but they often find cause to laugh in the midst of their sorrow—sometimes with each other, and sometimes at each other's expense—because that's what people do, even in the worst of situations. Kurosawa's group gambles and boozes…a lot (alcohol often plays the part of social lubricant in Japanese movies—consider Kurosawa's Ikiru, or just about any film by Yasujiro Ozu [Tokyo Story]). The poverty, the rudderlessness, and the imbibing create the context for Kurosawa's exploration of the fluid relationship between compassion and cruelty. Each character's autonomy is at war in one way or another with the group dynamic and, depending on the circumstances, their interactions with their fellow flophouse denizens can sway in short order from loving to mean. Each individual is capable of ruthless selfishness, yet they also display warm camaraderie, an acknowledgement that their burdens are at least partially shared. They are alone together—and isn't that the fundamental paradox of the human condition? The richness of these characterizations allows us to share their small joys even as we witness their travails. It's a sure sign of Kurosawa's mastery that the comedy never blinds us to the tragedy, or vice versa. The Lower Depths, as crafted by Kurosawa, is a movie of complex philosophy, textured and mimetic characters, and delicately and perfectly rendered tone.

In fact, you can take the philosophy of compassion vs. cruelty to its ultimate extreme, and rationalize that Kurosawa's The Lower Depths is a movie about all of life's contradictions and differences: resolve vs. will, faith vs. reality, truth vs. lies. Renoir wants to champion a universe where Karma eventually comes around to your way of thinking, if you just have a little hope and some of that cosmic luck thrown your way. Kurosawa is more interested in how people cope, not from an escapist point of view but from a realistic ideal. In his film, Sutekichi is the pragmatist, living by the seat of his robes, a schemer who's hoping to find a way to maintain his life of crime and still remain respectable. He sees life as a series of tests and torments, exercises in existence that will eventually lead to something—maybe happiness, maybe a final felonious score. Kahei the priest, on the other hand, represents the traditional view of the elderly, of wisdom from numerous life lessons and an insight that only comes from age. Occasionally considered a crackpot, but more times than not the tolerant voice of reason when events crash out of control, his Zen truisms allude to the proper tenants of life: of faith and brotherhood, caring and consideration. He tends to the dying wife of the tinker as he goes out drinking, and tries to give hope to the alcoholic actor for whom fermented spirits are a slow, life-sucking albatross around his neck. Kahei believes in the saving grace of human ethics. Sutekichi only believes in his wits and his ways around situations. That these ideals eventually clash and control the denizens of the flophouse in The Lower Depths is no surprise. Indeed, it's the very reason why they are there in the first place.

Kurosawa's stunning precision is bolstered by some of the finest acting in any of his films. Despite the presence of Toshiro Mifune, the most famous actor in the history of Japanese cinema, The Lower Depths is not a star vehicle. It is a true ensemble piece, and Kurosawa uses a combination of his stock players and some of the top actors of the day from Japanese stage and screen. Notable among the director's usual troupe is the comic actor Bokuzen Hidari, who's probably most recognizable from his role as Yohei, the bumbling old farmer whose death is so poignant in Seven Samurai. But Hidari's work as Kahei is probably his finest for Kurosawa. Another comic actor used to great effect is Kamatari Fujiwara, who plays the sick and addled actor. In Seven Samurai, Fujiwara was memorable as Manzo, the double-dealing farmer who forces his daughter to disguise herself as a boy so none of the hired warriors runs away with her. He'd deliver his most memorable role for Kurosawa as one of the bumbling idiots in The Hidden Fortress, made immediately after Depths. But in the role of the actor, Fujiwara is allowed to mix comedy and tragedy to powerful effect. He and Kurosawa make comedic hay with the character's mangling of language and his general confusion, but his desperate need to believe in the possibility of release from his alcoholism is a stark reminder that we're laughing at the man, not with him. It implicates us in the other characters' cruelty, reminding us they aren't fundamentally bad people but just human…like us.

Koji Mitsui turns in a fine performance as the gambler, Yoshisaburo. Mitsui played small roles in a number of Kurosawa films, but is perhaps most recognizable as the son in the Ozu silent A Story of Floating Weeds (25 years later, he also played a minor role in Ozu's remake of that film, Floating Weeds—he's credited under the name Hideo Mitsui in both). In his hands, the gambler is cynical yet sympathetic. We relate to his anger and skepticism as much as we do to the priest's invocations of distant hope. And let's not forget Mifune. Though not in his usual position at the center of all the action, he proves a capable ensemble player, and his aggressively masculine persona is ideal for the brash but insecure Sutekichi. It's a performance among the best of his career, standing alongside his work in Seven Samurai and Red Beard. He's magnetic, yet sensitive to what each of the other actors is up to.

