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 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.