Why would anyone want to see an unpretentious genre film – not particularly stylish; by no means the best example of its kind – like Le gorille vous salue bien?
Well, for one, it’s interesting to see what the French conceived of as their ‘no. 1 secret agent’; makes an interesting change in comparison to James Bond – friendly and street-smart gorilla instead of charming know-it-all gentleman with sardonic sense of humour and sadistic tendencies ; it’s interesting to see the care that the film takes with its beginning and ending, the one responding to the other as in classic cinema; it’s interesting also to see how the film carefully structures its narrative, balancing it with spectacle, leavening it with humour: its constantly engaged with a popular audience and might be part of the reason the film remains engaging: it’s interesting to compare the fight scenes (see below) to the ones we see now, how they seem slow and inexpert, with blows clearly faked, yet often shot in a combination of long-shot and with lengthier takes than we get now — Le gorille lets us see actions completed.
It’s interesting to remember that this type of popular genre film (it was a considerable box office success) co-existed with New Wave Cinema and the previous kind, what François Truffaut would call the ‘cinéma de papa’, straddled both, would supersede them all and would make inroads into all Western European markets.
Fans of Hollywood gossip will be interested in seeing Bella Darvi, named by Darryl Zanuck in a burst of megamoguldom after himself and his wife (Darryl and Virgina, thus Darvi); its interesting to see how in their scenes together, the camera always favours her and leaves the gorilla in shadows. But to no avail; attractive as she is, she’s no star: Lino on the other hand…
The main reason to see the film today is that Le gorille vous salue bien is the film that would make a star of Lino Ventura. The year of its release, he’d already appeared in three films in supporting roles, high profile ones such as in Maigret tend un piège, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud/ Lift to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958), Montparnasse 19/ Modigliani of Montparnasse (Jacques Becker, 1958) for top directors such as Delannoy, Malle, Becker. Here it’s only Borderie. But ‘Le gorille’ is star-making role. In the opening credits we’re teased by billing merely listing ‘Le gorille’; by the end of the movie, we know the gorilla is Lino Ventura and we want to see more of him. The success of this film would lead to many more Gorilla films but they’d have to settle for Roger Hanin in the title role: Ventura would go onto bigger and better things and would become one of the most popular and durable stars of French cinema.
Browsing through the Estorick Collection in London I came across this portrait of Amadeo Modigliani by François Brabander and my first thought was ‘No! That’s not Modigliani!’ I saw Montparnasse 19 as a child on television and Modigliani is forever etched in my mind as the face of Gérard Phillippe. I have not seen Montparnasse 19 since then but I’ve never forgotten how beautiful Anouk Aimée is in that film nor Phillippe’s sadness at loving her but finding it all impossible because art was his life and his art wasn’t going well and he was so hungry; the film seemed full of shots of them walking around Montparnasse, loving but not wanting to love, both looking impossibly beautiful whilst sad and starving. I also remember Lilli Palmer at her most vivid and charming, tempting and taunting Phillippe with her body and her money.
This person in the Brabander photograph is suitably sad but that short moustache, the too long neck, the double chin! No! My reaction to the Brabander portrait is ridiculous even to myself. Phillipe was not only Modigliani to me, he was also the face of Stendhal’s heroes having played both Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo in the movies; he was also the great Fanfan la Tulipe and, even though it is Marcello Mastroianni who played Arthur Merseault in the movies (for Visconti in The Stranger in 1967), it is Phillippe’s beautiful and sad face that is to me also the face of French post-war Existentialism. Thus whilst Modigliani to me has until now always been Gérard Phillippe, Gérard Phillippe has been Modigliani and more.
I nonetheless find it interesting that Phillippe was my first reference point, that the filmic representation of Modigliani took precedence over the historical portrait. In my mind, the Brabander portrait was being measured against, and found lacking in relation to, the image of Phillipe. Is this type of response typical? I suppose it doesn’t apply to historical figures who are already iconic to us before we encounter them at the movies – the Hitlers or Henry VII’s or Napoleons– but those who become famous to us through the movies — Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur, Anna Neagle as Edith Cavell, Cagney as George M. Cohan , perhaps this will even come true of Leonardo Di Caprio and Howard Hughes – it’s as if the figure of the actor becomes the root image against which all others — even historical paragraphs — get compared to, at least initially.
I’m sure this is often true and that people have been disappointed in the past to find that Madame Curie might not look very much like Greer Garson. Certainly I was disappointed to see that the real Modigliani only vaguely resembled the dreamy, trembly and poetic Gérard Phillippe even as my reason told me how silly it was to even think that it should. The movies offered dreams and fantasies, ideals and nightmares: reason there is really the least of it. And perhaps that’s why I’m afraid to re-visit Montparnasse 19 even though I now know the film was started by Ophuls and finished by Jacques Becker — information that would have meant nothing to me as a child — and even though I now see that Lino Ventura and Lila Kedrova are also in it: how could I forget that?
What could one hope to achieve by re-visiting Montparnasse 19 that is worth risking the beautiful and fragile memory embedded so powerfully so long ago? Yet seeing the Brabander portrait confirmed how Phillippe has always meant so much more to me than Modigliani, and indeed so has Ophuls and Jaques Becker and Lilli Palmer and even Lino Ventura. Ad perhaps a new encounter with them need not result in the ruin of an old one.