1931, France, directed by Jean Renoir
Although both of his silent features give fascinating glimpses of his developing artistry and technical skill (as well as his willingness to experiment), Renoir's first feature-length sound film immediately reveals the breadth of his skill. Here he's recognizably the director who would produce a string of masterpieces over an extraordinarily productive decade (over a dozen feature-length films and several important shorter works during the 1930s). Renoir embraces the possibilities created by the coming of sound, giving Michel Simon one of his strongest roles, with some wonderfully savoury dialogue, while playing with filmed space in strikingly new ways. Simon is more buttoned-down here than in some of his iconic performances from later in the decade (including in Renoir's own Boudu sauvé des eaux the following year), and while it takes some adjustment to see this force of nature as a modest hen-pecked clerk, it's an intelligent bit of casting, with Simon adept at concealing unforeseen motives, and later giving them full expression.
The other actors can't hope to compete with Simon, and the young pair of George Flamant and Janie Marèse (the latter was killed in a road accident before the film's release) display their inexperience; Flamant, in particular, has a theatricality at odds with the naturalism of the rest of the cast (he might have found himself more at home in Renoir's silent films), though he does at times capture a repulsive thuggishness reminiscent of a grapefruit-shoving James Cagney. His character, Dédé, displays a contempt for women that is underlined in other discomfiting ways by the film: Simon's wife is an extraordinarily shrewish woman from the moment we encounter her, with the men in her life competing with one another to divest themselves of their attachment (the film's main weakness is its inability to account for these attachments in the first place); the competition does, though, give the film a welcome jolt just as the pace seems to flag a little.
As the film reaches its climax, Renoir pays explicit homage to René Clair's Sous les toits de Paris, his camera rising and falling from street to rooftop and back again, unveiling a scene of tragedy that also reveals, in parallel, the worst of Dédé's arrogance; it's a sequence that is both technically perfect and deeply human, celebrating the life of Paris's streets while remaining blunt about the sometimes ugly stories concealed behind closed doors.