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Parky at the Pictures (DVD 5/4/2012)
This year sees the 75th anniversary of the release of one of the great masterpieces of pacifist cinema. In order to mark the event, Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion is returning to British cinemas in a newly restored version that exploits new digital technology to improve both the audio and the visual quality of this enduringly powerful story. Ordinarily, the film would be reviewed in the In Cinemas column. But, as it is coming to DVD and Blu-ray in a couple of weeks, it makes more sense to discuss it in the context of the Poetic Realist style that it epitomises and which also had such a profound influence on Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre, which is also in theatres this week.
The year before he made La Grande Illusion, Renoir returned from Italy - where he had laid the foundations of neo-realism with Toni (1935) - to takeover a project entitled Sur la Cour, which had been conceived by Catalan artist Jean Castanier as a project for Renoir's three-time assistant, Jacques Becker. Renamed Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, it followed the prevailing political spirit to become something of a collaborative affair. Consequently, even though poet Jacques Prévert was brought in to polish the script, many scenes were improvised by a cast that included several members of the left-wing theatrical troupe, Groupe Octobre. The result is one of the most oddly upbeat pictures produced in France at a time of increasing concern over the revival and growing bellicosity of Germany under Adolf Hitler.
Meek clerk René Lefèvre works at the publishing firm run by the duplicitous Jules Berry. He dreams of seeing his Western stories in print and is delighted when Berry agrees to buy a series of adventures about a square-jawed hero named Arizona Jim. However, Berry not only changes the text to advertise the products of his pharmaceutical sponsors, but also refuses to pay Lefèvre royalties. Moreover, he leaves him even more in the lurch when he does a bunk to avoid his creditors and the police.
News soon comes, however, that Berry has perished in a train crash and Lefèvre persuades his co-workers and neighbours in a cosily cramped tenement to keep the company going by forming a co-operative. Now run by people who care, the business booms. Moreover, Lefèvre falls in love with laundress Odette Florelle and hopes to share even greater prosperity with their friends Marcel Lévesque, Odette Talazac, Henri Guisol, Maurice Baquet, Jacques Brunius, Marcel Duhamel and Jean Dasté.
But the dastardly Berry had survived the accident and exchanged clothes with a deceased clergyman to preserve his anonymity. Determined to claim his share of the profits, he returns home. However, Lefèvre refuses to accede to Berry's threats and shoots him on the supposition that he can't be charged for the murder of a dead man. But he and Florelle are soon being hunted down and they seek refuge in an inn close to the Belgian border.
Capturing the informality and optimism of the left-leaning Popular Front coalition that was formed following the election of Leon Blum as Prime Minister, this is an unashamedly political film. Yet, despite its championing of the concept of collectivism, its message is never propagandised. Indeed, Renoir is more interested in character and community than in rhetoric or narrative and he once claimed that the story would make an excellent basis for a musical, in which everyone had an aria describing how their profession contributed to the general good.
But, this underrated feature remains closer in tone to a Western. It begins on the Belgian frontier, as the locals recognise Lefèvre from a wanted poster, before settling into a prolonged flashback about socio-economic pioneers, which ends with the hero gunning down the baddy (who is one of the few wholly unsympathetic characters in Renoir's humanist canon).
The closing sequence returns to the border to show Lefèvre and Florelle crossing to presumed happiness, just as the killer in Renoir's 1931 drama La Chienne got away with their crime. But, the film also harks back to Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), in which rascally hobo Michel Simon was similarly allowed to escape his life sentence. Indeed, Renoir reinforced the link with the 360° pan before Lefèvre shoots Berry, which recalled Simon's view of the countryside before he slipped into the River Marne and a return to a life on the lam.
In 1933, Marcel Carné had written an essay entitled, `When Will the Cinema Descend into the Street?' Like François Truffaut's later call for a departure from `cinéma du papa', this was a bold manifesto that urged film-makers to abandon escapism and concentrate on the problems of everyday life and the humanity of the working classes. However, Carné was clearly not ready to take the step himself when, four years later, he produced the joyous comedy, Drôle de Drame.
