Below is the second part of a two-part podcast with Ginette Vincendeau on Jean Gabin, which picks up a little before the first part ended. Once Gabin returned to top stardom in France in ´54/55, what values did he represent/signify? Does he mean something different in France than abroad? What is it and why? Is it true he didn´t make any good films after ‘Touchez-pas au grisby’ and ‘French Can Can’? What is the significance of him being cast with co-stars so much younger than himself like Bardot and Danièle Delorme? What does ´La France Gabinisée´and ‘La Gabinisation de la France’ mean. I ask the questions but it is Ginette´s answers that fascinate and illuminate.
I am grateful to Will Straw who brought to my attention the special issue of Schnock which featured Gabin and which asserted, in ways that are visualised below, that ´Gabin´means something different at home and abroad and that at home he signifies a particular type of Frenchness. This lead me to ask Ginette about it and she brought up Jean-Laurent Cassely´s book, No fake: Contre-histoire de notre quête dáuthenticité, and the concept of ‘Gabinisation’, as well as Ginette´s noting of how often ‘Gabin’ is turned into a verb: Gabinise, Gabiniser…
Will also brought up the interview with Nicolas Pariser in the October 2019 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, which I ask Ginette to comment on in the podcast:
My rough translation is as follows: ‘Those films from the 50s where Gabin tells off young people are cinema´s absolute evil. In Rue des prairies, he bawls out Marie-José Nat because she does nothing and wakes up late. I have a bit of an extreme thesis: I think May ´68 was because of Gabin. He became unbearable at a certain moment. The cinema I love exploded that reactionary schema. And astonishingly we find nostalgia for 50s cinema were the old explain life to the young in quite a few contemporary French Films’
I am also grateful to Nicky Smith for noting the difference in ages between Gabin and his female co-stars, and how this trope recurred in so many films. This lead to an interesting discussion with Ginette on this issue where Ginette notes how strong that trope is in French cinema in general, can be seen in the thirties in films like Arlette et ses papas (Henri Roussel, 1934) , and continues on quite late and in various cultural forms(e.g. Serge Gainsbourg Lemon Incest).
You can follow up on all of these issues through Ginette´s books below:
Furthermore, I have blogged on some of Gabin´s later films, some mentioned in the podcast, and if you want to pursue that further you can click on the hyperlinks below.
The first of two podcasts with the great Ginette Vincendeau on the great Jean Gabin. I´ve always been a fan of Gabin´s but my interest in him was revived by the ‘Jean Gabin: The Man With Blue Eyes’ retrospective curated by Edouard Waintrop at the 1919 Il Cinema Ritrovatto in Bologna, where aside from more familiar classics like Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier) and Le plaisir (Max Ophüls, 1951), I also had the opportunity to see Coeur de Lilas (Anatole Litvak, 1931), De haut en bas (George W. Pabst), Au-delà des grilles (René Clément, 1948), La Marie du port(Marcel Carné, 1949), and others.
I wanted to talk about all of this and find out more about Gabin. And who knows more about Gabin than Ginette Vincendeau? Ginette is Professor in Film Studies at King´s College London. As you can see from some of her various books above, she´s written on French Cinema of the 1930s, on Gabin specifically, on Gabin films in particular (Pépé le Moko), on directors Gabin worked with (Renoir) stars and stardom in French Cinema, texts in context in French cinema, etc. No one of my acquaintance knows more about Gabin and few are as much fun to talk to.
This above, the first of two podcast, covers the period up to 1954, where after a fallow post-war period Gabin once again re-emerged as a top box-office attraction. Who was Jean Gabin? How did he become a star? What did he represent in the 1930s and how is that significant in terms of class and national identity? How central is he to 1930s French Cinema. Was he allied to the Popular Front? There´s a narrative of failure around Gabin´s post-war career. Does that narrative hold up to scrutiny? These questions and others are discussed in this first podcast. The second will deal with the period from 1954 to his death in 1976.
Some of my blogging and podcasting on Gabin films of this period, mostly arising from he viewing in Ritrovato, can be found by clicking the hyperlinks above and below:
Catherine (Danièle Delorme), a young woman recently arrived from Marseilles, gets out of the metro before dawn. She wonders through the Les Halles market in the dark, parks herself in front of the ´Au Rendez-vous des innocents´ café and stalks her prey: its middle-aged and prosperous owner, Henri Chatelet (Jean Gabin)
Voici le temps des assassins is as bleak a view of post-war Paris as I´ve seen. In its presentation of a young woman, outwardly innocent and vulnerable but inwardly capable of calculating the most dastardly deeds, it bears comparison to Otto Preminger´s great noir, Angel Face (1953), where Diane Tremayne Jessup, the character played by Jean Simmons, is conceptually not that different from the character Danièle Delorme plays here, though there are important distinctions: Simmons plays rich, Delorme poor, etc.
After the film came out, François Truffaut wrote, ´Julien Duvivier has made fifty-seven films. I´ve seen twenty-three, and liked eight. Of them all, Voici le temps des assassins seems to me the best, where one can sense the control over every aspect (script, mise-en-scène, acting, image, music, etc.) _ control by a filmmaker who has arrived at total confidence in himself and his vocation. The script of Voici le temps des assassins (….) is practically flawless in its construction as in its design. (cited in Ben McCamn, Julien Duvivier, French Film Directors, MUP, Manchester, 2017 p. 183
There is much to admire in the film, and it deserves more time and thought than I can give it here. But I want to first start with Gabin. Has any star ever aged more gracefully on screen? I suppose one could make a case for Spencer Tracy, who seemed to get more handsome as he arrived in middle-aged and always played his age. When Gary Cooper was trying to make it with stars who were 20-40 years younger than he, such as Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon, Tracy was the father of Elizabeth Taylor in the Father of the Bride films or the father of Jean Simmons in The Actress (George Cukor, 1953), in romantic comedies opposite contemporaries (Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set,) or as middle-aged men on a mission or at work, films that weren´t love stories, Bad Day At Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955), Inherit the Wind (Stanley Kramer, 1960) , etc
Like Tracey, Gabin was considered the premier film actor of his day by his peers. Big as Tracy was in American cinema,– and he was a Top-Ten box-office attraction from the late thirties to the early 50s; and top-billed in prestige pictures right to the end — Gabin was bigger: a level above and apart from any other actor in France, completely central to French cinema and, by extension, 20th-century French culture.
The role of André Chatelin was a departure for Gabin. Though he memorably played the owner of a restaurant and cinema in Carne´s La Marie de Portand before that a well-to-do contractor in Martin Roumagnac, Gabin was always associated with the working class (La Grande Illusion, La Belle equipe) or being a criminal from a working class background (La Bandera, Pépé le Moko, Au dela des grilles, or the film that with French Can-Can re-established him in the 50s, Touchez-pas au grisbi.
