Tag Archives: Julien Duvivier

In Conversation with Ginette Vincendeau – Part 1


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:


La Bandera (Julien Duvivier, 1935)

Le jour se lève (Marcel Carné, 1935)

Martin Roumagnac (Georges Lacombe, 1946)

Podcast from Ritrovatto that touches on Gabin

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José Arroyo

Poil de carotte (Julien Duvivier, France, 1932)


An astonishing moment of melodrama in Duvivier’s Poile de carotte  (see below) where the eponymous hero, a young child,  rages against the conditions of his life: his mother hates and abuses him; his father is indifferent; his siblings are favoured. A family, he tells his father, should be made up of those one loves and those that love one. But that´s not his own situation. Whilst he watches everyone else give and receive love, he alone seems exempt, alone in the world and raging. It’s an extraordinary moment of child rage followed by an equally extraordinary dramatisation of child abuse on film that is depicted as  both physical and psychic.



The rest of the film will show how a child is driven to suicide and how that suicide is avoided. I don´t hink I´ve ever seen anything like it on film., particularly since its darkness is layered over with the picaresque, thus rendering it amusing and likeable. It´s an incredible achievement of tone, beautifully visualised by Duvivier, with lyrical dream sequences where the child´s inner self eggs him on to off himself.  A powerful film in spite of some weaknesses in the performances by the children and the mother (Robert Lynen, Simone Aubry). Still the great Harry Baur plays the father and is a joy to see.

L´homme du jour (Julien Duvivier, France, 1937)


L´homme du jour has so many delightful moments, many that revolve around Maurice Chevalier singing :Il-y-a de la joie (above), Yop la Boum! Ma pomme, and Mon vieux Paris. In fact Chevalier has grown on me over the years. Except in his great Lubitsch films (The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour With You, The Merry Widow), I used to find his mugging tiresome. But now his presence gives me a lift. Watching him is like hearing Ethel Merman: what they do is not subtle but it evokes joy. No one evoked preening, smug masculinity like Chevalier until Burt Reynolds came along in the 70s, and both ironise it enough so that we know they´re both kidding it and embodying it simultaneously.


Moreover, unlike in his American films where he always invariably ended up as upper class, in L´homme du jour, Chevalier is the Chevalier born in Ménilmontant, a Parisian version of a cockney, man of the people, an electrician who wants to be a star, a man like the star himself. In the clip above, in a glorious art deco setting,, Duvivier shows us Chevalier trying to hide his dirty shoes, before integrating himself into the queer world of toffs, where floors open and tables rise, by getting them all involved in singing ´Ma pomme.´That they all do so with less talent, skilll and chic only enhances the natural nobility of the working man Chévalier.

But  L´homme du jour is Duvivier as well as Chevalier and there are other pleasures: the satire on celebrity culture, the kidding of the highbrow, the sympathy with the queers and whores that people his films; the conceptual and technical flair of the mise-en-scène. This has a great moment where Chevalier as Alfred Boulard, an electrician who dreams of becoming a star, goes backstage to see his girlfriend in a show Maurice Chevalier is starring in, and we get to see Chevalier as himself teaching Chevalier as Alfred Boulard how a song should be done. I´d say such as ironic self-awareness  postmodernism before the fact if it weren´t also evident in so many other works of this period. You can see the excerpt below:



A French musical, clearly influenced by the backstage musicals of the period, and much more visually and conceptually sophisticated than most of them.

As an interesting aside, Sheldon Hall has pointed out to me that ´L’HOMME DU JOUR was one of the 14 feature films shown on BBC Television before the war (on 12 and 13 Sept 1938)´. The UK title was Man of the Moment.

José Arroyo



Voici le temps des assassins/ Deadlier than the Male (Julien Duvivier, France, 1956)


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 Port and before that a well-to-do contractor in Martin RoumagnacGabin 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.

José Arroyo

La Fin du jour/ The End of the Day (Julien Duvivier, France, 1939)

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Anyone who loves actors and acting will be charmed by this paean to the profession from Julien Duvivier. The story revolves around three actors, too old to work and too poor to retire independently, who end up on charity at the  Old Folks Homes for theatre folk provided by the profession. One of the joys of watching the film is to admire the different registers each of the actors play in.