Prevented by the censors from making a drama about a notorious children's prison in Brittany, Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert went to the opposite extreme with this gleefully eccentric take on a forgotten novel by J. Storer Clouston. Set in Edwardian London, the picture succeeded in lampooning such British traits as class snobbery, religious pomposity and the need to save face, while also mocking French institutions like the church, the police and the press. Moreover, it brought a touch of satirical (and often surreal) sophistication to the format perfected for the stage by Georges Feydeau. Yet Drôle de drame (aka Bizarre, Bizarre) was dismissed as a misfire on its release and has only subsequently come to be recognised as one of the great screen farces.
Respectable botanist Michel Simon leads a double life as the author of the racy crime thrillers that are roundly condemned by his priggish bishop cousin, Louis Jouvet, who invites himself to dine on the very day that Simon's cook resigns and wife Françoise Rosay has to hide herself in the kitchen to maintain standards of bourgeois hospitality. However, Jouvet takes her absence as proof that Simon has murdered her and the couple is forced to flee to a cheap hotel, where they encounter Jean-Louis Barrault, whose passion for animals has been twisted by Simon's books into a psychosis that prompts him to slaughter butchers.
As paths cross, disguises are assumed and the situation grows ever-more convoluted, the action becomes darker and more hilarious. The performances are superb, with Jouvet and Simon particularly relishing one drunken exchange. Even a romantic subplot involving milkman Jean-Pierre Aumont and Simon's secretary Nadine Vogel is utterly charming, while the boorish behaviour of Scotland Yard inspector Pierre Alcover and drunken journalist Henri Guisol adds a broader buffoonery that feels rather Ealing in tone. Eugen Schüfftan's photography, Alexandre Trauner's sets and Maurice Jaubert's score are all equally accomplished. But, most crucially, Prévert's script sizzles with wit and Carné times the manic mayhem with a surety that leaves one lamenting he only attempted comedy twice more in his illustrious career.
Over the next few months, the Rhine was re-militarised and German armaments output began to escalate. Fearing that another conflict was looming, Renoir was keen to alert audiences to the folly of warfare and the artificiality of the national, class and religious barriers that prevent people from enjoying the benefits of their common humanity. Having himself been wounded in the leg during the 1914-18 war while serving with the cavalry and having later flown as a reconnaissance pilot, he was in an ideal position to assess the notion of duty and its consequences for officers, conscripts and civilians alike. So, together with screenwriter Charles Spaak, he produced what many consider to be cinema's most trenchant and compassionate pacifist tract, La Grande Illusion (1937).
At the height of the Great War, Captain Pierre Fresnay and Lieutenant Jean Gabin are on an aerial recce when they are shot down by German ace Erich von Stroheim. Being a junker, he invites the aristocratic Fresnay to lunch and they discover several mutual acquaintances, including a woman of whom they are both inordinately fond. It's all very civilised. Yet, while the pair have more in common through their social circle than they have with the majority of their comrades in arms, they each realise they must play the game and Fresnay is dispatched with the working-class Gabin to a prisoner of war camp.
Keen to return to active service, the new inmates join the team digging an escape tunnel. They also befriend Marcel Dalio, a Jew who shares the food parcels sent by his nouveau riche family with his fellow POWs. But the distinctions that divide everyday French society remain intact and it's only during the camp show - when news comes that Fort Douaumont has been recaptured at Verdun - that they unite for a rousing rendition of `La Marseillaise' that results in Gabin being punished with a stint in solitary confinement.
Just as the tunnel is nearing completion, the entire French contingent is transferred and a language problem prevents them from tipping off the incoming British about the potential escape route. Fresnay, Dalio and Gabin go their separate ways. But, having tried to break out of various camps, they are reunited at Wintersborn, a mountain citadel whose new commandant is none other than Von Stroheim, who has been so badly injured that he needs to wear a back brace.