I love how Duvivier introduces him in Voici (see clip below), through a fogged up glass that names him. Note the expression on his face: glum, resigned, middle-aged but raising up the energy for the job. Note the lined mouth, the heavy lower lips, the downturned mouth as he peeks outside. Then, the shoulders up, the rubbing of hands as he confronts the cold outside. He does not yet know that the young woman who will raise his hopes only to dash them, is eyeing him up outside.
Gabin´s performance here, as in so many other films, is wondrous. Being low key and minimalist throughout most of his films, then gives a context and a power to the explosions he was so famous for, as in the clip below. Note how he handles the old lady, how dangerous and out of control that move seems, particularly when considering its someone he loves. Look also at how he handles props below. Watching how he handles food –how he salts a bird, how he flips a pan — is one of the film´s more minor but nonetheless intense pleasures. Lastly, look at the design of the scene, how the kitchen allows for entrances, and makes of the restaurant itself a stage, something framed outside of where real life and pain lie, backstage, in the kitchen. Note too Duvivier´s elegant mobile camera, and the way Gabin plays in, with and against it. It´s like a tour-de-force of a great team, Duvivier-Gabin, unobstrusive until you notice it and are then thrilled by the results of a partnership that was even then into its fourth decade.
Part of the scene above´s power comes from the way that it rhymes with the earlier one below, where Chatelin and Catherine first meet. It´s a scene that it establishes Chatelin´s prosperity. He´s just received raves for his cooking in the newspaper, he´s turning people away.- Chatelin is wonderful with the locals but the restaurant is also where duchessess, show-biz people, the rich and the louche feel at hone. We´re told he´s been previously married, that his ex-wife is dead, and that Catherine is her daughter and has moved into the city and needs help. It´s a scene full of brio and fun, the way the camera moves, the orders, the cooking, the way the elderly man grabs the young woman´s breast, as he introduces her as the new young hope of French Cinema. And all of this information begins to fix itself to a nexus of what we know and what is planted as seeds of doubt. Chatelin has arranged a lovely life for himself that includes the patronage of a young man he loves like a son, Gérard (Gérard Blain). But is Catherine his daughter? That she will marry him later doesn´t quite erase the seed planted here. That she gets Gabin´s surrogate son killed becomes tragic in view of our knowledge of his earlier feelings for him. And all, and again, in and through that wondrous camera work. This is the busy, inclusive, communal, ritual that will be destroyed in as systematic and calculated a fashion as Catherine can muster.
Is Voici le temps des assasins misogynist? I do think so, Catherine is a murderess without conscience who walks by nonchalantly as a friend gets killed by a car; her mother, Chatelin´s ex, is no better, a manipulative drug addict, Chatelin´s house-keeper is a spy, and his mother at least as monstrous as those of late Francoist cinema. It seems only the relationship between old Chatelin and young Gérard is non instrumental, based on pure feeling, and that´s what Catherine gets most pleasure in destroying.
That said I want to direct you to our brief glimpse of the elegant lesbian couple in the restaurant, so unusual in the cinema of the period, and thus to be prized (see below)
I also want to draw your attention to the scene below. We´ve just seen Chatelin´s mother kill a chicken with that whip. But it´s Catherine who instigates the violence: ´my mother used to call you cow-hide9. But it´s the older lady who gets the last word, for now: ‘I´ll tame you yet my girl? It´s spectacle, a bit gothic, pulsing with excitement but bleak, and shrouded in sadness, a bit like the film as a whole.
Gabin as he is in La Marie du Port (right), and the much more youthful portrait the poster advertises (left). The image the poster sells harks back to his thirties films, perhaps hoping to appeal to his pre-war popularity and regain it. But it´s also an image that somewhat contradicts one of the film´s main themes, which is about inter-generational love. The film itself I´ve now seen twice and it gets better each time:
The film is based on the novel by Georges Simenon (see above) and tells the story of Henri Châtelard (Jean Gabin), a well-to-do owner of a restaurant and cinema in Cherbourg, the biggest town in the region, who accompanies his mistress Odile (Blanchette Brunoy) to her father´s funeral in the small village of Port-en-Bessin in Normandy, only to fall in love with her sister, Marie (Nicole Courcel). There are several obstacles to the union of Châtelard and Marie: Marie is seeing a young local boy Marcel (Claude Romain), crazy in love with her and threatening suicide; she´s Odile´s sister; there´s a considerable difference in age (one of the things the poster for the film is trying to obscure); Marie doesn´t want to be a mistress like her sister, living the good life but shunned by ´respectable’ people — she wants a ring.
At the beginning of the film Henri and Odile are driving to the funeral of Odile´s father. They get a puncture and arrive late. These first few scenes paint a powerful picture of small town life and mentality. The house is so small, mourners and well-wishers remain outside, on the street. Inside, Marie is feeding the family. Odile and Marie have three younger siblings, which now have to be distributed amongst the aunts and uncles to be brought up. We get a sense of a subsistence culture –whether the children can earn their keep is part of the discussion of how and to whom they will be distributed –and that children will most likely be used as slave labour until they come of age. Odile has escaped this by becoming Châtelard´s mistress. But at a price. She doesn´t really love him, or at least no longer. She´s stuck in Cherbourg where she really want to be in Paris. And she´s being shunned by the village folk she grew up with. Carné well indicates the community´s opprobium towards her by the expression in some of the mourner´s faces as she arrives to her father´s house (below right), something that reminded me of the scene with the nuns at the hospital in Almodóvar´s Live Flesh (below right) and how a series of expressions can not only evoke character but a whole structure of feeling.
Marie is hard-working, dour, conscientious, honest, and Châtelard is smitten from the first moment he sees her (below left), an image significantly rhymed the first time Marcel sees her with Châtelard: interestingly, one is on the inside looking out, the other outside looking in.
Carné surrounds himself and this production with some of the greatest talents the French cinema of the period had to offer: Jacques Prévert worked on the screenplay (Louis Chavance and Geroges Ribemont-Dessaignes are the writers credited); there is beautiful work by Herni Alekan as cinematographer, the legendary Alexandre Trauner is with Auguste Capelier credited for the production design. And the way Carne orchestrates the various elements they contribute tells you all the story you need to know and more, as you can see in the lovely image below, where Claude, in the image that follows the one above right, sees Châtelard and Marie, clearly in love because, as you can see below, in that busy café, surrounded by people, and with Marcel´s own father propped at the bar anticipating the scene to come, the light seems to envelop them alone, a couple, even if they themselves don´t yet know it.