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Louis Jouvet, both extremely stylised and yet understated plays Monsieur St. Clair, a matinee idol, great star of drawing room comedy and melodrama, a gambler in love with love, who trails a history of broken hearts and suicides behind him. Half the elderly ladies in the retirement home seem to have had a fling with him at some point, often a highlight of their lives. He can´t remember any of them, including that of a woman wo bore him a son, but loves them all.  He´s all shoulders backwards, nose in the air, performing on and off the stage, re-sending himself letters he once truly did receive. Can he get at least one more romantic girl to commit suicide over him before he dies?

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Victor Francy is Marny, an actor worshipped by the profession for his handling of the classics, a darling of the critics, but also someone who never quite became a star and has turned dour, judgmental, closed-in and bitter . Marny despises Monsieur St. Clair for running off with his wife many years before, an adventure that resulted in her death, probably by suicide. Marny is a prig with a chip on his shoulder, far too easy to rile, always in a bad mood. Victor Francy, though always competent and believable, is simply not up to the heights of his two other co-stars.

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The great Michel Simon is a wonder as Cabrissade, perennially an understudy, perennially a bit player: did he just never get the opportunity or was he not as talented a he thinks? Whatever, his is the spirit of fun, and anarchy and daring: very comparable to Monsieur St. Clare in many ways — the love of the profession, the love of adventure — but with Cassibride less selfish, less self-involved, more ethical, much kinder. That said, nothing is going to get in the way of his final chance.

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The film is full of show-business lore, the peccadilloes, the competition, the little resentments, the hierarchies, the love for the theatre. There is also much sadness and this is in many ways a bleak film: people are selfish, greedy, no good. But they´re romantic and foolish also, devoting their life to something that is beyond the instrumental: they love the applause but they also believe in the power of theatre to change people and change society. This redeems them in their eyes and the film suggests it should in ours as well.

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Duvivier frames everything beautifully, keeps everything moving at a clip, and if anyone has doubts about how truly wondrous he can be with actors just look at Jouvet and Simon here. What skill, how they dazzle, two performances that could hardly be more different but could hardly be bettered.

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This is the third film I´ve seen (Marie-Octobre and La Belle equipe are the others) in a handsome series of French classics restored by Pathe and available on 1080 blu-ray from the 4k restoration. They all have very good English sub-titling, which surprised me.

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The film won Best Foreign Film at the 1939 National Board of Review Awards, and came second at the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

Marie Octobre (Julien Duvivier, France, 1959)


Marie Octobre is now the name of Marie-Helène Dumoulin´s coutoure house. But it was once her code name in the French resistance. This evening she´s organised a get-together with all her former in colleagues the resistance group to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the death of their former leader, Castille,; killed when the Gestapo instigated a raid in the very room they are now reminiscing in. But was it a random raid or did someone turn them in?

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The film feels like a theatrical adaptation of the last segment of an Agatha Christie mystery, where everyone gathers in the drawing room and each is questioned about their whereabouts, alibis, motivations etc. Like an Agatha Christie adaptation, it´s got an all star cast: Danielle Darrieux, Bernard Blier, Paul Meurisse, Serge Reggianni, Lino Ventura. Each star is given their moment to shine, and all are excellent, with Regianni standing out not only for his emoting but for his charm (and to do credit to the others, apart from Darrieux, Regianni has the best role).

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To be fair, Marie-Octobre is thematically richer than the average Christie: What was collaboration with the Germans? Is it an absolute or were there degrees? How much choice did people have? Who behaved ethically and who didn´t? What is the intersection of individual and collective choice and action? Does any of this matter 15 years after the fact when even the statute of limitations has lapsed?   It´s an address-the-nation exercise in historical remembering with practically all the sections of society represented (the maid, the butcher, the doctor, the priest, the tax inspector, the printer, the plumber, etc.)