Despite being frustrated at being unable to fight, Von Stroheim again reveals his genteel side by tending to a flowering plant in his quarters and lamenting to Fresnay that the conflagration seems set to destroy the established order that has afforded them so many comforts and privileges. But Fresnay is more attuned to the changing atmosphere and plays a tin whistle on the ramparts during an appel call to create the distraction that allows Gabin and Dalio to escape by lowering themselves by rope from a window. Reluctant to harm a fellow patrician, Von Stroheim orders the guards to stop shooting at Fresnay. However, he fatally wounds him with a careless shot of his own and remorsefully nurses him as the Frenchman dies warning that there will be no place for their kind in the new world.
If Gabin and Dalio are anything to go by, however, the transition is going to be anything but smooth. Despite needing to co-operate as they traverse the German countryside heading for Switzerland, they argue and decide to strike out alone after Gabin resorts to anti-Semitic insults. However, they are soon reunited and take refuge from the inclement weather in a shed, where they are discovered by farm wife Dita Parlo. Having lost her husband at Verdun and her three brothers in battles that were supposed to be landmark imperial victories, she has lost faith in the cause and not only shelters them, but also protects them from the patrols out searching for them. Gabin falls in love with her and promises to come back to her once peace is declared. But, as he and Dalio have vowed to return to the line on reaching France, their future is uncertain after the cross the frontier in the closing frames.
Such is the political significance of La Grande Illusion that it's easy to overlook its cinematic qualities. Although much of the action was filmed on location - with the Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg in Alsace being used for Wintersborn - Eugène Lourié's production design soberingly conveys the sense of confinement that emphasises the differences and similarities between the nationalities, classes and creeds. Moreover, the precise combination of Christian Matras and Claude Renoir's fluent camerawork and Marguerite Marthe-Huguet's editing laid the foundation for the shooting style that André Bazin would later call mise-en-scène. Even Decrais's costumes are key, as while the majority of the cast are in military attire (Gabin wore Renoir's old aviator's uniform), the dress that Julien Carette wears during the variety show has as much impact on the morale of the prisoners as the news from the Western Front.
Yet, this was a film that was almost never made. While working on the screenplay, Renoir became intrigued by Spaak's outline for the Popular Front drama La Belle Équipe and tried to sell La Grande Illusion to fellow director Julien Duvivier. However, he was more interested in making La Belle Équipe and Renoir was left with the problem of raising funds for a film that was almost certain to cause controversy across the continent. But producer Raymond Blondy was able to find backers after he signed up Jean Gabin, who was then France's biggest star.
The picture soon ran into difficulties, however. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was so disgusted by a story that besmirched German honour and had the temerity to contain a sympathetic Jewish character that he branded it `Cinematographic Enemy Number One'. He put pressure on Mussolini to ensure it failed to win a prize at the Venice Film Festival, but the jury defied the authorities and bestowed a special award for `Best Artistic Ensemble'. Goebbels had more luck in Belgium, however, as Prime Minister Paul-Henri Spaak (who was the co-scenarist's brother) banned it outright. Yet, ironically, Hermann Goering admired the film and allowed it to be screened within the Reich, albeit without the scenes lionising Dalio. Moreover, it became the first foreign-language title to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
On the outbreak of war, however, the French government outlawed the film because it supposedly encouraged fraternisation with the enemy. When Paris fell, Goebbels ordered all prints to be destroyed. However, the negative was smuggled to Berlin (probably under the auspices of Frank Hensel) and hidden by the Reichsfilmarchiv until 1945 when it was sent to Moscow by the conquering Red Army to form part of the Gosfilmofond collection. Meanwhile, as all copies were presumed lost, the picture's reputation took a considerable battering after the Liberation, with critics denouncing it for anti-Semitism and fostering the mindset that led to collaboration under Vichy. Even though he refuted such claims while writing for Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-1950s, François Truffaut deemed it one of Renoir's lesser works as it lacked the personal touch of true auteurist cinema.