One of the things that´s striking about the film is the presentation of a freewheeling, guilt-free, pragmatic and easy sex-life to almost all of its characters. Marie and Marcel are the exceptions: she too puritanical and serious, he over-excited and dangerously romantic. But they´re young and they will learn.
The clip above is preceded by a scene in which a party leaves Châtelard´s restaurant because their table has been handed over to the local football team who´ve just won a match. The party leave in a huff except for the young woman who goest to the cinema next door. Châtelard has gone there too to eat his lunch and get some peace and quiet. But before the newsreel is over, they´ve agreed to spend the night together. It´s a scene that luxuriates in the cinema itself, letting us see it in wide shots, with the projector throwing a beam of light in the darkness, and the screen itself creating a glow in the space. Note the partial lighting of the characters, allowing us to see their expressions but evoking the covert by the surrounding darkness. Note too the adventurous (at sea) playful (the cat), the structured (army manouvres) the explosive (the guns going off), and the brief that´s indicated in the newsreel being shown but that is also commenting on the action we see.
Another scene that I also found unusual in its attitude to sex is the one where Châtelard and Marie, find Odile (Châtelard´s mistress and Marie´s sister) in bed with Marcel (Marie´s boyfriend). Marie and Châtelard have had a fight, he goes to find Marcel and when he opens the door he sees Odile and Marcel in bed together. Instead of being angry he finds it a joke, laughs, and won´t hold it against them later. It´s a scene unimaginable in American cinema of the period.
What I also found intriguing about the scene is that we´re shown the action through a relay of close-ups that indicate each of the principals´reaction but tellingly we´re never shown a two-shot or a medium shot in which Odile and Marcel are in the frame together, as if the idea really is too incongruous.
When Marie descends the stairs it´s photographed so as to evoke a feeling of hopes plummeting. But it´s not what Châtelard suspects: ‘If you only knew how little I care about Marcel, even if he is with someone else, and even if it´s with my sister’. When Marie admits that she had really come for him, that she hadn´t wanted to say it but it´s true, the camera pans to a little girl, dressed poorly, with a milk can on one hand and a loaf of bread under her other arm, behind a barred and locked gate that casts shadows inside (Châtelard here calls his house a cage). On one level the little girl is there as a narrative device to demonstrate the intrusion of the public on a private and sentimental moment. On a more metaphoric level, it´s clearly a commentary on Marie herself. But what exactly? It´s a moment that´s given considerable weight. It comes just after Châtelard says ‘Oh, so it´s for me that you´ve come’, at which point Châtelard looks left, and a pan follows his gaze to show us the little girl. Does that mean that there will be another young woman after Marie? Is it meant to signify a younger Marie. And does it mean that her choosing to go with Châtelard will be a kind of prison? I´m not sure but it´s an image that raises these and more questions and thus lingers in the mind (see above).
Carné is clearly in love with cinema and the cinema setting allows him to express it to us. Gabin is filmed against cannisters in his office, we see the projection system, posters, the cinema itself and clips from several films. The cinema also affords a nice contrast to the life and world Marie comes from.
La Marie du Port has two scenes set in Châtelard´s cinema. The first is the easy pick-up I discussed earlier on. The second takes place amidst a screening of F.W Murnau´s Tabu. Châtelard speaks of getting old, of time passing. Odile is off to Paris. Marcel to the cruise ships to become a lady´s hairdresser. Maybe he too will go away, in that boat he´s been fixing in the village. Besides one isn´t alone when one travels he muses. Marie comments that he doesn´t have to be alone. But he replies that, as she can see in the film, there are girls in every port, ones that don´t impose conditions: rings, marriage. This is an interesting rhyming scene with the first scene in the cinema: the newsreel, vs Murnau´s romantic and luscious Tabu; they´re alone instead of part of the crowd as in the earlier scene, and more importantly, Marie walks out on him. She´s not that kind of girl. And he will chase after her, offer her the keys to his business, and make jokes about how at the wedding he´ll tell the officals she´s his daughter doing her first communion.
Seeing La Marie du port again I was struck by how queer it seems to me now and not just becaause Carné was gay and he met his long term partner Roland Lessaffre , the sailor next to Gabin above, on the film : Chatelard, unmarried in his fifties, the open relationship he´s established with Odile, the easy pickups in cinemas, the older/younger pairings and the switch the narrative delivers, the dream of escape to the big city, the dream to be a lady´s hairdresser, the homage to Murnau, the identification with the prostitutes and the lowlife, the handsome sailors, the hypersensitive youth who attempts suicide. It evokes a ´structure of feeling´´or a ´’gay sensibility´of another time without anything being mentioned. I read the book yesterday to see if it was just me projecting: it isn´t. The film follows the book quite closely and is a page turner, more ‘exciting’ than the film, but without the depth or any queer connotations. Claude Viau, Marie´s young lover, takes up less space in the novel whereas Carné gives him a whole set of recurring scenes, his own struggle and dream, plus the way he´s visualised. The other question is, if this is so glaring to me now, why did I not notice it upon first viewing in Bologna where the main topic of conversation seemed to be the discrepancy in ages between Chaterlard/Gabin and Marie/Nicole Courcel, understandable as it´s one of the film´s main themes (in the novel he´s meant to be 37 to her ‘six months short of 18).
La Marie du port was shown as part of the Gabin mini-retrospective at Bologna and he´s glorious in it, understated but alive at every, and in every film he´s got a moment of expression that brings a character alive. The moment below is characteristic. The scene is really about Marcel and his father (Julienne Carette, the poacher in Renoir´s Rules of the Game). Gabin´s just responding. But look at how he responds; his expression evoking a whole lifetime experience of dealing and humouring drunks, completely relaxed and at ease, yet indicating a strength capable of dealing with every situation.: a man who knows how to handle himself. It´s wonderful.
As is the film. It´s a great film that hasn´t yet gotten it´s due, possibly because Carné and Gabin, separately and together, have so many other more famous masterpieces in their filmography. Don´t let that deter you.
Gabin returns as Maigret, this time in a nostalgic vein. The countess of St. Fiacre (Valentine Tessier) has received a death threats stating she will die on Ash Wednesday. She calls upon Maigret to return to the village where he grew up and help her with the case. Maigret had a crush on the Countess as a young boy, and the Countess, a warm-hearted woman, enjoyed being the object of it. Maigret ´s father had once managed the Chateau where he will now be a guest and indeed he´s got the Countess to thank for his education. There´s a real fondness and complicity on the ride from the train station to the Chateau between the characters and indeed the actors playing them. It´s lovely.