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Except for a few exterior shots at the beginning and end Marie-Octobre takes place all in one room. Duvivier shot chronologically, which certainly seems to have paid off with the actors, and keeps the whole thing moving well: it never feels static. Though it never looks particularly great either: Duvivier conscious of movement and rhyme but not really making the most of framing and composition in widescreen (1.66). One need only compare this to one of Hitchcock´s formal exercises to see how Duvivier here falls short. It´s a piece that works well —  it´s never boring — but that one can imagine working even better on stage, rather damning for a film.

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Sometimes I think the French New Wave ruined a whole history of French Cinema for subsequent generations with their condemnations of ‘quality cinema’, ´white telephone films´and ´cinema de papa´. Oops, to the critical dustbin go the marvellous Gremillons and Carnés and Duviviers and films by other great filmmakers of the 30s, 40s and 50s. And for several generations.

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But then one sees a film like Marie-Octobre and one understands. It´s stagey, lacks poetry, lacks depth, compositions and lighting are proficient conveying a sense threat and of things being off-kilter….but at a price (see how inelegant the compositions are in practically all the image-capture that illustrates this piece) . I know that Duvivier fans esteem this one highly, probably for its theme and the clever way the screenplay keeps one guessing. But as film art, it doesn´t add up to very much. If this is what the new wave directors were watching, then their position is very understandable indeed. But is this all they were watching. Did they not see Panique, La Belle Equipe, Pepe le Moko, La Bandera et?

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It is worth mentioning that Lino Ventura plays to his persona as a former wrestler, which he was before he took up acting. and worth noting also that Lucien Marinvale, the  butcher played by Paul Frankeur, keeps being glued throughout the narrative to a wrestling match taking place on screen, a commentary on what´s taking place in the drawing room as well as a domment on a society that seeks forgetting in spectacle. Perhaps it´s no surprise that Wrestling was something Roland Barthes felt compelled to write on.


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Marie-Octobre is one of the Collection Fondation Jerome Seydoux releases by Pathé, with English sub-titles, a lovely shiny print with rich blacks..

José Arroyo


Panique (Julien Duvivier, France, 1946)


Panique-Criterion-Blu-RayAnother adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel (Les Fiançailles de M. Hire),  a great film,  Duvivier´s first upon returning to France from Hollywood after the war, a noir, and a huge big flop at the time of its release. And one can understand why.

The film begins with a close-up of a pair of feet, pans past a hobo´s body, and rests momentarily on his face. No that´s not the Boudou who was saved from drowning in Renoir´s 1932 film. But as the camera pans back we see the actor who played him, Michel Simon, snatching a picture of this. In Panique Simon plays Monsieur Hire, a man who keeps to himself, is abrupt and without small talk, and a bit mysterious. Patrice Leconte remade Panique in 1986 as Monsieur Hire. I haven´t seen it but I´d be very surprised if it were any better than this.

The film has a characteristic camera move: a dollying back to demonstrate context or a dollying in to move the public sphere into the personal and private. And context,; the neighbourhood, the mob, the French, their narrowness, smugness, hypocrisy and murderousness is the theme of Panique. It´s no surprise the French didn´t like it. They´re not very well reflected in it.

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At the beginning of the film, after the neighbours and neighbourhood have been introduced, we get shown a pair of shoes. When they see them, the binmen react as if they´ve won the lottery. But the shoes are attached to a body. Who killed Mme Noblet. Was it Monsiur Hire? He certainly seems more preoccupied with the ripeness of his camembert than with the death of a person when he hears the news.


As all this is taking place, a woman comes to the hotel Monsieur Hire lives in. We soon learn that it´s Alice (Viviane Romance), who´s just come out of jail after taking the rap for her lover Alfred (Paul Bernard).  They´ve got to pretend not to know each other but their first and secret re-union by the side of the church, in large, looming closeups, intensely lit, as rather funereal music wafts in from the Church, indicates the depth and intensity of their passion. They´ve got to pretend not to know each other but will meet as if for the first time the next day.


