Years ago as a graduate student, I was ecstatic to see a faded, fuzzy, and torn copy of LE MILLION at one of the campus film societies. Nevertheless, I was immediately enchanted. Luckily, those who today want to see this masterpiece have this magnificently restored version by Criterion. No one who loves classic cinema will fail to be enchanted by this magical story about the hunt for a lost, winning lottery ticket.
In 1931, the year this film was made, European cinema was just beginning to catch up with the technical achievements made in the United States in the late 1920s. The period from 1929 to the early 1930s was an extraordinary time, as the art struggled with perfecting the new ability to record soundtracks. For a brief period of time, the world of cinema was awash with a world of possibilities, and in Hollywood Ernst Lubitsch made perhaps the first lasting musical films in a string of productions (THE LOVE PARADE, MONTE CARLO, and THE SMILING LIEUTENANT by 1931, and later ONE HOUR WITH YOU and THE MERRY WIDOW) that borrowed heavily from the operetta, a form that tragically-based on the extraordinary success achieved by Lubitsch and later Clair and Mamoulian-failed to survive for long.
LE MILLION was essentially an attempt to do in France what Ernst Lubitsch was doing so successfully in Hollywood. The transition was an easy one, especially given that Lubitsch, the European expatriate, was setting all of his films in Europe. Rene Clair, however, added many touches of his own. The humor he employs in the film is laced with a degree of slapstick that simply wasn't Lubitsch's style. This film is a romp through Paris, and romping wasn't Lubitsch's mode of travel. LE MILLION is working class, while Lubitsch focused primarily on the antics of the aristocracy, or with workers having to deal with the aristocracy. Also, while Clair of necessity worked primarily in the studio (the limitations of sound technology required it), he employs some exterior shots that were very unusual for the time.
There is a magic and a delight in LE MILLION that simply cannot be captured in words. There is something sui generis about a truly great film, especially one that is great in only the way that a film can be great, in the use of camera to tell a story, to tell a joke, to invoke a sense of delight. Except for those unfortunate film viewers for whom no good film was ever made in black and white, for whom no good film can be subtitled, and for whom an "old" film means made before 1970, this is one of those filmed that will be loved and cherished by anyone who loves movies.