The Countess dies as advertised, in Church, and during Mass no less. But who did it and how? There are lots of suspects: Lucien Sabatier ( Robert Hirsch), a young secretary and confidante gave her an injection the night before and he´s been trying to buy a flat in order to get married and needs money, the young Count (Michel Auclair) has been buying yachts and horses in Paris with money he doesn´t have and he´s being hounded for writing false checks; the village Doctor (Paul Frankeur) hasn´t been taking very good care of her. Many people have their reasons. At the end Maigret does a Poirot, gathers all the suspects for dinner at the Chateau, and reveals who the culprit is.
A slight but very satisfying film, well if unexcitingly directed by Delannoy. Much of the beginning is infused with nostalgia. We get a lovely feel for village life and how it´s changed. Structurally this is developed through a homology between the altar boy and Maigret who used to fulfil the same function in the same place when young. This is also developed by Maigret recognising all the villagers he once new and who tend to recognise him only once they clock his blue eyes (see below). The screenplay is very tightly structured so for example his visit to the Caretaker who has replaced his father in post takes place almost exactly half-way through the film. He also learns that the education of this caretaker´s son has been provided by the Countess, just as she had done for Maigret himself when he was young, and this other homology rhymes and differs with that of the altarboy. We will see that this young bank clerk is no angel. This is a tightly and well-structured film.
It is also a gently paced one, but the pace well seasoned by a sprinkling of suspicion over practically everyone. Everything is seen through corners, doorways and passageways (see above), through the corner of an eye, generally Miagret´s. Thus the film shows clues as partial whilst making everything suspiciously interesting, particularly when the corpse is still upstairs, and parts of it remain visible in the corner of the shot during questioning.
Maigret´s eye of course is observant. And Gabin´s eyes are not only blue, but completely transparent. A look, a shrug, a curt coded phrase. He doesn´t say much but he communicates everything. Perhaps Gabin is at his very greatest in these slight genre pieces where it´s his presence alone that warrants reasons for viewing.
Delannoy doesn´t dazzle visually. He tend towards triangular compositions and, with a few exceptions, one of which you can see below, keeps the symbolism largely at bay.
As you can see from the clip below, Delannoy does know how to film dynamically to keep the image interesting. Here Maigret moves through the newspaper printing presses though to the offices. It´s quite a lot of time to devote to the scene in terms of its import to the plotas a whole. And it´s clear that Delannoy is merely taking pleasure in showing us the workings of the newspaper. And I´m reproducing it here because it induced nostalgia in me. This is how many people even a village paper employed. Look at all the jobs in soldering, laying out the print, typesetting, printing and distribution. Not so long ago all papers functioned this way, and the larger ones, like the Montreal Star I visited as a child, were an industrial marvel to behold. Ahhh. It´s a minor, well-made film that incites all kinds of nostalgia. Gabin is perfect
I have written on two other Maigret/ Gabin films here:
Pépé Le Moko is all attitude and atmosphere. It was remade in Hollywood as Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938) with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, a blockbuster success which made a star of Lamarr and inspired the ‘take me to the casbah’ tagline still vivid to a generation of filmgoers. Boyer as Pépé was the inspiration for Pepe le Pew, the romantic cartoon skunk, enveloped in stink but searching for love.
Jean Gabin´s Pépé is more reminiscent of Bogart in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), an outer cynicism masking a fatal romanticism, smart and witty, cool and up for a joke in the most trying circumstances. The dialogue by Henri Jeanson overlays wit with ironic nonchalance and underlays it with danger and threat: it´s brilliant.
Pépé´s on the lam from the law, continuing to rob, the leader of his gang and a legend in the casbah. The casbah is such a jumble of doorways, alleyways and rooftops, that he can escape the police. But it has become its own prison. He´s sure to be arrested once he leaves it and descends into town. He dreams of freedom and Paris but makes do. He says he´s happy to give his body to any woman but he won´t lose his head by giving up his heart. That is until he meets Gabby (Mireille Balin). The scene where he eyes up her jewellery is superb, all close-up longing, and initially one´s unsure if that longing is for the jewels or the woman.
Duvivier brilliantly directs for tone, atmosphere, and he knows how to get the joke in. The film has memorable set-pieces (the retribution for the betrayal of Pépé´s younger side-kick), Gabin and Frehél sing in the same film for the first time since Coeur de Lilas (Anatole Litvak, 1932) . And there´s a swoonily fatalistic romantic ending where Pépé yells to his beloved. She´s on a ship returning to France and his voice is drowned out by the ship´s whistle. Like in the great noirs that were to come later in the forties, he´s so undone by love, regret, a possibility receding before his very eyes, already crying for her, that he chooses death over prison and a life without Paris and her. It´s terrific.
Gabin had already worked with Duvivier four times previously, in Maria Chapdelain (1934), Golgotha (1935),La Bandera (1935) and La Belle équipe (1936), and they would make other films together in the future (e.g. Voici le temps des assassins), But Pépé might well be the pinnacle of their success. In Pépé le Moko, her BFI book on the film, Ginette Vincendeau has convincingly argued that Pépé is the film that clinches the Gabin myth. It´s a film that tried to find a vein and tone with which to communicate with its audience in as entertaining a way as possible. This helped make it a blockbuster success then and that it continues to speak to several other generations of audiences means that it´s enjoyed enduring popularity since.
A discussion of Raymond Bernard´s Faubourg Montmartre and G.W. Pabst´s High and Low between Richard Layne and I that took place immediately after the films were screened at Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. We were so busy digesting our responses to the film that we forgot to mention Antonin Artaud appears in Bernard´s film.
Friends have been grumbling about this year´s programme at Ritrovatto. Did Musidora warrant so much attention? Did Henry King? Personally, I didn´t have any problem with any of that but I do have questions. The two images that represented the festival this year were those of Musidora, which was on the tote bags, and the image you can see above of Dietrich and Gabin which is the cover shot of this year´s programme. It´s a very striking image, beautifully designed, with the blue of Dietrich´s eyes overlaid onto the black and white image, along with the red of the rose which was made to match the lettering of ‘Il Cinema Ritrovatto (see pictures above).
Why an image of Gabin should represent the festival is understandable. Gabin is arguably the greatest French film star in history with more great films to his name than almost anybody. There was an interesting mini-retrospective of fascinating but lesser known Gabin films curated by Edouard Waintrop titled ‘Jean Gabin, the Man with Blue Eyes’: Coeur de Lilas (Anatole Litvak, 19319, De Haut en bas/ High and Low (G.W. Pabst, 1933),Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1936), Au-delà des grilles – Le Mura di Malapaga (René Clement, 1948), La Marie du port (Marcel Carné, 1949), Le Plaisir (Max Ophuls, 1951), Maigret tend un piège (Jean Delannoy, 1957), En Cas de malheur (Claude-Autant-Laura, 1957), Le Chat (Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1970), plus a documentary on the life and career of the star: Un Français nommé Gabin (Yves Jeuland, 2017)
But why put Dietrich in the picture? She was only represented by one film in the festival, Destry Rides Again, George Marshall, 1939). Did the programmers not think Gabin´s image alone was enough of an attraction? Also since the retrospective is ´The Man With the Blue Eyes,´ why highlight hers?