Alice goes to stay at the same hotel as Hire. His room is one floor up and overlooking hers. She finds this creepy. Indeed the whole neighbourhood finds this solitary man so. Even his being nice to children in the neighbourhood is interpreted as the predatory grooming of a child molester.

Hire has two problems. Firstly, he is hiding many things: His real name is Desirée Hirovitch, a jew who doesn´t want others to know his identity or his past (and for good reason: The film is set in 46). He also works as Dr. Vargas, though he seems to be only a doctor of horoscopes; lastly he used to be a lawyer with a comfortable house in the country he left abruptly the day his wife ran off with his best friend. Though I´m sure family breakups and abrupt departures for people named Hrovitch had other connotations in 1946.  The second  problem Hire has is that he´s fallen for Alice, opens himself up completely to her, and she uses this knowledge to get the man she loves off the hook for the murder he´s committed.

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Things heat up, get out of control and murderous, when the Carnival takes over the neighbourhood.

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And the lighting in some of the shots could be taken straight out of an American noir of the period:


What begins as a whodunnit ends as social commentary. There are some scenes that are just extraordinary. Hire alone in the bumper-cars at the carnival, being crashed into by everyone. All these crude, smug couples, laughing at the violence they´re doing to a lonely old man. And then the extraordinary ending where Alice plants Mme Noblet´s purse in Hire´s room, and manoeuvres with her killer lover to turns the whole neighbourhood, — all to willing to believe the worst — against him, thus turning herself into a defacto killer….for Love. . The fat butcher, the smug tax man, the local hooker, the gossipy neighbours, all collaborate in killing this poor lonely jew who somehow managed to survive the Occupation. It´s a condemnation of collaboration, of social hypocrisy, of petit bourgeois culture, of intolerance.


It´s an incredible film with a soft, quite, knowing, sad and all too human performance, a truly great one, from Michel Simon as a man who closes himself off due to having suffered too much from love only open himself up to it once more and be killed for it.

It´s out now in a newly sub-titled and great looking version from Criterion.



José Arroyo

Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937)



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.

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Gabin weeps his loss.

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.

José Arroyo

La Bandera (Julien Duvivier, France, 1935)

Annabella was the sensation of the moment in the French cinema of 1935 and gets top billing in La Bandera. But it´s Gabin´s film all the way, one he considered part of his ‘Palmarès,´his Greatest Hits, those which contributed to the construction of his persona as the defining star of 1930s French cinema, and by extension key to an understanding of French culture of the period. One can see it as a dry run for Pépé le Moko (1937) also directed by Julien Duvivier: a young man on the lam, exotic locales, male camaraderie and derring-do. One could group these films together with Gunga Din (George Stevens) for an interesting comparative study of French and American masculinity in relation to Orientalism in the action/adventure genre. 

Its Orientalism aside, La Bandera is great glamorous fun.  But can one cast it aside? It´s so central to its pleasures, all those extraordinary close-ups of Annabella encased in golden collars, bracelets, coins, veils. Perhaps one can only find it fun because one is  unaffected by its effects? These are questions I asked myself. But only in retrospect. 

The trailer well conveys the film´s themes and its attractions: ‘Can a life of heroism and abnegation erase the error of an instant? The trailer shows off the spectacle of army manoeuvres and promises ‘L’atmosphère vibrante de l’Espagne/ The vibrant atmosphere of Spain’ …You will passionately follow the painful adventures of Jean Gabin, ennobled by discipline, softened by love, crowned by a soldier´s heroic death…You will find your favourite star, Annabella, in an entirely new guise´.  Drama! Action! Humour! 

La Bandera delivers on all the promises of its trailer. It´s great trashy fun, no expense spared, with plenty of spectacle, exotic locales, stars, an extraordinary marriage sequence where Annabella and Jean Gabin drink each others´ blood, and one of the great death scenes Gabin would become famous for,

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As you can see above, Duvivier brings great visual flair to the film.  The still is from the great opening scene: a drunken couple is wandering through the streets of Paris. A man comes out of the shadows. She embraces him and asks him to join them for a drink. He gently pushes her aside and wonders off. As he does so, she realises her dress is stained with the blood from his hands. The camera tilts up to show us it´s Rue St. Vincent. It´s visually and conceptually brilliant. A great dramatic beginning to the story. 