Kurosawa draws the best possible performances from these actors by staying true to the source's roots as a play. Unlike Renoir, who opened things up in a traditionally cinematic way, adding a number of indoor and outdoor settings, Kurosawa sticks to Gorky's single, cloistered environment. He uses multiple cameras to both foster great acting and avoid the flat, stagy look endemic to poorly-realized leaps from stage to screen. Kurosawa began using multiple-camera setups three years earlier in order to capture the complex battle sequences in Seven Samurai. In The Lower Depths, he used them to much different effect. By shooting with three carefully positioned cameras and using telephoto lenses, he was able to avoid intruding on the actors' performances by keeping the cameras at a distance while getting all the footage he needed in only a few uninterrupted takes. The actors were able, in effect, to perform as though on stage, yet Kurosawa could cut the final picture into a relatively normal series of master shots, two shots, close-ups, et cetera. Making the most of this approach, he carefully rehearsed both his actors and his camera crew for weeks before the shoot, then shot the film pretty much in continuity so the actors could fully immerse themselves in the story's progression. On a technical level, the look of the film is deceptively simple and austere. It took much planning and effort to achieve an aesthetic that reproduces the psychological claustrophobia of Gorky's stage play, but is actually fundamentally cinematic.

Renoir's Depths is a decidedly "male" film. Looking at the Hollywood masterworks that he enjoyed so much, Jean departed from Gorky's manuscript to turn the thief Pepel and the Baron into a pair of mutual admirers, each one envying what the other has (or had). Indeed, Renoir's film is a kind of hobo buddy picture, with our two chums muddling through the various miseries visited upon them until they both are resolved to their fate. As for their feminine counterparts, the women in Renoir's version are not really powerful. They are determined and somewhat devious, but they tend to fall back when the men exert their machismo over them. Vassilissa is almost reminiscent of a classic noir femme fatale, a fallen lady looking for a rube to do her deadly, dirty work. When she proposes that Pepel kill her landlord husband so that she can inherit his property, the offer is not so much a seduction but a business arrangement. Natasha, on the other hand, is similar to Cinderella, a poor put-upon waif without an opinion of her own, cruelly beaten and berated to guarantee her many compliant services. When Pepel challenges her to express her feelings, she curls up like a hedgehog, barely able to register a sound, let alone an emotion. By the end of the film she has been empowered by love and daring, but she is still a child at heart, waiting for the paternalistic Pepel to deliver her to the promised paradise.

Kurosawa, however, views Gorky's play from the place where the real supremacy lies: in the actions and passions of the female. Osugi, the vicious, wicked witch of the flophouse, rules the roost over the mild objections of her submissive landlord husband. Unlike Renoir's renter, our superintendent of scum is a henpecked coward, all false bravado and very little power. He fancies himself a proper proprietor, but it's Osugi who causes the major upheaval in the hovel, especially when it comes to her sister and Sutekichi. Unlike the cat and mouse game in Renoir's rendition, Sutekichi is obsessed with Okayo, wearing his heavy, hopeful heart on his sleeve for all in the inn to see. Okayo understands this longing and plays on it to get Sutekichi to risk his reality for her. Between Osugi's woman scorned and Okayo's damsel in distress disguise, Sutekichi is made insane—with jealousy, with confusion, with not understanding where his freedom lies and his commitments begin. But mostly, he is a wild male animal, a macho man of danger who is not used to being wrapped around the finger of a female. Yet as Kurosawa's narrative continues to wind and tighten the gals' grip on their powerless paramour, Akira's view of the material is apparent. From the whore whose stories both irritate and enliven the male members of the household to the dying wife of the tinker whose constant coughing and wheezing acts as a constant reminder of the lowest depth (death), the women play a far more important role in Kurosawa's film that they even begin to portray in Renoir's.

