The film (Sous les toits de Paris in French) begins with a long crane shot panning along the rooftops and then descends along the street to linger on a group of people gathered around a singer, whose song (the title-song) gradually swells up on the soundtrack. The end of this film has this reversed. Sandwiched between these is a relaxed melodrama where a Parisian street singer (Albert Prejean) and his friend (Edmond Greville) pursue the love of the same woman (Pola Illery). In 1927, even before The Jazz Singer had been shown in Paris, René Clair wrote: “It is not without a shudder that one learns that some American manufacturers, among the most dangerous, see in the talking picture the entertainment of the future, and that they are already working to bring about this dreadful prophecy.” In 1929 the German film company Tobis established a studio at Épinay near Paris which was equipped for sound production and it inaugurated a policy of making French-speaking films in France rather than importing French performers to make French versions of films in Germany. The company concentrated on prestigious productions, and they recruited René Clair to undertake one of their first French projects with Sous les toits de Paris.
René Clair chose to use sound only when needed and his reluctance is far from a weakness but a strength in the manner he could retain the style and techniques of silent cinema: the viewer catches a conversation though cut off by the closing of a glass door without missing the nuances of what is said; the hour of midnight is indicated by the sound of a mere three chimes – and the superimposition of a clockface; and a knife-fight is shown but not heard because of a passing train, and continued in darkness (conveyed only by its sounds) until the headlights of a car illuminate the scene. “All Talking! All Singing!” label slapped across the posters for Under the Roofs of Paris in 1930 may have been false propaganda but the film nevertheless demonstrated an all talking and all singing film could not have come up anywhere half as good when the film was made by a genius. René Clair, then best known for Entr’acte (1924) thought sound could only undermine the complex visual language constructed by the silent cinema over three decades. Without fracturing its meaning(visual language) he reinforced his film with sound as those sound effects in a Marvel comics.
Clair avoided synchronization. You almost never see and hear something simultaneously, with the exception of the songs and the dialogue—and there is precious little dialogue. You hear music coming from a room, then the door closes in front of you and shuts the sound off. A train goes by, but you only know it from the soundtrack and a puff of smoke. In order to compare this let me refer to Pabst’s Pandora’s Box in which when Lulu and struggles with Dr. Schön and the gun goes off we see only a puff of smoke and not the report. Similarly at the end we do not see Jack the ripper actually using the knife. Instead the way her hold on Jack the ripper slackens tells forcibly what happened.
The film was shot at the time the effect of the financial crash of 29 was beginning to be felt around the world. Clair did not go for a surefire formula of escapism by setting the story in a mythical kingdom or take the worries of the public by subjecting them to zany mindless tomfoolery. Instead he chose the gritty Parisian squalor to give a touch of brightness on the denizens and he succeeded. Clair’s Paris,-every street and square, every tenement, garret, dancehall, and café was designed by Lazare Meerson who built it in the studio. But its characters, who live on the border between ill-paid labor and petty crime, were both instantly recognizable the world around and imbued with romance by the magic of Paris. In the decade that followed, that setting and those kinds of characters were to constitute the kernel of the French cinematic style called “poetic realism,” a principal architect of which was Marcel Carné, an assistant director on Under the Roofs of Paris. Even this day there is something nostalgic,- as well as simplicity, and it warms our hearts.
The camera work of Georges Périnal was of exceptional quality.
Albert meets a beautiful Romanian immigrant (Pola Illery), who is also desired by a criminal (Gaston Modot). Albert is arrested and locked up for a crime actually committed by the villain, and while he languishes in jail Pola meets Albert’s best friend (Edmond Gréville). When Albert is released he must confront both villainy and friendship.
‘What made it the toast of Berlin—and London, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Moscow, and Buenos Aires, before finally clicking in its hometown—was its iconic vision of lower-class Paris, whose impact on the world was compared by the film historian Georges Sadoul to that of the first Westerns on European audiences…’
Run time: 92 min
Black and White
This marked the sixth and last of Clair’s films which featured the actor Albert Préjean. When it was shown in Paris, the cinema gave Préjean star billing in its advertisements and consequently the two men fell out.
*The future film director Edmond T. Gréville appeared as an actor in the role of Albert’s friend Louis.
* During the last weeks of filming, the art director Lazare Meerson hired a 23-year old Hungarian as a replacement in his team, Alexandre Trauner, who went on to work as designer on many major French films of the following decades. (Les Enfants du Paradis)
*Success of the film’s creation of a colorful working-class neighborhood gave rise to such films as La Rue sans nom (1934), La Belle Équipe (1936) and Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)
* The film was discovered in Berlin (Aug 1930) and its triumph was repeated when the film appeared in New York and in London and other places. After its international acclaim, Sous les toits de Paris was released again in France and this time it enjoyed a real success on its home ground.
René Clair later recalled that the profits were such that the cost of the film, which was considerable, was covered by the returns from a single cinema.
(ack: Under the Roofs of Paris By Luc Sante /Criterion collection-23Sep02; wikipedia)