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Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Duvivier Dossier (44) - Barrie Pattison on the director's output from 1934 to 1939

Maria Chapdelaine, 1934
Madeleine Renaud
A let down after the Harry Baur films, this is Duvivier’s first collaboration with Jean
Gabin, who doesn’ even get top billing, coming in second to star Madeleine Renaud (Sociétaire de la Comédie Française) for his role of the trapper back from three years in the wilds. Jean-Pierre Aumont and Aexander Rignault figure as rival suitors.

The film is a tale of the frozen North (Quebec) part simulated with soso process photography. Lots of music and local customs fail to give stature to the failed romance.


Jean Gabin

Golgotha/ Behold the Man/Ecce Homo 1935
Gabin again!
Claimed as the first sound Christ story, Gologotha meets the brief of capturing traditional religious art with the tools of the thirties movie makers, sometimes impressively.

We get the massive set and the hundreds of extras of the welcoming mob on Palm
Sunday. The first time we see Jesus is five minutes in, as a hand smashing a pot and feet running overturning the tables in the Temple forecourt. Le Vignan is only glimpsed as a moving figure, creating this chaos and it’s not till he’s been established distant, addressing the multitude, that we get a good look at him. A seemingly odd choice, his skinny, weird eyed Christ does fit right in with the decoration.

Granval’s Caliphas has the biggest part but all the celebrity players deliver, with the exception of Feuillère, all wide eyed and low necked as Gabin/Pilate’s tootsie. Jean manages authoritative and irresolute quite strikingly in his short back and sides. Baur’s Herod, introduced late as a jewelled hand on rich fabric, does his set piece, facing away from camera to turn into his trade mark sustained riveting close up.

 There are a few effectively staged moments - Judas pausing in the darkness outside the brightly lit room with the U-shaped last supper, Jesus in the garden, revealed as Le Vigran’s head laid horizontal on the studio tree trunk or his close up, overhearing Peter deny him the third time. Things do liven up after the arrest.

There’s striking camera work, with the pull back to Pilate’s throne in the foreground on the open air platform, anticipating Gabin stepping into the composition, itself prefiguring the maneuver of the soldiers taking Le Vignan down the ramp in front of the mob at the scene’s end, before Caiphas pays off the agitators. They really get stuck into scourging, with the pan away past the Roman troops dividing the robes to the mob at the horizontal barred window, counting the strokes, and moving in on one of the chanting women fainting. Add a spitting jailer.

The Via Dolorosa registers, with yet another white Simon the Cyrenian glimpsed and the crosses against the processed storm sky. De Mille beats them on their Judas suicide here intercut with the crucifixion, where they just tell us “The veil is rent in twain” over a shot of the Temple entry after a passable storm.  It’s a pity we get stuck with such a wishy washy resurrection, where they all go to the seaside.

Duvivier’s back projection is technically improved but not all that useful and the made-up ovals of the women’s faces (their characters are all marginal) undermine some strong imagery.

Elements reveal the skills of the makers - the oil painting textured crown of thorns close up, Gabin’s hands washing as foreground object, the meeting on the road, as overlapping shadows. Ibert’s score is spot on. This one counts as another of the director’s North African projects.

Simone Signoret played her role in Les Visiteurs du soir (yes, she is in there) wearing Gabin’s cast off sandals from this film, to deal with war time shortages.

La bandera  1935
Gabin & Annabella
In the dark alley way there’s street organ music and blood on a dress, sending Jean Gabin on the run to Barcelona where his wallet is stolen in the cabaret with the naked dancer. Gabin gets into a fight watching Vivienne Romance’s sexy routine in the bustling market, where you can near to smell the garbage. Her trying to feed him starts a fight and it’s not long before we’re tracking across the sand with singing (Spanish) Legionnaires. The film was dedicated to General Franco but that didn’t last.

Undercover cop Aimos is on Gabin’s trail for the murder and he also has the hots for Arab Quarter cutie Anabella in boot black tan (a late casting switch). He’s not put off by her native marriage to Jean.

The film has some great scenes, notably one eyed Le capitaine Pierre Renoir, knowing that Légionnaire Gaston Modot wants to kill him appointing him his guard on the return through the Arab quarter, handing him his pistol (“for protection”), ordering him to walk behind him and then throwing Gaston into the brig for not carrying out his threat.  This turns Modot into his devoted admirer. No wonder everyone, except the cop, steps forward when Renoir (”Je prendrai moi-meme le command de ce detail”) calls for volunteers for the doomed forward post.

Make up sweat soaks the troopers under attack and Gabin over-turns the barrel of
poisoned water that the less strong willed have offed themselves drinking. There’s one survivor at the final roll call. “Nos hommes meritent l’oublie.”