This is profound irony considering Kurosawa isn't exactly known for his dynamic female characterizations. The Lower Depths offers no fewer than three stand-out roles for women, and boasts the presence of two greats of Japanese cinema, Kyoko Kagawa and Isuzu Yamada. Kagawa—who had important roles in Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, Ozu's Tokyo Story, and was the female lead in Kurosawa's High and Low and Madadayo—gives a sensitive performance as Okayo, a character resistant to giving herself over to the hope that romantic attachment to Mifune's thief might offer a viable escape from her servitude to her family. Her wicked sister is played by Yamada. Osugi is the sort of cold-hearted woman found throughout Kurosawa's oeuvre (Yamada also played Lady Asaji, a similarly nasty role in Throne of Blood). Her attempts to manipulate Sutekichi into killing her husband—motivated by her twin desires to rid herself of an old and ugly mate, and to derail any possible love between Sutekichi and her sister—are the single source of melodrama in the picture. It's melodrama that works, though, because it offers a contrast to the otherwise character-driven nature of the piece, and plays as a scandal about which the ensemble can titter and gossip. Yamada manages to give a subtle performance despite Osugi being so plainly and one-dimensionally despicable.

The third dynamic female role is the prostitute Osen, distinct from the other two because she lacks their veneer of respectability, though the wicked Osugi, with her May-December marriage to the milquetoast landlord and her affair with Sutekichi, is as guilty as Osen of making a commodity of her sex. In the role of Osen, Akemi Negishi is given the opportunity to reel off a long, complex, emotionally-charged speech about a lost love who may or may not be an invention of her imagination. It's a touching moment, both desperate and naïve considering the romantic cynicism and confusion of her more respectable female counterparts. Nearly the entire scene plays out in a single, unbroken take. It's a tour de force piece of acting in which the actress is required to deliver a range of emotion the runs from wistful to despairing to enraged. The convincing delivery of such long and challenging speeches was a specialty of Negishi's. She turns in a similarly impressive performance in Kurosawa's Red Beard.

What of the character of the actor, the most recognizable entity in either Renoir or Kurosawa's film? For Jean, the thespian is a symbol of insanity, of how a final free-fall into complete personal paucity leads to a lack of touch with the real world. Seen as a wild-eyed weirdo, plying his pathetic skills for the pure amusement of the other denizens, Renoir wants to show that, no matter how awful we think Pepel, the Baron of Natacha have it, there is always someone worse off; someone fated to die from his own desire to drink himself to death. But Kurosawa gives this delicate derelict a far more meaningful part. His performer is far more alive and in the moment than the rummy rimmed jester who livens up the Parisian nights. Kurosawa instills the actor with a sense of humility, a plain acknowledgement that he is in dire straights and needs help desperately. When the actor's fate is sealed and his final "performance" pronounced, the reactions within the two films are amazingly different. Since Renoir has built his fool to be an ancillary consideration, one we do not pay that much emotional attention to, his destiny is oddly anti-climatic. But since Kurosawa has made his character a full fledged force in the film, a single candle burning against the growing certainty of sickness, the curtain drawing on his individual is devastating, a sign that, when all hope is lost, it truly no longer exists. The stark contrast in how these seemingly unimportant characters are treated illustrates the differences in the two films. Kurosawa wants his ending to have impact. Renoir has a romance still to contend with.

In reality, for all its technical grace, Renoir's Depths is not an emotional movie. It is too polished, too removed from the people and their pain, to register real feelings both for, and because of, the characters. When Natacha is beaten by her family, it does not have the feeling of real violence, but of the fairytale torment figures like Cinderella and Snow White must endure. Pepel is not tested by his love and lovers, but finds a way to sin and still get what he wants. Even Vassilissa seems content with the resolution: She may not have her secret paramour, but she's got everything she married her landlord husband for in the first place. Kurosawa's Depths, on the other hand, is a torturous trip through the emotional wringer. Every character in the cramped, draft den has an arc we understand and sympathize with and/or despise. We boo the villains and champion the anti-heroes. When death comes, it is as painful for us as it is for the individuals so stricken. As events careen wildly out of control, we suffer along with the anarchy and when things finally settle down, we too are resolved to a more than somber fate. Many people will look at the characters in Kurosawa's film and mutter the mantra "there but for the grace of God…" They may not think the outcome in Renoir's rendition deserves that kind of saved sentiment.

Visually, Renoir's Depths looks exceptionally good for a film pushing the 70-year mark (it's actually only 68 years young). In some ways, the image here is better than the one offered on last year's masterpiece presentation of The Rules of the Game. The 1.33:1 monochrome transfer is near pristine, with limited age defects and just a few spots of dirt. The details are excellent and the feeling of time and place are well maintained in the atmospheric visuals Renoir creates. Sound is also an important part in Renoir's work, and with Depths coming so soon after the full incorporation of sonics into cinema, the aural elements don't always mesh well. Still, for a film without stereo or surround sound to carry its tone, the Dolby Digital Mono track, thankfully preserving the original French (with English subtitles), is a real treat.