The choice seems to be purely aesthetic. And there´s nothing wrong with that. It´s a great image. And the designer has done a wonderful job of turning it into a magnificent poster for this year´s Ritrovato. However, if you are going to choose that image, why not programme the film it´s from. As you can see above, the central image is also that of one of the posters for Gabin´s only on-screen pairing with Dietrich, Martin Roumagnac.
Jean-Jacques Jelot-Blanc´s in his biography of Gabin, Jean Gabin Inconnu (Flammarion, 2014) calls Martin Roumagnac, le plus gros échec de la carrière de Gabin/ the worst failure of Gabin´s career (loc 2457 Kindle edition), which I suppose is a reason not to screen the film. But in that case why not choose another image of Gabin, and highlight his blue-eyes?
And Martin Roumagnac being the worst failure of Gabin´s career is as much a reason to include the film in the retrospective as not. The film tries to adapt both Dietrich´s and Gabin´s personas to a post-war world. He´s still a man of the people, Martin Roumagnac is a builder, something of an entrepreneur and integral part of the community he lives in. Dietrich is Blanche Ferrand, only in town for a few years but long enough to have had affairs with the mayor, inspired devotion in the schoolteacher (a very young Daniel Gélin), and cast her eye over a consul whilst being entirely devoted to Gabin, i.e. vintage Dietrich.
The film has some wonderful scenes. Dietrich´s star entrance, which you can see below: the first sight is her legs coming down the stairs, then her voice, then the dialogue ‘vous desiré monsieur´? And you can see from Gélin´s look that he definitely desires and what he desires is her.
Maria Riva in her biography of her mother writes that part of the problem with the film is the incongruity of Marlene as a provincial French adventuress. But it´s no more incongruous than Dietrich as a provincial Spanish adventuress in The Devil is a Woman. And indeed the film gives Dietrich enough of a backstory, a woman of education and breeding descended through circumstances to the depths of Montmartre and Montparnasse but speaking several languages, unlike Gabin, knowing exactly how to behave at table and on the dance-floors of the chicest Parisian nightclubs, and wearing an eye-watering array of Jean Dessez couture with aplomb. She´s in the provinces not of them.
The film´s score almost ruins many scenes. It´s too loud, almost intransigent, and often mickey mousing scenes to Godzilla levels. But even that doesn´t ruin the great moment above: ´What did you say?’ Dietrich asks undressing. ‘Nothing. I wanted….’ says Gabin as he looks her over. ‘What did you want’ she says as she unbuttons her blouse.
Marlene met Gabin during his sojourn in Hollywood during the occupation and was so in love with him, that when he joined the forces, she followed him, first to North Africa, then to Paris immediately after the Liberation. Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné had worked on the script initially but Dietrich demanded so many changes they bowed out and Georges Lacombe took over. It´s a pity. The film is overly symbolic in the ways of seriously bad drama. Here Dietrich sells birds, imprisoned in the shop front window or in cages, some of them, like Martin Roumagnac and Blanche Ferrand, need to be together as they can´t survive apart. But better to set the birds free as Blanche does later in the film knowing that they will die rather than to keep them in cages. At least they will die free. The film is full of such heavy handed quasi literary symbolising.
And yet it has great moments such as the scene above: ´Each day I don´t see you I´m lost´’ Roumagnac tells Blanche. ‘You are so much better than all the others’ she tells him. ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’. Gabin as Roumagnac says it three times. I wonder if those were lines each insisted on in the script? They certainly feed the legend of each, together and apart.
So the worst disaster of Gabin´s career, definitely not a good film, but an interesting post-war noir, enticingly fatalistic, with great use of the personas of Dietrich and Gabin and with a wonderful death scene for the latter where, like Bette Davis in The Letter he tacitly consents to be killed, we see him waiting for death, and then the death itself becomes a dramatic set-piece, richly visualised. There are many reasons why Martin Roumagnac deserved a place in the program. And really, if you don´t want to program it, why not choose another image to brand the festival? It would make it seem a little less like false advertising.
Richard Layne, Nicky Smith and myself in a post-screening discussion of a 1968 print of Under Capricorn screened at Bologna´s Cinema Ritrovato that ranges from the impact of the colour to the length of the shots, Bergman’s performance, the appeal of Michael Wilding, wether Joseph Cotten´s hair was a wig, the film´s connection to Hitchcock´s earlier Rebecca, and whether the character played by Margaret Leighton is Mrs. Danvers in Australia. The discussion then moves on to some commentary on Destry Rides Again, Jean Gabin, and how there´s no hope for cinema if even a Ritrovato audience is piggy about using their phones during screenings. It was recorded during lunch so there´s quite a bit of background noise which in my view adds ambience without detracting from the conversation itself.
Jacques Prévert wrote poetry; Marcel Carné filmed it; Jean Gabin and Arletty brought it to life and gave it heart. The film begins with a view of an apartment door, we hear shots, a man comes out clutching his wound and dies tumbling down the stairs. Another man comes out the door with a smoking gun. His neighbour calls him François but we know him as Jean Gabin. Why did he do it? The rest of the story will tell us, in flashbacks, framed by showers of bullets, as the police close in on him in his flat. As daybreak comes, we will learn about François, his working conditions, the community that loves and supports him, his loves. We will also learn that people like François really didn’t stand much of a chance in France in 1939. Le jour se lève is a beautiful film in which love, goodness and community are interwoven with exploitation and betrayal to make up the very fabric of its fatalism. It’s a great movie. A key exemplar of ‘French Poetic Realism’. It was ranked top ten in the very first Sight and Sound poll of Best Films in 1952, and has remained a cinephile favourite ever since. .
I was amused to see that in the opening menu of the French DVD for Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan, we’re invited to click on ‘Lecture du film’, instead of ‘Main Film’ or merely ‘Film’, thus inviting us to read, or engage in a reading. Of course, viewing always involves making sense of things, but ‘a reading’ also implies that there are depths, interpretations that need to be unearthed, complexities that need to be unravelled.
I found it rather funny because all of the pleasures that Le clan des Siciliens offers are shallow ones, which is not to say that they are not worth experiencing, or that they are so shallow as to not constitute pleasure at all. Indeed the film offers many pleasures, all superficial, and each a joy, beginning with the stars: The publicity for Le clan des Siciliens advertised ‘Ensembles les trois grands du cinéma français’, ‘pour la première fois réunis à l’écran/ ‘French cinema’s three greats, together onscreen for the first time,’ a slogan which must have at least annoyed Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo and all the other French male stars who weren’t Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura.
Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan is very rewarding to look at as a genre piece; it is to a degree inspired by the jewellery heist genre, and the modish way of filming it, that made The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, USA, 1968) such a big hit the year previously. It also contains the hijacking of of an airplane that would feature so prominently in the Airport films and help turn them into some of the biggest blockbuster hits of the 70s. The film also foreshadows the interest in the Mafia that would find such extraordinary expression in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films in the years to follow. And last but not least, in France it would revive popular interest in the ‘polar‘, the French crime thriller, an interest that has yet to wane.
The plot revolves around Roger Sartet (Alain Delon), a lifelong thief who Commissaire Le Goff (Lino Ventura) has finally brought to justice after many years. Sartet gets indicted but on his way to jail, he manages to escape the armoured and guarded vehicle transporting him there with the help of Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin), the head of a Sicilian clan with international connections operating from Paris. Manalese is just about to retire to his land in Sicily when Sartet comes to him with the perfect crime. Sex, double-crossings, money, jewels and the survival of the family itself will be at stake; all with Le Goff chasing Sartet’s tail and finding in the Manalese clan much more than even he bargained for. But though the plot is serviceable, it’s not what makes Le clan Sicilien such an exhilirating, if superficial watch. Here are some illustrations of the aspects of the film I loved most:
a) A mise-en-scène of various kinds of stardom, carefully deployed, and designed to be put to meaningful use, visually, narratively, and taking into account audience expectations to maximise the pleasures on offer.
b) Every shot is interesting to look at (far left), expressively lit (middle) and artfully composed (far right)
c) The shots, pretty, artful and beautifully lit as they are, are also composed to allow for plot and narration. Here, for example, director Verneuil and cinematographer Decaë — one of the very greatest — create a composition that allows for the whole Sicilian clan to be seen. You see the grandmother, off-screen but relflected in the mirror knitting in the upper left hand corner, his children and son-in-law at table discussing the heist, Gabin centre and the recipient of all light, engrossed in the tv, a source of light, that will spur his grandchild, seen coming through the door-way with his mother, to reveal something he saw that will transform the narrative, that will twist the preceding events into the tailspin that will follow to the end. Significantly, the only one in the room but not onscreen will be the source of the trouble that will follow, the cause of the decimation of this ‘happy family’. It’s the work of at least very highly-skilled craftsmen
d) The kind of film that makes you want to find out where one can buy the accessories
e) The security system is what’s being discussed, the grand jewellery, by some of the greatest design houses of the century — Chaumet, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others — is what’s being shown
f) A hint of the perverse within the clan, at least homophile if not homosexual
g) a truly great score by Ennio Morricone. I’ve put extracts below with and without images so you can hear the sound itself, and how dialogue is then interwoven with it. But later also the sound accompanied by images so you can see how expressively put together it is. Who cares that Gabin is the least convincing Sicilian ever? He’s clearly head of the food chain in every other department, rightly head of the clan, and the flute and that ‘Boing Boing’ sound — so distinctive but one I can’t name the source of — will so memorably accompany, announce and dramatise his fate and that of the other protagonists.
Lino and Gabin filming the last scene with Verneuil
– what Verneuil and Decae manage to achieve with the help of Gabin, Ventura and the other filmmakers in terms of sound and image
Le clan des Siciliens was a blockbuster success, with 4.8 million spectators in France alone. The film probably benefitted from the publicity generated by Alain Delon being involved in the Marković affair, where Delon was questioned for the murder of his bodyguard, Stevan Marković. As you can see in the wiki page for it, it’s a scandal that implicated the highest levels of government, not only murder but also a soupçon of sex, and threats that nude pictures of the wife of the future president of the republic would be exposed. Alain Delon was often suspected of having connections with the Corsican mafia, and that extra-textual knowledge, along with the recent scandal, undoubtedly helped make Delon believable as a mafioso. He’s a pleasure to look at but it is Lino Ventura and Gabin (even with his accent) that give the performances worth watching. They, the set-pieces and the way the film looks and move are what made the film a blockbuster hit and continue to be the source of the many pleasures the film offers, shallow as they might be.
In Les mystères Delon Bernard Violet writes of how the hijack scene on the plain is considered a great moment in film history/ un grand moment du cinéma; and how Delon himself is described as ‘secret, élegant, doué, consciencieux, mûrissant’/ secretive, elegant, talented, conscientious, maturing’/; grave, inquiet, inquiétant, volontaire, beau’/ serious, troubled, troubling, willing, handsome’; ‘félin, secret, inquiet, lucide, désenchanté’/ feline, secretive, troubled, lucid, disenchanted’; séduisant, élégant, mystérieux, audacieux, maître de soi/ seductive, elegant, mysterious, audacious, master of himself’ 1. Not bad.
All qyotes from Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, pp. 288-289
A minor Maigret. I’d thought Jean Delannoy’s direction of Maigret tend un piège(France/Italy, 1959) efficient but unexciting. But Gilles Grangier’s work here makes Delannoy seem Jean Renoir in comparison: Maigret voit rouge is visually uninteresting, the plot is recounted in great and very dull detail, often by Gabin, who seems tired, perhaps because he’s been asked to do what is usually relegated to supporting players. Too bad he didn’t feel insulted: it might have given a little fire to his performance. That said, he’s Gabin: he’s always watchable; and there’s Françoise Fabien in an early role as Lily, a gangster’s moll; Michel Constanstin looking like an even more threatening Jack Palance, as Cicero, the American killer; and the always droll Guy Decomble as Maigret’s sidekick, Inspecteur Lognon. The fight and chase scenes are not terrible either. It’s not nothing; but it’s not much.
The story begins with an unknown person being shot down by a passing car. Inspector Lognon is a witness. But when the police arrive, the body has disappeared. Lognon follows a lead to an American bar and gets badly beaten up on his way out. Inspector Maigret takes over the case, discovers that the bar is run by Pozzo (Vittorio Snipoli) an American of Sicilian origin and that Lily, the Belgian barmaid who works there, is involved with an American and has been hiding his mafiosi buddies. Maigret calls in the help of Harry McDonald (Paul Carpenter), an American diplomat who turns out to work for the BFI. All is not as it seems. Maigret will discover that what’s at stake is a key witness to a Mafia case in the US and he’s got to find him before the American gangsters do.
