This note is extracted from a longer piece mixing reportage and nostalgia which I wrote after a short stay in Paris way back in 2004. If you want to read the full story you can still find it posted here . I'm minded to post it after watching Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez's newest visual essay on French noir which has been posted on the BFI website and, inter alia, brings Jean Gabin back into focus big time. Enjoy.
When I first became interested in the cinema, in the 1970s, Jean Gabin represented everything I hated – the antithesis of the modern ‘intellectual’ cinema of the time. I was baffled by the popularity of this ageing actor and of his films, which I despised. When I discovered the French cinema of the 1930s, and then of the 1940s and 1950s, I began to understand his extraordinary importance. I became a fan. If, like many people I prefer Le jour se leve and Touchez-pas au grisbi to Le Tatoue and L’Annee sainte, I eventually came to appreciate all Gabin’s performances. Even though I have to concede that he starred in a few bad films – not a bad record for someone who made ninety-five – I would maintain there are no bad Gabin performances” (Ginette Vincendeau, Stars and Stardom in French Cinema)
The Reflet Medicis gave over its splendid Salle Louis Jouvet to the Gabin retrospective Gabin worked with major directors, especially Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne from the 30s through to the 50s. He also worked with Jacques Becker in Grisbi but he had no truck, indeed was dismissive of, the Nouvelle Vague directors of the late 50s and 60s. Until the end, and he made his last film in 1974 only two years before his death, he resolutely continued to work. David Thomson’s characterizes the later Gabin work as being with “with dull directors and with decreasing zest”. Not entirely.
Certainly, in his last two decades, he chose to work with largely unimaginative commercial directors with whom he felt most comfortable. Jean Delannoy, Gilles Grangier and Henri Verneuil directed his films on several occasions each from the mid 50s to the late 60s. But the decreasing zest Thomson thinks he identifies was something else. If Gabin were going through the motions then it seems he would hardly have sought to make the effort to, in Vincendeau’s words “achieve authorship of his films in an industrial sense, creating tight and long-lasting partnerships, cutting deals with producers, founding his own production company, discussing would be roles with scriptwriters and directors and retaining a select group of key personnel. Vincendeau concedes that Gabin “goes through his thrillers of the 1950s and 1960s hardly moving a finger except to deliver magisterial slaps across the face of his opponents, his preferred form of ‘violence’.”
Gabin’s (ninety-five) films traveled only infrequently to English speaking territories. From the time he re-established himself as a star in post-war France with Jacques Becker’s superb Touchez-Pas au Grisbi (1954) until his death, he made 47 films. (I think) no more than a handful reached Australia. Those were perhaps French Can Can (Jean Renoir, 1955), En Cas de Malheur (Claude Autant-Lara, 1958), Archimede the Tramp (Gilles Grangier, 1959), Un Singe en Hiver (Henri Verneuil, 1962), Melodie en Sous-Sol (Verneuil, 1963) and Le Clan des Siciliens (again Verneuil, 1969).
Among the many missing were his three appearances as Maigret and a brilliant Simenon adaptation in which he co-starred with Simone Signoret, Le Chat (Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1971). It is perhaps the best of the ten adaptations he made from Simenon stories, a chamber piece about a couple whose wrecked lives are symbolized, rather obviously, by the terrain vague that surrounds their home. Gabin communicates with his wife only by curt handwritten notes that he flicks at her. Many of them simply remind her that she killed his beloved pet cat, the event that erected the wall between them. Still they go on sharing the same house, sinking ever deeper into loathing and despair until the wife, played with absolute lack of varnish by Simone Signoret, suddenly dies. During its course, the film ventures down the street to a sleazy hotel into which the husband moves for awhile. But he is drawn back. It is a fascinating study of two people who once loved each other and the ties and knots that bind them into a hell on earth.
The retrospective inevitably weighted itself towards Gabin’s more readily available post-World War II films. The exigencies of distribution and print availability made that so. The opportunity thus presented to study Gabin in film after film as he moved from late middle to old age was irresistible. First there was the Gabin walk. Vincendeau characterizes it as a “rolling gait” but can there be any other actor who seems to move with so little motion. His body seems to remain near to completely still and simply float close to the ground.
In French Can Can Gabin plays an entrepreneur who builds a Pigalle night club to cater for the Parisian smart set. His floor show is the “French Can Can” a blazingly energetic dance led by the glorious Francoise Arnoul whom Gabin coldly seduces away from her somewhat earnest boyfriend and then, in the end, dumps. She is heartbroken and refuses to go on until she learns that her art is more important than mere love and the final triumphant spectacle can take place. There can hardly be a better film so redolent with romantic love, so infused with the sheer joy of living, with exuberant physical expression and containing so many characters dedicated to hedonist fun and pleasure. And that says nothing about its colour, its light its dancing. Every character, from the street pickpockets to Gabin’s determined business is set to seek personal satisfaction from the satisfaction of the senses.
Yet French Can Can is almost the last film in which Gabin plays the romantic. Age catches up with him and he settles into roles where his age starts to show. The Simenon adaptations provided him with a steady diet of meat, whether as Maigret, the fake gentleman in Le Baron d’Ecluse (Jean Delannoy, 1959), the lawyer seduced into running off the rails by Brigitte Bardot in En cas de Malheur (Claude Autant Lara, 1958) or, his last great performance the aforementioned Le Chat.
Except, that is, for one of his finest films Voici le temps des assassins (Julien Duvivier, 1956). Gabin plays Andre Chatelin, a restaurateur and cook with a thriving business in the old Les Halles. His ordered life, welcoming everyone from a film producer with a different starlet on his arm at each visit, to the French President, is turned ever more askew when Catherine, the daughter of his former wife Gabrielle, turns up and ingratiates herself into his company, his business and his bed. They marry and only then do we know, for sure at least, that she is a scheming gold digger who has hatched a plan with her drunken wreck of a mother to fleece Andre of his wealth. The spiral downwards into despair amidst a meticulously drawn background of daily life and routine in a successful restaurant is brilliantly drawn. The program booklet, Jean Gabin plus qu’un acteur…un mythe, a splendid publication describes the film exactly as “C’est le plus naturaliste, le plus noir, le plus pessimiste de Duvivier. Ici nous sommes plonges dans un monde infernale ou Catherine et Gabrielle sont les deux faces d’une meme nature humaine gangrenee.” One wonders whether all those like (David) Thomson (q.v.) who passed easy judgement on Gabin’s later career have even seen what seems to be an astonishingly neglected masterwork.