Two decades later, the negative found its way back to France as part of a consignment from Moscow. Yet it still lay undiscovered in the Toulouse Film Institute vaults until the 1990s when the body teamed with Studio Canal to produced a restoration that almost immediately led to La Grande Illusion being reclaimed as a masterpiece. The recent digital overhaul was supervised by the Italian laboratory Immagine Ritrovata and it's to be hoped that a new generation will not only recognise its artistry, but also the sense and sincerity of its message.
The gathering gloom next descended upon Le Quai des Brumes (1938), an adaptation of a Pierre Mac Orlan novel that marked the first of Marcel Carné's seven outings with the poet-cum-scenarist Jacques Prévert. Initially, the project was due to shoot under producer Raoul Ploquin at UFA in Berlin, but Goebbels deemed the story of an army deserter to be too decadent for German audiences. So, Carné returned to Paris, where the project received official sanction on the proviso that the word `deserter' was never mentioned and that Jean Gabin's anti-hero treated his discarded uniform with suitable respect.
Arriving back from Tonkin, Gabin wanders along a darkened road in Le Havre seeking sanctuary. He happens upon a rundown bar owned by Edouard Delmont, who notices everything, but rarely asks questions. Here he meets Michèle Morgan, who is herself a runaway from forbidding guardian Michel Simon and they immediately fall in love. Simon runs a gift shop, but is also in cahoots with the knavish Pierre Brasseur, who also lusts after Morgan and takes exception to Gabin defending her honour.
The newcomer is not without friends, however, as genial drunk Raymond Aimos reassures Gabin after the nocturnal shooting of one of Brasseur's henchmen and painter Robert Le Vigan takes pity on him to such an extent that he encourages him to assume his identity and wear his clothes after he commits suicide by drowning. However, while Gabin is able to secure a passage on a freighter bound for Venezuela, he can't forget Morgan and puts his life at risk to rescue her from the clutches of the vengeful Simon.
Updating the action from 1909 and transferring it from Montmartre to the coast, Prévert merged two of Mac Orlan's characters to produce Gabin's fugitive and changed his paramour from a prostitute who murders her pimp to a teenage waif at the mercy of her lustful godfather. But, more significantly, he invested the material with a philosophical gravitas and a sense of foreboding that was reinforced by both the coastal locations and Alexandre Trauner's atmospheric studio sets.
Indeed, the tone became so bleak that the suits at Ciné-Alliance tried to persuade Carné to fashion his story into a lighter, romantic tearjerker, while backer Gregor Rabinovitch urged Gabin to reconsider his participation in such a downbeat saga, in case it damaged his career. Clearly he had never seen Julien Duvivier's La Bandèra (which was also based on a Mac Orlan text) or Pépé le Moko or Jean Renoir's Les Bas-fonds, as Gabin's tragic heroes were already becoming the screen barometer for France's dwindling sense of self-esteem.
But no one before had quite managed to imbue Poetic Realism with such an all-pervading air of fatalism. During the Occupation, Carné was accused of having preconditioned France to defeat by sapping their spirit with this hopeless vision. Yet this is now cited as a key influence on film noir and is considered by many to be the French equivalent of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942).
Increasingly seen as a symbolic victim of both fate and an uncaring society, Gabin let it be known that he wanted to fulfil a childhood ambition to drive a steam locomotive. Thus, when Jean Grémillon's Train d'Enfer fell through, producer Raymond Hakim persuaded Jean Renoir to adapt Émile Zola'a 1890 novel La Bête Humaine as a suitable vehicle.
On discovering that wife Simone Simon has been corrupted by wealthy godfather Jacques Berlioz, stationmaster Fernand Ledoux plots to murder him on the express between Paris and Le Havre. However, the crime is witnessed by driver Jean Gabin, who agrees to say nothing because he has lost his heart to the flirtatious Simon, although the police end up arresting the innocent Jean Renoir (in only his second screen role) for the crime.
Simon and Gabin begin a tempestuous affair. However, she is terrified that Ledoux will kill her if he discovers she has cuckolded him again and pleads with Gabin to murder him. But, she is unaware that he suffers from a hereditary condition that can transform him into a violent brute and he is loathe to allow his passion to run away with him.
Renoir's first major commercial success was based on merely a cursory perusal of Zola's text, which had been the seventeenth in the celebrated Rougon-Macquart series. He downplayed history of alcoholism in Gabin's family and concentrated instead on the intensity of the lovers' passion and the authenticity of the rail workers' environs. Gabin and Julien Carette as his stoker particularly revelled in riding the footplate and cinematographer Curt Courant and camera operator Claude Renoir put themselves at considerable risk to shoot the most intimate and visceral footage. Thus, Renoir not only captured the spirit of his source, but he also achieved a grimy naturalist lyricism that heightened the picture's emotive potency.
Yet while Renoir was more interested in the realism of the setting than the mechanics of the plot, the film still contains several standout set-pieces, including the killing of Berlioz behind the train compartment blinds, Gabin and Simone's assignation in the rail sheds during a downpour, and Gabin's final acts of uncontrollable rage and bitter regret. Leaving Gabin to essay his trademark flawed everyman, Renoir lavished attention on his female leads. But, while he reined in Simon's feline sensuality to emphasise the lethal innocence of her femme fatality, he highlighted the locomotive's sexual symbolism and lit La Lison as though it was a lissom diva.
Fritz Lang was permitted no such latitude when he produced the Hollywood remake, Human Desire, in 1954, by which time Renoir's original had already exerted a considerable influence on film noir. But, this was very much a feature that reflected its times. Along with Le Quai des Brumes, it exuded the pre-war pessimism of a nation that could see its impending fate in that of Gabin's doomed tragic heroes. However, Renoir captured the crushing anxiety with even more power and prescience in his next feature, La Règle du Jeu (1939).
Doomed love was also the theme of Carné's Hôtel du Nord (1938). Inspired by an anecdotal 1928 novel by Eugène Dabit, whose parents owned the eponymous hotel in north-eastern Paris, this has always been regarded as the weakest link in the pessimistic prewar trilogy that also contained Le Quai des Brumes (1938) and Le Jour se Lève (1939). However, as one might expect of a picture filmed during the Munich Crisis, it not only captures the mood of an increasingly fearful nation, but also the sense of tragedy that surrounded Dabit's own mysterious death in 1936.
As the residents of the Hôtel du Nord enjoy a first communion lunch, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Annabella approach along the Quai de Jemmapes on the banks of Canal Saint-Martin. Tired of endless disappointment and convinced that they will only find happiness in death, the lovers check in with the intention of committing suicide. However, Aumont loses his nerve after wounding Annabella and runs away in blind panic, leaving her to be rushed to hospital by Louis Jouvet, a pimp who happened to be in the adjoining room used by prostitute Arletty.
Having made a full recovery, Annabella is taken on as a maid by hoteliers André Brunot and Jane Marken. She gets to know such regulars as the unassumingly gay François Périer, Bernard Blier and his wife Paulette Dubost, who is cheating on him with their neighbour Andrex. But Annabella remains in love with Aumont and visits him in prison, even though he orders her to forget about him and make a fresh start.
Some time later, Jouvet offers Annabella the chance to go to Marseille with him when he learns that a couple of associates he betrayed years before are hot on his trail. However, she changes her mind and returns to the Quai just as the vindictive Arletty (who has now shacked up with the cuckolded Blier) exacts her revenge by conspiring with Jouvet's foes, who choose Bastille Day to get even.
It's usual to attribute the supposed deficiencies in this simmering saga to the absence of Carné's regular screenwriting collaborator Jacques Prévert and the verbosity of Jean Aurenche and Henri Jeanson's dialogue. But while this may be more theatrical than other examples of Poetic Realism, it still captures the sense of foreboding that Renoir recognised in a nation `dancing on the edge of a volcano'.