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The murderer of the rue St. Vincent is Pierre Gillieth (Jean Gabin) and when we next see him he´s wandering the ramblas in Barcelona. The film ostensibly had location shoots in Barcelona and in Tetuán in Spanish Morocco, and the production was allowed to film in the military barracks of the latter thanks to the intervention of Franco, a few years later the Generalissimo of all of Spain, due to Franco, a famous cinephile, being a fan of Gabin´s. It´s worth noting that the film was made a year before the Spanish Civil War erupted. A few years later being a member of the Spanish Foreign Legion would not have seemed so attractive a proposition.

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Though there was location shooting in Barcelona, what we see are mostly process shots of Gabin wandering the Ramblas and the Barri Gotic/Gothic Quarter. However, one of the Barcelona scenes that really stands out, for me a marker of the differences between American and French cinema, is the nightclub scene below: nude women and drag queens are part of the picture — along with the usual thieves and prostitutes — that Duvivier so dazzlingly and dynamically visualises:atmosphere, spectacle, titillation, and a key dramatic moment where Gabin is robbed of what he´s stolen and is the impetus for him joining the Spanish foreign legion.  


The film contains a dazzling dream sequence to show us a whole array of male torsos as a context for expressing how haunted Pierre/Gabin is by his crime (see below), how others are equally disturbed by their past, and then finally Gabin´s satisfied stretching as he tells his colleague to shut up before he inventive cut (what is it called?) moves us onto love street. 



And of course Gabin is his own form of spectacle, certainly as visualised by Duvivier:

Steve Neale, developing and challenging some of Laura Mulvey´s ideas on the male gaze, has argued that a male spectator could bear to look at the erotic display of male bodies but only if it was part of, and somewhat displaced by, action. Those muscles of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in 80s/90s action cinema can be displayed in the way they were because they evoked power and were the basis of the violence to come. They could not be displayed purely for erotic pleasure but as a preamble for power, strength, violence. Brad Pitt and later stars and filmmakers changed all of that of course. But the action/adventure genre was one of the few sites were the male body was allowed to be displayed without excuses and Duvivier makes full and early use of that in La Bandera. And it´s not just Gabin we see. I post an image of Gaston Modot below simply because he´s wearing my favourite tattoo in the film, one which mysteriously disappears upon his death scene, a sad continuity error.

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La Bandera is also an interesting reminder of how men´s bodies, and what are considered fit male bodies, have changed since the thirties.

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I post the clip below, mainly for the line ´’vous êtes fort´and the way Gabin nonechallantly responds ‘oooof’. These films, and this one in particular, are not just about strength and being macho but about masculinity moralised: What is a good man? What qualities are endowed by nature and what must be worked for and acquired?


If Gabin is constantly praised for his strength and virility, — one of the questionable señoritas in the nightclub scene even says, ‘que macho!’ about him –, his virility is always relational. And the film has one character clearly coded as being both camp and comic, the comic relief but literally the butt of the joke, to comparatively shore up that which we´ve shown of Gabin (though in various ways all of the supporting characters fulfill this function).


In a very interesting piece on the film, David Cairns has written, ‘the mix of genre thrills — we’re way ahead of film noir here, which has yet to be invented and named, but that’s what this is nonetheless — and social realism is exciting as hell to me.  The film can be seen as a precursor to the later poetic realist films Gabin would do with Marcel Carné such as  Quai des brumes (38), Le jour se lève (39), which some have seen as precursors to film noir. As you can see below, there´s certainly a lot of imagery one would later associate with noir in the film. 

But it´s precisely the mix of genres, conceived of as attractions for a popular audience and executed to be as visually enticing as possible, that continues to charm. A blockbuster success of the period, a cornerstone of Gabin´s persona and with images of Annabella photographed as if she were Garbo or Dietrich and much better than later on when she would go on to Hollywood (and marry Tyrone Power).

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José Arroyo