The film is most interesting when seen from an ideological perspective. Maigret voit rouge is set during the height of the Twentieth Century’s American Empire, and at the very peak of it’s most glamorous moment, the Camelot years of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency. France seems in thrall to everything American (see images at the very bottom): Chicago, gangsters, bowling alleys, transistor radios, Rocky Graziano; jeans, t-shirts and talking as if one’s mouth is full, like Marlon Brando. But there’s always a twist. Here the transistor radio plays jazz. Moreover, though France has reason to be grateful to an America so recently France’s liberator, it’s not just going to roll over and let them take over the country. I wonder how audiences reacted to the clip above where the American says:
‘I warn you I’m going to have to call Washington.’
‘And I warn you that I’ve been obliged to inform the Ministry of the Interior.’
‘It will become a diplomatic incident.’
‘Better then a judiciary error.’
‘This affair is not what it seems. I belong to the FBI.’
‘And I to the PG, each to his business.’
‘But listen to me Jules.’
‘There’s no more Jules. If you want to discuss the affair get in touch with Inspecteur Maigret at Quaie des Orfèvres from 8 o’clock’.
I imagine audiences of the time in France applauded the exchange. Needless to say, there’s a reconciliation at the end with Maigret and McDonald, and thus France and the US, becoming friends once more. But this time on terms set by Maigret. It’s very vividly dramatised and the only element of the film I found fascinating. I’m not surprised that this, Gabin’s third outing as Maigret, was also his last.
An excellent critique of the new release of the blu-ray box-set may be found here:
A film that makes one re-think notions of good and bad in cinema: On the one hand, Pierre Granier-Deferre is such a heavy-handy director, with the conceptual and symbolic dimensions of Le chat so underlined and over-signalled: birds fluttering outside windows, sirens circling, golden youth of long ago seen through hazy irises in flashback; the little house surrounded by wrecking crews turning the old world to dust; garbage trucks regularly reappearing at their front door, perhaps to pick up the wreckage of the protagonist’s lives: there are times where one can’t control the giggling (see the trailer posted below). On the other hand, any director who can get actors to do what Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret do here, alone and together, deserves all the praise there is. They are so gobsmackingly good — so electric – and the roles they play so great — offering such scope and variety of human character and emotion, and changing through time to boot — that one can only offer admiration and gratitude.
Julien Bouin, a retired typesetter, has been married to his wife Clémence (Simone Signoret) a former circus worker for over 25 years. He now can’t stand her. Everything she does irritates him. Why, she asks? Is it cause she got old and fat, cause she drinks? He doesn’t know. All he knows is that one day he stopped loving her. Because of that, she now hates him too. They shop separately at the same shops, keep their food under lock and key in separate cupboards, cook different dishes in the same kitchen, sleep in the same room but in different beds, do little mean and spiteful things to each other. Every day.
Gabin plays Julien as quiet, all closed-in; neat, carefully dressed. A mild-mannered man who does things carefully, systematically but who won’t be pushed to do what he doesn’t wants to He’s a man who takes pride in doing things carefully and well. Also, he still needs to love; and not the kind of physical love that one can get anywhere either but an outlet for real feeling. He finds it in his cat. It drives Clémence mad that a cat who neither needs it nor appreciates it becomes the recipient of the love Julien should be bestowing on her. She tries to shoo the cat away, attempts to lose him in the supermarket. But no, he returns to steal the attention, the caresses, the love that rightfully belongs to her. So, one day, she kills the cat….
We know Signoret was a great beauty. She’s someone who did speak many languages, and we can believe she plays the seven instruments Clémence claims to be able to. And we can understand the bewilderment, anger, fury that this little typesetter not loving her incites. We see the defiance in every glug of whisky, the determination in the speed with which she manouvers her bad leg through the shops, no limp is going to hold this woman back: the Chinese silk robe in the loud red of someone who demands being noticed. The cigarillo on the side of a mouth. Only the loss a her husband’s love could lead her to crocheting with the fury of someone who wants to commit murder. But the film underlines one can’t hate that much without it being overlaid by love: Signoret communicates the tenderness beautifully. Gabin also.
Le chat beautifully conveys a gamut of human emotion – characters who feel that much is Simenon’s gift to the filmmakers; it is fitting that he is billed alongside the ‘monstres sacrées’ of french cinema and above the title of the film . The director’s gift to the actors is to give them the space to be these people and to showcase them properly for us. Then the actors…well. Watching Gabin and Signoret together play this couple is like watching two great opera singers duet in a Verdi aria: raw, vivid, fine, delicate, explosive…. And watching them seems to me to be essential to anyone who wants to know what great acting in the cinema can be; they bring out areas of human feeling, emotion and experience that lesser actors don’t even known exist.
In the interview that accompanies the Studiocanal DVD, Granier-Deferre speaks about how the producers had not wanted Signoret. Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres, her previous film, had been a failure, and she was (most unjustly) being blamed for it. They went through all the other names of fancy actresses and finally Gabin asked Granier-Deferre: ‘you’ve really got your heart set on that Signoret?’ ‘Yes’. He calls the producer and says ‘If Signoret is not in it, I don’t do the film’. ‘Six hours later I got Signoret,’ remembers Granier-Deferre. Good thing he did too. Because Signoret and and Gabin are the only reasons to watch the film; they make one feel it’s essential viewing; and it certainly is to fans of Gabin, Signoret, Georges Simenon or anyone who’s interested in seeing great acting in the cinema.
A narratively crude but visually elegant French cop flick, Le tueur is a fatalist noir that doesn’t psychologise and doesn’t explain. It’s told very leanly through a series of chases and shootings, often filmed on location, and well evoking the seedy underbelly of the Pigalle of the period, with its porn films, sex shops, shady cons. It’s got one musical motif, very effectively deployed throughout the film (and not to be confused with the dreary theme song at the end that sings out the themes of the film to us), and perhaps over-uses the zoom so characteristic of the period. Change is one of its themes, and we see it not only in the narrative conflict between old and new styles of policing but also in the film’s use of landscape and location. Le tueur is a document of Paris in the process of change, with the building sites that would become the Tour Montparnasse and the Forum des Halles used prominently and effectively.
Commissaire Le Guen (Jean Gabin) has spent seven years of his life catching ruthless killer Georges Gassot (Fabio Testi) only to find him judged mentally imbalanced and locked up in relative comfort. As the film begins Gassot, fakes his way through several tests and fights his way out of captivity. His brother François (Jacques Richard)is waiting for him outside and drives him away to the relative safety of Marseilles. However, Gassot can’t keep himself from going out of his hideout and into the city’s red light area, where he hooks up with Gerda (Uschi Glas), a prostitute from Hamburg but also gets spotted and returns to Paris with Gerda. François Tellier (Bernard Blier) puts pressure on Le Guen to catch him as quickly as possible and Le Guen, after seeing several of his ploys fail and only three months from retirement, places Fredédo Babasch (Gérard Depardieu) in jail so as to befriend François, who’s been caught, and help capture Georges.
