Using Maxim Gorky’s play about life among the destitute of society as their source, two directors – Akira Kurosawa and Jean Renoir – come up with sharply different takes in a new Criterion set. Although Kurosawa moves the action to early-19th-century Japan for his ensemble portrait, he adheres closely to Gorky, evoking the squalor and cruelty with finely drawn portraits: a brooding Toshiro Mifune as the thief in love with the younger sister of his landlady (and ex-paramour) and a withered, grinning Bokuzen Hidari as an old holy man. Renoir’s well-coiffed, working-class ”miserables,” still squabble ferociously, but the story is a male-bonding vehicle for his two stars: Jean Gabin, the thief, teaching Louis Jouvet, the urbane impoverished gambler, the pleasures of lying in the grass. In the upbeat finale – not Gorky’s – Gabin and the girl (Junie Astor) hit the road like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert did two years earlier in ”It Happened One Night.”
EXTRAS A superb commentary by Kurosawa expert Donald Richie and a making-of doc; a short intro from Renoir.