I invited Bruce Hodsdon to contribute to this dossier assembling exercise and he responded in a most thoughtful way thus: Having come seriously to cinema surfing on the New Wave (especially taking in Truffaut's political assault on Cinema de Papa translated in the short lived Cahiers du Cinema in English) I consigned Duvivier to journeyman status on the slimmest of first hand evidence. David Thomson's later dismissal in his bio dictionary ("a man who managed to always look spruce but seldom original or interesting...displaying a cyclical complacency in remaking several of his own films" ) did not encourage reappraisal. One of course wonders how many of D's films DT has actually seen - he singles out about a dozen - none for anything that can be construed as positive comment beyond commercial success. D is taken to task by Thomson for his failure "to celebrate beautiful women" - "an uneasy " Vivien Leigh in Anne Karenina and subsequently Darrieux , Arnoul and Presle.
Now I've received the note below which draws upon some of the keys texts on classical French Cinema.
Key films: David Golder (31); Poil de carotte (32); La Tete d'un homme (33)*; Maria Chapdelaine (34); La Bandera (35)*+; Pepe le Moko (36)*+; La Belle equipe (36)*+; Le Fin du jour (37)*; Un Carnet de bal(37)*; Panique (46); Voici le temps des assassins/Deadlier Than the Male (56)*+
*also co-script. + with Jean Gabin.
It is surprising to find Sam Rohdie making the case for Duvivier as a superb craftsman, finding more thematic consistency than has been generally acknowledged, including thematic accord between Duvivier's and Rossellini's films.
Rohdie was interested in writing that produces paradoxes, no better illustrated than in his monograph on Antonioni, the most provocatively interesting I have read on the films of that director. One looks forward to Rohdie's last work, Film Modernism, to be published next month (September 2015), to which the Duvivier essay seems related. It does, however, fall short in the placement of Duvivier's eclecticism, most notably failing to acknowledge Dudley Andrew's analysis of the nature of Duvivier's central role in poetic realism that stands ambiguously apart from his other work. This is developed more fully in Andrew's book Mists of Regret written ten years after his summing up, excerpted below from The International Dictionary of Cinema (1984), that might best be summed up in Andrew's phrase quoted below, describing Duvivier as a skilled and committed “yeoman of the industry”.
“No one speaks of Duvivier without apologising. So many of his 60 odd films are embarrassing to watch that it is hard to believe that he was ever in charge of his career in the way we like to imagine that Renoir and Clair were in charge of theirs. There is justice in this response. Duvivier had neither the luxury nor the contacts to direct his career...Duvivier began and remained a yeoman of the industry.”
Duvivier made over a score of silent films, commercially successful, but mostly otherwise undistinguished melodramas.
“His reputation jumped as a reliable, efficient director when he made a string of small but successful films such as David Golder and Poil de carotte in the early years of sound. Evidently his flair for the melodramatic and his ability to control powerful actors put him far ahead of the average French director trying to cope with the problems of sound. But in this era, as always, Duvivier discriminated little among the subjects he filmed”.
But in the mid thirties Duvivier hit his stride with La Bandera (France, 1935):
“Its success was the first of a set of astounding films including La Belle equipe, Pepe-le-Moko, Un Carnet de bal and Le Fin du jour...Like Michael Curtiz and Casablanca, Duvivier's style and the actors who played out the roles in his dramas spoke for a whole generation...vaguely hopeful of the popular front, but expecting the end of the day. Duvivier’s's contribution to these films lies in more than the direction of actors. Every film contains at least one scene of remarkable expressiveness...Duvivier's sureness of pace brought him a Hollywood contract even before the Nazi invasion forced him to leave France.
“Without the strong personality of Renoir or Clair, and with far more experience in genre pictures, Duvivier fitted in well with American methods. (Yet) he deplored the lack of personal control or even personal contribution. But he acquitted himself well until the Liberation.
“Hoping to return to the glory years of poetic realism, his first postwar project in France, Panique, replicated the essence of the style: sparse sets, atmosphere dominating a reduced but significant murder drama...The film failed and Duvivier began what would become a lifelong search for the missing formula... Only Camillo with Fernandel put him in the spotlight.
“Believing far more in experience, planning, and hard work than in spontaneity and genius, he never relaxed. Every film taught him something and, by rights, he should have ended a better director than ever. But he will be remembered for those five years in the late 1930s when his every choice of script and direction was in tune with the romantically pessimistic sensibility of the country.”
“Duvivier is often accused of being eclectic, if highly competent craftsman who bought little personal commitment to his work. He typically found his subject matter in popular fiction, and his cinematic style could vary enormously, depending on his material.”( Alan Williams).
Although on the right of the film industry politically, it is debatable how much this is reflected in Duvivier's films especially La Belle Equipe with its focus on working class unemployment made around the time of the Popular Front. Apart from Jean Renoir's Popular Front films, on the left the films of committed socialist Jean Gremillon, for example, are considered to show no more signs of political orientation than Duvivier's, with which Gremillon's films share a poetic realist sensibility.
Duvivier saw the work as imposing the style on the director and not the other way round. His only concern was to bring out the spirit and character of each subject and compose an appropriate atmosphere.
|Gabin and Annabella, La Bandera|
Despite his pragmatic choice of subjects and eclectic approach to style, a recurring thematic interest has been discerned in his oeuvre: the often tragic plight of isolated individuals, something Duvivier shared with his contemporary, Jacques Feyder, but placed more directly by Duvivier in social context. There were defining roles for Jean Gabin whom Duvivier directed ten times. In two of Duvivier's best films, Pepe-le-Moko and Le Fin de jour, the central character is in exile.
Duvivier was a consummate craftsman who “showed an astonishing precision: even before placing his actors he could tell you where he wanted the camera, the dimensions of the support and the type of lens ...he had it all in his head.” (cinematographer Michael Kelber is quoted by Colin Crisp).
Although in outlook Duvivier's professionalism and pragmatism seemed in accord with the Hollywood studio system, he found the strict division of labour meant he had much less overall control than he enjoyed as a director in the French system.
Dudley Andrew discusses Duvivier's career at greater length in his near definitive Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film (1995).
See also: Republic of Images, A History of French Filmmaking by Alan Williams (1992) and The Classic French Cinema,1930-60 by Colin Crisp (1997).