Much of this was due to art director Alexandre Trauner's meticulous recreation of Quai de Jemmapes, which ranks among the finest achievements of studio realism. But the mood (or `atmosphère', as the brilliant Jouvet would call it) was also subtly reinforced by Maurice Jaubert's melancholic score and Carné's innate sympathy for people seizing what they could of life before fate closed in on them.
Although Jouvet and Blier deliver superb performances, the emphasis falls on the contrasting visions of French womanhood portrayed by Annabella and Arletty. As Jeanson disliked the former (who had gone to Hollywood and was about to ditch French actor Jean Murat to marry Tyrone Power), he reportedly tinkered with her dialogue to ensure she was less memorable than Arletty. However, Carné allows Armand Thirard's camera to iconise them equally, as he was aware that without Annabella's box-office kudos this damning, noirish dissertation on cowardice and treachery (which was unsurprisingly banned during the war) might never have been made at all.
War in Europe became an inevitability once the Wehrmacht marched into Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939. The warnings Renoir and Carné had been issuing had gone unheeded by those in power - although they were essentially powerless to stop Hitler and, in hindsight, the policy of Appeasement pursued by Edouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain may not have been as craven as it once seemed. Nonetheless, the continent was on the edge of a precipice and Renoir mused upon its imminent collapse in La Règle du Jeu.
Having captured the public imagination with a record-breaking flight, aviator Roland Toutain is disappointed to learn that married friend Nora Gregor has not come to Le Bourget to meet him. In a fit of pique, he denounces her during a radio interview and she is stung by his vituperation as she listens in her Parisian apartment with her loyal maid, Paulette Dubost. An Austrian by birth, Gregor has been married to marquis Marcel Dalio for three years and he is amused by her association with a hero.
Indeed, he is far from jealous, as he has a mistress of his own in Mila Parély, whom he slips away to meet whenever the chance arises. However, at their next rendezvous, he announces that the liaison is over, but invites her to a shooting party that he is hosting that weekend at his country seat, La Colinière. Regretting his outburst, Toutain contacts mutual friend Jean Renoir, who arranges for the pair to meet at the house party and jokes with Dalio that all might end well if Toutain fell in love with Parély.
Tensions are rising in the country, however, as even though gamekeeper Gaston Modot is struggling to cope with a glut of rabbits, he deeply resents poacher Julien Carette stealing from his traps. Consequently, Modot is appalled when he catches Carette red-handed, only for Dalio to offer him a job helping to keep the pests under control and he promptly starts flirting with his wife (Dubost).
Following a savage day's hunting, in which dozens of rabbits are slaughtered, the guests gather for a masked ball. Renoir strolls to the greenhouse with Gregor and declares his undying devotion and she agrees to run away with him. However, because Gregor is wearing Dubost's hooded cape as part of her costume, Modot and Carette think Dubost is cavorting with Renoir and, as they have been reprimanded for a public spat, they each vow vengeance. Dubost, however, has been busy talking Renoir out of his elopement plans and he sends Toutain to the greenhouse to make his peace with Gregor. In the confusion that follows, a gun is fired and a body falls. But, even though a murder has been committed in cold blood, Dalio reassures his guests that there has only been a dreadful accident.
The only film that Renoir made for his co-operative production company, Nouvelles Editions Françaises, turned out to be his last French project for 16 years. Inspired by De Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne, Marivaux's Le Jeu d'Amour et du Hasard and Beaumarchais's Le Mariage de Figaro and the music of Lully, Couperin and Rameau, La Chasse en Sologne (or Fair Play, as the feature was originally to be called) was concocted to focus on people who `lived to baroque rhythms'.
But casting alterations, the improvised nature of the shoot and the deteriorating world situation left Renoir uncertain whether he was making a comedy or a tragedy. In 1938, he declared that he was preparing `a precise description of the bourgeoisie of our age. I want to show that for every game, there are rules. If you don't play according to them, you lose.' However, he later claimed that he wanted to depict a society `dancing on the edge of a volcano'.
Critics applauded Renoir's use of deep focus to implicate all classes in the film's thesis that French society was approaching implosion. But, audiences despised its sentiments from the night of the premiere, when one man attempted to set light to the theatre that dared to show such unpatriotic filth. Just days before France declared war on Germany, the picture was banned by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs `especially anxious to avoid representations of our country, our traditions, and our race that change its character, lie about it and deform it through the prism of an artistic individual who is often original but not always sound'.
It was presumed that only a handful of poor quality, bowdlerised prints survived the conflict. However, in 1956, 224 boxes of positives, negatives and sound mixes were discovered and a restored version (missing only Octave and André's brief musings on the morality of maidservants) was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1959 - the year in which the nouvelle vague broke in France - and La Règle du Jeu has rightly been regarded as an indisputable masterpiece ever since.
A final pall would be cast before hostilities commenced, however, in the form of Marcel Carné's Le Jour se lève. Centring on a trapped individual looking back on the events that brought him to the brink of disaster, it is easily the bleakest example of the desolate realism that filled French screens as diplomacy failed and despondency descended upon a nation that seemed to sense its imminent destiny. Moreover, it is also a deeply moving human drama that confirms the magnetism of Jean Gabin, the femme fatality of Arletty and the brilliance of the various character players who gave 1930s French cinema such conviction and class.
As he barricades himself into his single-room digs in a rundown part of an industrial Norman town, foundry sandblaster Jean Gabin tries to block out the calls from the police to act like a man and give himself up before anyone else gets killed. Having failed to gain access and been forced to pen back a potentially hostile crowd, Commissioner Jacques Braumer lays siege to the room where Gabin is thinking back to the idyllic romance with flowergirl Jacqueline Laurent and how everything began to go horribly wrong when he met Arletty, the former assistant to music-hall dog trainer Jules Berry, who claims to be Laurent's father and forbids her from consorting with someone so far beneath her dignity.
Ultimately, after much baiting, Gabin is provoked into shooting Berry with his own gun (in an act that smacks more of cynically assisted suicide than murder). However, he is convinced that no one will believe his story and prepares to face his end as Arletty tries to console Laurent in a nearby hotel room and gendarmes climb over the rooftops in a bid to drive Gabin into the open with tear gas.
Draped in the Expressionist gloom of FW Murnau and Fritz Lang, this completed the trilogy of trepidation that was later accused of conditioning the French psyche for defeat and occupation in June 1940. However, the fact that Le Jour se lève was remade as The Long Night by Anatole Litvak in 1947 (with Henry Fonda being supported by Barbara Bel Geddes, Ann Dvorak and Vincent Price) suggests that its more lasting legacy lay in influencing the mood and look that would come to characterise Hollywood film noir.
Working from a story by Jacques Viot, Jacques Prévert devised a brooding study in oppressive fate that saw a decent man being robbed of his dreams and reduced to the bestial urges that would usher his demise. Prévert and Carné clearly saw Gabin's character as France, with the waiting police being equated to the Wehrmacht that was preparing for war. Consequently, Carné asked art director Alexandre Trauner to entomb Gabin in a claustrophobic cell to reinforce his appearance as a condemned man. Indeed, he even insisted on the set being built as a single unit, without movable walls, even though this made life difficult for Curt Courant and Philippe Agostini's camera crew.
As ever, Gabin excelled as the doomed everyman. But Jules Berry ably reprised the lecherous villain he had portrayed so expertly in Renoir's Prévert-scripted Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, while Arletty again displayed the coquettish amorality she had shown in Hôtel du Nord and which ultimately landed her in jail following a wartime affair with a German officer, despite coming to personify the indomitable spirit of France in Les Enfants du Paradis (1945). This, for many, will always be Carné's finest achievement. But Le Jour se lève possesses a raw power and unflinching courage that its director continued to exhibit after the war when defending his work against charges of preconditioning the populace for humiliation by insisting that the barometer should never be blamed for the damage caused by the storm it has predicted.