Kurosawa's The Lower Depths occupies Disc Two of this set, and Criterion offers a strong full screen transfer of the director's last film shot in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The quality is in keeping with Criterion's release of Throne of Blood: major damage has been removed, but plenty of minor flaws remain. Contrast is good, though there are some shots that flicker a bit. The adoption of anamorphic lenses in the late 1950s was a huge technological leap forward for Japanese studios, which is why image quality differs so dramatically between, say, 1958's The Hidden Fortress (shot at a 2.35:1 ratio) and The Lower Depths, which was released the year before. Depths is far from pristine, but about what one would expect from a Japanese film of the '50s, shot with spherical lenses. Dialogue is clear on the single-channel Japanese mono track, though there's hiss aplenty. Blame Kurosawa for the audio flaws, not Criterion. The sound design on nearly all of his films is notably complex, and his layering of wind and other effects into the mono track is the source of the hiss. I'm sure the audio restorationists had a time trying to reduce unwanted background noise as much as possible without filtering out the sounds the director intended. All things considered, the audio and video are top-notch presentations of difficult sources. If you've seen Criterion's releases of Throne of Blood or Ozu's Tokyo Story, you'll know what to expect.

As a living legend among the French, Renoir was interviewed extensively on his career and canon and we are given a chance to hear the director speak on his own, and his films', behalf in a six-minute segment from a French television documentary on the famous filmmaker. The introduction—oddly named as it contains many major spoilers—is a welcome chance to hear the effervescent, elfin man discuss his themes and modifications to Gorky's work. The enclosed essay on Renoir's Depths is scholarly and self-sufficient, if again hampered by giving too much away. Hopefully DVD fans will sample the sensational movie first before pouring over the bonus material.

Supplements to Kurosawa's film include a feature-length commentary by Japanese film expert Donald Richie, author of The Films of Akira Kurosawa. The track is particularly focused on the movie's themes and its construction, and he piles on the detail. As with all of Criterion's recent Kurosawa releases, an episode of the Toho Masterworks television series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create is also offered on the disc. The documentary runs 33 minutes, and is indexed into five chapters. Topics include background on the Edo period in which Kurosawa sets his version of Depths; how the tenement building Kurosawa's brother, Hideo, lived in was inspiration for the film's detailed production design; and Kurosawa's meeting with Renoir in Paris. Cast biographies are offered for all of the players in Kurosawa's film. This sort of text-based extra is normally throw-away, but the entire cast had such distinguished careers it actually contains valuable information for the Japanese film buff. Finally, the insert booklet contains a new essay by Japanese film scholars Keiko McDonald and Thomas Rimer.

Closing Statement

Criterion's release of Kurosawa's The Lower Depths was originally slated for the late summer of 2003, but was delayed so the set could be expanded to include Renoir's film. It was worth the wait. Despite the fact Renoir's version is short-shrifted a bit in the supplements department (where's the commentary?), this two-disc set is a clinic in the art of cinematic adaptation. It's destined to be one of the most memorable DVD releases of the year, and belongs on every cinephile's shelf.

The Verdict

Case dismissed.

Give us your feedback!

Did we give The Lower Depths: Criterion Collection a fair trial? yes / no

Share This Review


Follow DVD Verdict


Other Reviews You Might Enjoy

• Cruel Intentions
• Lolita
• Losing Isaiah
• Farewell My Concubine

DVD Reviews Quick Index

• DVD Releases
• Recent DVD Reviews
• Search for a DVD review...

Genres

• Classic
• Drama
• Foreign

Scales of Justice, The Lower Depths (Les Bas-fonds)

Video: 95
Audio: 85
Extras: 25
Acting: 95
Story: 90
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, The Lower Depths (Les Bas-fonds)

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Lower Depths (Les Bas-fonds)

• Introduction by the Director
• Essay by Alexander Sesonske

Scales of Justice, The Lower Depths (Donzoko)

Video: 90
Audio: 85
Extras: 85
Acting: 100
Story: 100
Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, The Lower Depths (Donzoko)

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Lower Depths (Donzoko)

• Audio Commentary by Donald Richie
• Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create Documentary
• Cast Biographies
• Original Theatrical Trailer
• Essay by Keiko McDonald and Thomas Rimer








DVD | Blu-ray | Upcoming DVD Releases | About | Staff | Jobs | Contact | Subscribe | Find us on Google+ | Privacy Policy

Review content copyright © 2004 a panel; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.