The elements don’t come together - Anabella as an Arab beauty or the final parade with the survivor answering the role call as having died for the cause. French action movies like this and Le Grand Jeu (Jacques Feyder, France, 1934) are climaxed by the self discovery of the lead, while American ones like Beau Geste (William A Wellman, USA, 1939) and Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Henry Hathaway, USA, 1939) have a big shoot out. Admirers of either find the other disappointing.  Here the battle with the Riffs that cuts in the middle looks as if a souvenir hunter has got the second half. Still it plays a lot better than Duvivier’s US half re-make The Impostor (USA, 1944).

This was the film on which the Gabin-Duvivier collaboration got traction and the Gabin doomed common man persona took shape. His performance and Duvivier’s African setting are the major assets. They give the film an enduring popularity which makes it the first of the Duvivier movies to be readily accessible.

The Golem  1936
The confused production circumstances on this one appear to account for the uneven result, having been shifted from Berlin, where a film about Germans persecuting Jews wasn’t a goer at the time, to the less sophisticated facilities at Czechoslovakia’s Barandov Studios. Baur gives the film’s only real performance, surrounded by French players  working in the unconvincing theatrical conventions of thirties European period films, though Jany Holt, Julien Carette and Marcel Dalio can be glimpsed.

It is more a sequel than a re-make of the silent German versions of the Golem story. The clay man is now locked away in the recesses of the Synagogue after it’s rampage. Baur is Bohemian Emperor Rudolph guiltily torturing Rabbi Dorat for its secret.

The film mixes pedestrian material with some splendid passages - the soldiers attempt to break into the synagogue and steal the Golem or anguished Baur pleading with Dorat through succeeding rungs of the rack. We get effective moments when the monster at last comes to life in the final reel - the heroine slipping through the lion’s den to inscribe the formula on its forehead or the juvenile arresting its progress - the spectacle and magic the production requires.

Offset these against the inept staging of smashing the ghetto gates or Baur’s final scene, which should have been highlights.

Design by the great Andrej Andrejew, working with busy local art director Stepán
Kopecký (Martin Fric’s Jánosik), is the film’s strength with the suggestion of height
given the synagogue and the expressionist, studio-built interiors. Photography by the tandem of the leading Czech cameramen Václav Vích and Jan Stallich assists, providing some of Duvivier’s familiar tilted angles. The piece is finally too erratic, with poor pacing, irritating cutaways and faulty set engineering and sound added to the shortcomings of script and performance.

Le Bel Equipe/They Were Five 1936
Le Bel Equipe was hailed as an expression of France’s then empowered Popular Front. Five working men - Gabin, Charles Vanel, Aimos, Charles Dorat and Raphaël Medina share a lottery ticket and win big. Gabin convinces them to pool their resources and buy a rundown building on the banks of the Marne between Nogent and Joinville, which they can restore to construct a guingette /dance hall that they will call symbolically “Chez Nous.”

One by one the men abandon their shared dream. Unemployed Italian Medina receives a deportation order and leaves for Canada taking Micheline Cheirel (later in Cornered) who Dorat had secretly wanted, causing him to drop out of the venture. Aimos is injured and Vanel’s effectively fleshy wife Romance (at her zenith) drives a wedge between him and Gabin.

Two endings were filmed, one of which gave Gabin a chance to go into one of his signature scene rages and shoot his partner and one of which had them abandon the scheming wife. Compare the 1947 U.S. Wild Harvest (Tay Garnett). Here women are shown as a destructive force in the male world in a way that wouldn’t pass today.

The prospect of the riverside Chez Nous is genuinely appealing. Gabin gets one of his best innings, going from dour to the lightness of his granny dance. The camera scurrying round the tenement on the news of the win is effective. However the work of less well known technicians is not always equal to Duvivier’s demands, as with the shifting tiles in the storm scene, which threatens to undo the team’s building work. This is the film’s set piece and can be compared to the climax of Duvivier’s Marianne de Ma Jeunesse (France, 1955).

A great cast and hard working direction battle a weak Charles Spaak script with echos of Of Mice & Men (Lewis Milestone, USA, 1939) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, USA, 1948).

Un carnet de bal/Dance Program 1937
At the time of release, this one was its director’s best known work and competed with Kermesse Heroique (Jacques Feyder, 1935) and Mayerling (Anatole Litvak, France,1936) as  the then most famous foreign language movie.

Now it’s all but vanished and forgotten.

Elegant and wealthy Marie Bell faces a crisis in her life which makes her examine her dance card from her first ball, something she remembers as a grand affair with swirling white lace formal gowns and serried musicians. In an attempt to impose meaning on her experience she seeks out each of her partners of the night - Old Boyfriends anyone?

