Note: there are no subtitles (English or French) on this DVD therefore a good grasp of French is necessary
The story:By the Canal Saint-Martin sits the Hôtel du Nord - a small popular hotel-cum-café where the locals share their anecdotes over a glass of wine and the odd fag. Tonight everyone is celebrating a child's first communion - this jovial ambiance is soon to be thrown into disarray when Renée (Annabella) and Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) emerge from the canal's mist, seeking a room for the night. Next door Edmond the sharp dressed pimp (Louis Jouvet) and his girlfriend Raymonde (Arletty) are exchanging insults but none of this disturbs the couple as they prepare to take each other's lives. Pierre however fails to do the job properly and realises he doesn't really want to kill himself - having roused the entire area, he has no choice but to flee.
Despite the absence of Prévert, Carné's talismanic screenwriter, the dialogue from the film has become one of the best known to the French public for the screeching Parisian tones of Arletty screaming "atmosphere, atmosphere" (literally: "Scenery? Scenery? Do I look like flipping scenery?")... Carné's style (the infamous "réalisme poétique" - poetic realism) is ever present here despite the script (penned by Jeanson and Aurenche) being slightly more light hearted than Drôle de Drame or Le Quai de Brumes. The expressionistic lighting and the precise dialogue come coupled with Carné's attention to detail make the set come to life and avoids the dry artificiality of so many set-based films. Although Annabella was meant to be the star of the movie, she wound up in a supporting role due to various rewrites. Added to that Jeanson (according to Carné) disliked her so strongly that he would only put drab dialogue in her mouth. This caused the enigmatic Jouvet and the earthy Arletty to take over the proceedings with their fast and quirky dialogue full of double-entendres, allusions and disdain (Jeanson evidently approved of them!). Despite this the story, although relatively simplistic and clichéd in parts, is served wonderfully by the whole cast and the cinematography - Carné seems to be able to use some difficult and complex shots without making it too flashy or stand out from the rest of the film - a fine art in itself.
The film itself was the most expensive French film at the time given that the set was an exact recreation of one side of the Canal St-Martin - a habit for French cinema as Léos Carax's Amants du Pont-Neuf recreated the eponymous bridge in the 90s and was their biggest financial blackhole ever! However, this time the expensive set was used as a giant advert for the film with the locals being invited to visit it at weekends...Despite its flaws, Hotel du Nord stands up quite well to time without being overly long - although not on par with Carné's other classics this is necessary viewing for anyone even vaguely interested in French cinema.
The image:Given the age of the film and the state of it, MK2 felt that it needed an in-depth restoration. This has been most thorough although some may find the image too polished given that I've only seen it on incredibly damaged and grainy reels. You can notice how damaged the film was in the fadeouts which are incredibly rough in comparison to the rest of the film but are thankfully not too jarring. I noticed that there was a lack of focus on the sides of the picture throughout the film with the centre of the image remaining in focus. I'm unsure if this was present on the original master but I suspect so as MK2 tend to be very thorough with their releases. There were also some minor print damages but this is unavoidable given the age of the film. There's little in way of pixellisation or artifacting although I detected some minor amounts of it in some backgrounds. As it was originally filmed in 4:3 we get no anamorphic enhancement. It remains that this is another great effort by a French company to restore one of their great classics and once again they come up trumps.
The sound:The sound is a little muffled in parts but remarkably better than I remember it to have been on previous VHS viewings. Naturally we only get the original mono soundtrack but there's nothing to really complain about here...
The menus:The usual stylish but sober MK2 design: large text placed on a still from the film. Nothing special but there is this "je ne sais quoi" about them that really marks them out as some of the best menus to navigate - probably a personal preference though...
The extras:Given the age of the film, one can really appreciate the effort taken by MK2 to go looking through archives for them. We first get a brief introduction to the film by Serge Toubiana lasting 4 minutes over stills from the movie (fullscreen). They've also included a 1989 interview with Marcel Carné mostly about the film itself but also around his career - the image is fullscreen and is closer to video quality but lasts almost 9 minutes and is most interesting and insightful given that Carné was by then well into his 80s. By contrast, Henri Jeanson is also interviewed but in 1959 and seems to not be asked any questions - it's hard to tell if he's an ego on the loose or he's being deeply ironic about his own talent but it ends up being an entertaining 8 minute monologue around the film, his distrust for Carné's initial casting and how fantastic Arletty was... Given the amount of praise the aforementioned has received throughout the extras, we get two extras on her: one being a poem written and read by Jacques Prévert (I know this sounds pretentious but it isn't!) and a 2 minute excerpt of an interview with her in the late 60s - mostly talking about how fame had not affected her in the slightest. To finish off they have judiciously included an excellent 4-minute feature on Alexandre Trauner the chief decorator and the person responsible for designing the set. Of course they have also managed to find the compulsory original trailer which is almost 5 minutes long and a joy to watch in itself.
It's hard to flaw any of the extras - all of them are quite short and concise but very informative. Without any padding MK2 have put together an excellent bunch of extras to complement the film...
Conclusions:Although there are no subtitles in English or in French, it's hard to ignore this release of a milestone of French cinema. The transfer is very good and the extras are spot on - one can only regret that MK2 seem to no longer include English subtitles on all their DVDs especially given that this film is unlikely to be released here in the near future. Hopefully there will be a UK release that will include this entire set of extras but in the meanwhile, I can only highly recommend another excellent release from MK2.