Almost a century of cinema greatness in twenty seconds: Gabin and Depardieu share a shot.
What’s unusual about Le tueur is that, as the title suggest, the protagonist is the killer. He’s not crazy but he’s ruthless. As the film begins we’re told that he’s fated to have bad luck. He knows it; even attempts to cut the bad luck line out of his hand with a knife; all he dreams of, dreams he shares with Gerda, is to get a bit of money and run off to a hot country. But it is not to be.
Fabio Testi, is very handsome, very athletic, and very inexpressive. I found him perfect for the part. The film has Gabin, with watery grey/blue eyes that have seen everything and can hide as much as they reveal. His Le Guen is an old school strategist, not above trying to orchestrate events to get the justice he believes Gassot deserves and that the courts won’t grant him. There’s also Bertrand Blier as Le Guen’s boss, with his crushed hound dog face, every look an expression of disappointment and evocation that nothing good in the world will happen ever. In the last quarter of the film, Gérard Depardieu appears in one of his first roles, a live-wire whose every movement is energy, humour and hope. And in the middle, what they’re looking for, who they’re all chasing after is….a blank.
The world that this cypher, this bearer of bad luck, this dreamer who’s every attempt to realise that dream makes life more of a nightmare, is beautifully framed and lit for us by the great Claude Renoir in the Eastman colour that so vividly brings out certain blues and yellows and reds. Here, as is right, blue predominates. I’ve put a considerable selection of stills from the film, in chronological order, so you can appreciate, the compositions, the use of colour, the artful creation of this dark, blue, world that the film presents so well.
In spite of its cast and it’s look, the film has been accused of offering the same satisfactions as episodic television; a judgment I find harsh but understandable; how one appreciates this might depend on whether and how much one values lean spare storytelling and a relative lack of psychologising.
I love the Maigret films; they offer the double satisfaction of thrilling you with some of the worst humanity has to offer – though usefully shown tastefully – and then restoring order; moreover, that rebalancing is itself done in an orderly and systematic manner; one we’ve learned to know and enjoy playing along with.
In this one, Gabin’s first outing in the role, (he would inhabit it twice more, reunited with director Jean Delannoy in Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre / Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case (1959) and Maigret voit rouge/ Maigret Sees Red, (Gilles Grangier, 1963), the first images we see are a knife being thrown right into the heart of Paris, then we’re shown the shadow of a pipe in close-up (see below). It seems to me that those images, which start the film, embody the appeal of this type of detective film: violence at the heart of a community and threatening to rip it apart and then the cozy comfort of a pipe, with its suggestions of pensiveness, its indication that brains will win over brawn, that reason will transform chaos into order, that homeliness will be restored. These films do not disown the animal, the emotional and sexual impulses, but they’re always the source of the crime. Intelligence and thought are the way to remove such unruly impulses from social structures: the films are a paean to reason. If Maigret sets his traps correctly, the killer will be caught.
Maigret tend un piège starts at Place des Vosges, in the Marais district. It’s set in the film’s present but it already has a nostalgic tone. The Place des Vosges has a butcher shop, ladies knit and chat with their neighbours outside their flats, everyone seems to know each other. Then, we’re introduced to a young woman returning from work, a violinist, husband at the café, child asleep upstairs. Of course, she’s murdered. Typically, we’re not shown who’s done it. We see only a gesture of gloved hands re-arranging a belt: a gesture that will prove telling. Then, again, in typical fashion, Maigret is called for (anonymously), we’re introduced to the basics of the case (a serial killer on the loose in the Marais, one who’s already committed four crimes, and is after the same type of woman), and then we’re introduced to the main character (Maigret is longing to retire, we’re made to think he’s alone but then a wife is introduced; he’s got a whole corner display case on top of a cabinet to hold his many pipes, they’ve built a house in the country in the village his wife’s from – this is a film that assumes Parisians have strong links to rural areas); lastly the suspects are introduced one by one, as one by one suspicion is removed until the real killer is found.
One of the wonderful things about the Simenon films, and true also of this adaptation is how tightly plotted they are. So here for example, the first suspect is Barbereau (Alfred Adam). He’s married to Louise (Jean Boitel) who had an affair with the previous owner of the butcher shop and is thus resented by his widow Adèle (Lucienne Bogaert), and the son Marcel (Jean Desailly). Marcel is married to Yvonne (Annie Girardot), just the type the serial killer’s been murdered. Marcel will be a suspect; Yvonne will be both a suspect and a potential victim. But who has access to Barbereau’s butcher shop? Everything is neatly tied together.
The film offers many pleasures: the depiction of milieu, the tight plotting, the way the narrative is constantly interspersed by comic bits (I particularly love Guy Decomble, whom you might remember as the exasperated schoolteacher in Les quatre cent coups/ The Four Hundred Blows (François Truffaut, 1959), ‘performing’ a phony suspect for the waiting press) , Lino Ventura as Maigret’s sidekick, Annie Girardot. But above all there’s Jean Gabin. I don’t know if it’s due to his training in the music hall but he makes everything interesting. He’s on, never overdoes it, but every little gesture, every response, even the act of listening is rendered worth watching. There’s a lovely moment, where he’s at home, tired and wiggles his pudgy middle-aged toes that I think his symptomatic. He conveys the character’s feeling but also gives the audience a flourish; he knows we’re watching and wants to give us something extra. It’s expressive and endearing.
Maigret tend un piège is a well-paced film. Delannoy keeps the camera in constant motion in a way that is unobstrusive yet creates a flow. On the other hand, everything seems to be shot with the camera at eye-level, which I can’t quite figure out as I suspect some of the scenes might have been more dramatic with more variation in angles.
Advances in representation?
…or casual sexism?
What bothers me most about the film is that what initially seems the casual sexism of the period turns into something more vicious by the end. There’s a scene when one of the suspects, a cabaret entertainer, is at home drinking tea and his girlfriend appears from the shower to show her breasts to the audience and one thinks ‘oh French cinema was so advanced!’ But later we learn how the killer is coded as being homosexual (he’s never had sex with his wife in all the years they’ve been married. It’s what drove her into the arms of the dancer and later to murder; moreover, it’s all the fault of his mother. If she hadn’t driven him to paint and play sonatas, he might have ended up a normal boy, who didn’t kill women because he couldn’t get it up for them. These films, striving, as they do to reassert social order are also quick at removing any kind of otherness. They’re inherently conservative. I don’t generally mind. But I did here.
An excellent critique of the new release of the blu-ray box-set may be found here: