Saturday, August 24, 2019

The French Roots of Noir: Two Films by Marcel Carné with Jean Gabin




...For the Vive la France Blogathon...


In 1946 four relatively recent American films inspired Italian-born French film critic Nino Frank to pen an article for the August 1946 issue of the newly launched film periodical L’écran française. Titled “A New Kind of Police Drama: the Criminal Adventure,” the article pointed out that these films - The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet - seemed more concerned with psychological motivations and undercurrents than crime solving. In his piece, Frank would use the term film noir and from then on be commonly given credit for coining the expression.

Years later the research of film studies professor Charles O’Brien, among others, would reveal that the term film noir had already been in use in France by the late 1930s in reviews and articles written about emerging French films of a certain kind.

Marcel Carné
Director Marcel Carné (1900 – 1990) was one of a group of French filmmakers who were making these movies, films of a style that came to be known as “poetic realism.” Moody and awash in light and shadow, these films fused some of the poignancy of romanticism with a potent dose of the fatalism of street-life. The stories often followed the destinies of troubled characters who, yearning to break out of dead-end lives, would fall into tangled love affairs, concoct fanciful schemes, suffer and often die. Today, poetic realist films are generally considered proto-noir. Marcel Carné would direct two masterpieces of the genre, Le quai des brumes/Port of Shadows (1938) and Le jour se lève/Daybreak (1939), with French screen legend Jean Gabin (1904 – 1976) starring in both.

When he began his first film with Carné in 1938, Jean Gabin was in the earliest days of his stardom. He’d shot to fame in 1935 in Julien Duvivier’s La bandera and had just starred in two remarkable - and, later, classic - poetic realist films, Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), re-tooled by Hollywood in 1938 as Algiers with Charles Boyer, and Jean Renoir’s classic anti-war film, La Grande Illusion/Grand Illusion (1937).  Gabin onscreen is a powerfully charismatic and magnetic presence. Through most of this era he would portray sympathetic "everyman" types - petty criminals, legionnaires and laborers whose lives have taken a nasty twist or turn and find themselves in a corner, at the mercy of fate. 

By the time Le quai des brumes was ready to go into production, Carné had put together an exquisite team of off-camera artists: screenwriter Jacques Prévert, production designer/art director/set decorator Alexandre Trauner (Oscar winner for 1960's The Apartment) and composer Maurice Jaubert, who would sadly be lost in World War II. Prévert, also a surrealist poet, is credited with complementing Carné’s genius for composition and staging with his own witty and lyrical way with words, adding “poetry” to Carné’s stylized “realism.” Bringing in Jean Gabin to star would turn out to be a coup de maître.

Michele Morgan and Jean Gabin in Le quai des brumes (1938)
Gabin portrays Jean, a deserter from the French colonial army in Le quai des brumes. He makes his way to the mist-shrouded port city of Le Havre headed for Venezuela and a fresh start. Adopted by a stray dog en route, Jean waits on the foggy waterfront, commiserating with other disaffected misfits in a rundown bar and meeting a beautiful damsel in distress named Nelly (Michele Morgan). Life in this dreary milieu becomes even more complicated for Jean; he’s fallen in love with Nelly and been drawn into her dangerous world. After finally boarding his ship to freedom, Jean is unable resist coming back for one last goodbye. In the end, his parting words to her will be, “Kiss me. Quick. We have no time.” The film’s fatalism was not appreciated by the French authorities. The government later claimed that if France lost the war with Germany, Le quai des brumes could take the blame. To this, Carné would respond, “you do not blame a barometer for a storm.”

In Le quai des brumes the protagonist's fate unfolds gradually, as the story progresses, but in Le jour se lève the hero's future can be predicted from the start. The film opens with the crack of a gunshot and the sight of its victim toppling down a stairwell.  It is through a series of flashbacks that we learn how Francois (Gabin) would come to be a killer and end up barricaded in his cramped room at the top of the stairs, under siege by police. Francois is a foundry worker with few prospects, but a goodhearted, earnest man. He will meet Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent), a young woman who dreams of a much finer life, and he will fall for her...hard. When she attracts the attentions of a slick old seducer (Jules Berry), Francois will be driven to the crime of passion that seals his fate.

Jean Gabin and Arletty in Le jour se lève (1939)
As with Le quai des brumes, this film’s melancholy atmosphere, downbeat storyline and grim ending are profoundly affecting. Gabin’s “beautiful loser” persona provides a resonant core around which Carne’s carefully constructed world without hope can spin.  With his knowing eyes, low growl of a voice and expressive face, Gabin could articulate the state of his character’s heart, soul and mind with a handful of words or none at all.

Le jour se lève was released in June 1939, but World War II began in September and, once in power in 1940, France's Vichy government would pronounce the film “demoralizing” and it would be banned until the war's end.

Time would pass before filmmaking in France could recover from the shattering impact of World War II and the occupation. When it did, what the war wrought on the country’s psyche would be reflected on its theater screens. The influence of cinematic trends from around the world would also make an impression, notably American noir and Italian neorealism. From the late ‘40s, the crime films coming out of France would take on a real-world, hardboiled quality epitomized by noirish thrillers like Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi/Hands Off the Loot (1954), Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur/Bob the Gambler (1955) and expatriate American Jules Dassin’s 1955 film Rififi (“brawl”).

Lino Ventura, Jean Gabin and Jeanne Moreau in Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)
The careers of both Carné and Gabin would plateau during the post-war years. Their last two films together were La Marie du port/Marie of the Port (1950) and L’air de Paris/The Air of Paris (1954). Gabin made two films in 1954; L’air de Paris was the second. The first was Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi and its great success would revitalize his career. Gabin won the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival that year for his performances in both films. He would go on to make many more movies over the next 22 years, remaining a star to the very end and heading the cast of his final film in 1976, his final year, in the befitting role of a "master thief."

Marcel Carné’s later years were much less spectacular than Gabin's. There would be no comeback for him. In the early '50s Carné had become a prime target of scorn from a certain young critic at Cahiers du Cinema, the influential French film magazine that spawned several filmmakers of the French New Wave. Carné lived to the age of 90, but his work past 45 received little recognition. His reputation would ultimately rest on those brooding, evocative films he made in the late '30s that established his name and on Les enfants du paradis/Children of Paradise (1945), his great masterpiece and the most popular and widely acclaimed French film of all time. 

Note: A previous version of an article on this subject appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2018 issue of The Dark Pages, the film noir newsletter.


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12 comments:

  1. Le Jour se Leve is a dark masterpiece. I haven't seen Le quai des brumes but will have to keep an eye out for it. Terrific article.

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    1. These are two of my very favorite poetic realist films. Carné and Gabin (et al) worked cinematic magic together. One of the great blights on Carné's later career was the young critic François Truffaut who would live to regret his youthful attacks on Carné's work.

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  2. Great post Lady Eve. Your summary of Carné's work with these two masterpieces is terrific. I'm surprised that the otherwise perceptive Cahiers du Cinema and Truffaut did not see the evident greatness of his films, particularly the neo-noir Le Jour se Leve. In any event it is much valued today. And as you justly point out, Gabin remained the ever-popular French actor until the end. He had that ability to seem just "one of us" to most Frenchmen.

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    1. As a youthful critic Truffaut was passionate but he was also rash and wrong-headed at times. He would say, many years after he his attacks on Carné, that he would have traded his own entire filmography to have created Les enfants du paradis/Children of Paradise.

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  3. The new generation always knows better than what came before, and some day they will face the same rise and fall in reputation.

    I love the "barometer and storm" quote, and the detailed look at the films.

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    1. Truffaut (Carné's most outspoken critic) faced something of a rise and fall in his own right - it's the way of things, as you say. But he died so very young that we'll never know what his own late years might have brought.

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  4. Beautifully written about a topic I know you are passionate about. I am dipping my toes into more French cinema - so merci for the wonderful post, the inspiration and the ever growing list of much see films. Oh, and for co-hosting this beautiful blogathon.

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    1. Thank you, Marsha. Yes, French cinema does stir my heart mightily. It all began with Beauty and the Beast at an arthouse theater in San Francisco many moons ago. How grateful I am. I hope your toe-dipping experience is rewarding.

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  5. An excellent essay, and I loved it. You made some good points about the roots of film noir and post-war realism.

    I hope you're entering this essay in the CMBA Awards...?

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    1. I am so glad you enjoyed this piece, Ruth, it covers a subject that thoroughly fascinates me - and thank you.

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  6. What an informative article. Love it. For me especially interesting as my first love is Noir. I have seen the films you mention, I just hope at some time my French will be good enough to see them without subtitles.

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    1. Thank you, Margot! I am a long-time noir fan, too. It was through an annual festival in San Francisco, "The French Had a Name for It," that I became familiar with the evolution of French film noir. I envy those who know French well enough to watch these films without subtitles...

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