These contrasted meetings provide the episode format and demonstrate Duvivier’s
authority and versatility. Baur gets top billing for the section where he has taken religious vows. Raimu is a pompous local mayor who conducts his own town hall wedding and we build to the contrast of crazed waterfront abortionist Blanchard in the care of the frowsy woman he terrifies by loading his pistol - all tilted shots and menace which contrasts with the meeting with Fernandel, become a family man hair dresser. He takes her back to the shabby dance hall she has idealized in memory. There is still one more name on the card.

Carnet de bal is recognizably its maker’s work complete with father - son conflict and its dramatic tilted sequence. The director’s machine polished technique both makes the intrigue artificial and gives a mesmerizing quality which it is still possible to recognize today, coming backed with Maurice Jaubert’s “Valse grise”. The cast, competing subtly for prominence, are formidable. We get to see most of the star talents of the French cinema in the one movie - significantly for Duvivier with both Harry Baur and Fernandel, who gives possibly his best performance.

Un Carnet de bal was not the first film à sketches but it was the one in which Duvivier solidified the format which he and others would use from this point on, getting a range of marquee names together for the price of a reel’s work each.

(Note Un Carnet de bal has just been released by Criterion on its Eclipse label as part of a four film package Julien Duvivier in the Thirties)

Pépé le Moko  1937
Duvivier’s reputation and career were peaking after this and Carnet de bal, his more substantial Harry Baur films forgotten. The crew he had formed for Marie Chapdelaine were becoming more assured and Gabin was entering his super-star phase. There’s no doubt that this is an intriguing and persuasive crime film/romance/melodrama. It was twice re-filmed in Hollywood, Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938), the Charles Boyer version, cannibalizing not only the plot but shots of extras from the original, with the US cast dressed to match the stock footage.

However even at his zenith, the roots of Duvivier’s second class cinema citizen status were being planted. Critics, as I do myself, preferred the Gabin of Marcel Carné and, with less justification, Renoir. The rich romanticism of this story of a wanted Paris gangster trapped in an exile to Algiers’ Arab quarter’s labyrinthine Casbah, where the French authorities don’t have the control to extract him, was exactly the quality which the nouvelle vague enthusiasts would ridicule. The film is saturated with the pessimism drawing ridicule on the post war French cinema.

Gabin is totally in his element, ruthless, loyal, a lady killer with a barely hidden anguish at being separated from his old Paris haunts. The scene of the locals gathering to hear his Pepe le Moko break into song, when he thinks his luck has changed, is a highlight.

Glamorous Mireille Balin in the gleaming evening dress becomes associated with his nostalgic desires in the way we saw with Inkijinoff in La Tete d'un Homme . There’s even a raddled woman singer again, here played by the great Frehel.

The film also came with the absorbing location detail of Duvivier’s other North African films (think Les Cinq gentlemen maudits and La Bandera in particular) but this clashes with the obvious studio constructions. The sylistic flourishes are distracting - the close ups of Balin’s jewels, tilted shots again, the montage and back projection of the final run. While the film has a great cross section of French character faces - Modot, Dalio, Charpin - more weight is taken ineffectually by card game joining Inspecteur Gridoux trying to be sly. Joseph Calleia and particularly Peter Lorre are much better in the US versions – even Le Vignan in the corresponding role in La Bandera.

I saw the film when, like La Charette phantome, it got first release art cinema showing in the fifties in Sydney in a beautiful 35mm copy.  I home in on these Euro-exotic melodramas (Delannoy’s Macao, l’enfer de jeu (Jean Delannoy, France, 1939) and Fyodor Otzep’s Amok (Turkey, 1934) are better). While I enjoyed Pepe le Moko through a couple of viewings, I was finally disappointed

Elements of the plot anticipate The 3rd Man (Carol Reed, UK, 1949) and Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942).

The Great Waltz  1938
The director’s American debut was seen as a no expense spared prestige undertaking but our man found himself embedded in Metro’s wedding cake Ruritania pretending to be Johann Strauss’ Vienna. Things were not helped by the piece foregrounding the charisma- free triangle of Fernand Gravey (Gravet), Luise Rainer and Miliza Korjus.

Style is everything, with bank clerk become celebrity composer Strauss/Gravet framed by wide angle distorted instruments as he conducts and the camera circling inside and outside the park rotunda with the waltzing couple or wife Rainer intimidated in the cuts back which reveal the succeeding tiers of the impossibly gigantic concert hall. Count Lionel Atwill disapproves. “Mrs. Strauss is not the one to deal with this extraordinary person.” The revolution of the day seems to perplex Fernand.

The tedium may not be altogether Duvivier’s fault as sections were handed off to Josef Von Sternberg and Victor Fleming no less, with Reginald le Borg and Richard Rosson also getting into the act.

Strauss Sr. was notably absent. (“we have dramatised the spirit rather than the facts of his life”) When it was all over, the studio seemed to fear (incorrectly) that they had accidentally made a work of art. Their publicity department assured us that it was their most requested re-issue after Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, USA, 1939).

The Strauss story was filmed again several times, notably in the 1972 same name
production.

Marie Antoinette (uncredited participation)  1938
Hard to pinpoint Duvivier’s contribution to this MGM spectacular with the boss’ wife in the lead. Director of record W S Van Dyke had abandoned the macho style of his better early work and delivers big budget production values smoothly. Most notable element is Joseph Schildkraut’s slippery courtier.

La Charette fantome /The Phantom Carriage 1939
Hard to see what drove Duvivier (or Harry Cohn) to film the Selma Lagerlöf novel,
particularly when theirs would have to compete with the memory of  the Victor Seastrom classic silent version. Count it as another one of the director’s devotional works.

In movie Scandinavia, legend has it that the last person to die on the night of St. Sylvester must drive the ghost carriage which collects souls of the dead. Louis Jouvet froze on Salvation Army Major Valentine Tessier’s roof  while saintly Sister Micheline Francey was sinking into a consumption from repairing his coat. Francey, ringed with heavenly light, struggles to prevent his fellow alcoholic Pierre Fresnay from following as the carriage driver and send him back to his desperate wife and child.

Thins are not easy in the salvation business with Fresnay’s brother already condemned for murder after Pierre made him take to drink, Le Vignan getting a monologue about his doctoring past (“People should be burned the way we burn beds, with the vermin attached”) and the hag who spits on Francey recognized as the granny of one off the local kids. The obligatory social comment is delivered authoritatively by Jouvet rejecting barge chores. “Dirty, tiring and shameful. The rich don’t work.”

Not unlike The Golem, we don’t get a good look at the Phantom Carriage till the final graveyard fight, with blood spilling from Fresnay’s mouth. The film was not well received being considered an uneasy mix of Duvivier’s Catholic preachments and horror movie.

Still, the result can claim to be the most technically sophisticated of its director’s French films, the tone set by the opening pan from the model roofs to the large, extra filled snow street decor. Designers Jacques Krauss and (André) Trébuchet provide detailed street front decor and porters carrying barrels past and camera man Jules Kruger throws expressionist shadows on the prison drapes. We get the montage editing of the drinking session climaxed by the three close ups of Fresnay or the Armée de Salut conversion with the pace accelerating in time with the Ibert score.

Untel père et fils / Immortal France / Heart of a Nation 1940 - 1943 - 1945
Racing through the war of 1870,WW1 to the outset of WW2, we get Montmartre and its artists, la Commune, the building of Sacre-Coeur, the Moulin Rouge, the Cancan and early flying machines, (of which the movie versions don’t leave the ground) dedicated nurse auntie Suzy Prim with a gold heart tending the Sick and the Poor while admirer Jouvet goes off and shoulders the white man’s burden in Africa, to reappear aged in the final reel

Among the half familiar faces, there is father Le Vignan, jolly Marseillaise uncle Raimu wiped out by Russian bonds (as in Jérôme Cornuau’s excellent 2006 Brigade des Tigres), daughter become mother Michele Morgan and dashing Louis Jourdan.


Heart of a Nation, the English language version, contains additional shooting Duvivier and Michele Morgan did in Hollywood,  to where they had re-located. Charles Boyer added opening narration. Goebbels made them take that out of the French release. The English edit circulates with dreadful dubbing in a murky copy, pretty well wiping it off as attention worthy entertainment, though Le Vignan visiting the artists' building and the Cancan sequence are still quite impressive. Morgan is gone in a blink and that doesn't sound like her voice.

Not hard to imagine Duvivier scarpering for the US after this one.

La fin du jour 1939
Duvivier’s last undisputed major work. A cast and crew of high achievers at work on a substantial subject.

La Fin du Jour is set in a home for aging theatricals who bicker and relive imagined
triumphs and failures endlessly and complain at the perceived slights the institution offers their dignity. A few star actors dominate - dignified widower Victor Francen and Gabrielle Dorziat, noisy perpetual understudy Michel Simon, and new arrival unreformed Don Juan Louis Jouvet.  We catch a glimpse of familiar faces in the ranks - Gaston Modot, Pierre Magnier, Sylvie, Gaston Jacquet.

The tensions Jouvet generates, the company’s charity production and the failing economy of the institution combine in a strong climax full of Duvivier pessimism and self deception. The craftsmanship is superior (Thirard & Matras on camera, Jaubert score)

With all the excellences it offers (the two veteran performers giving a barn reading for young journalist François Perier is particularly vivid) the film fails on a crucial point. The sixty and seventy year old lead characters are played by actors in their forties and fifties and it gives a falseness which undermines the action. Bernard Sinkel’s 1975 Lina Braake and British one off TV dramas in the sixties and seventies did better with players of the correct age and the comparison damages La Fin du Jour.

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