Tag Archives: Jean Gabin

Jean Gabin (Quai des brumes) – Best Actor of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances: James Cagney (Angels with Dirty Faces), Robert Donat (The Citadel), Errol Flynn (The Dawn Patrol), Jean Gabin (La bête humaine), Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby), Cary Grant (Holiday), Leslie Howard (Pygmalion),  Charles Laughton (St. Martin’s Lane), Aleksei Lyarsky (The Childhood of Maxim Gorky), Reginald Owen (A Christmas Carol), Edward G. Robinson (A Slight Case of Murder)

Jean Gabin commiserates with Michele Morgan in "Quai des brumes"

With Jean Gabin as best actor, 1938 is the first year that I have chosen four foreign language performances. I suspect it will, unfortunately, be the last for quite some time as war will erupt in Europe and Asia slowing the film production in those places to a trickle and its artists fleeing for safety. I’ve already written about Quai des brumes as one of the best pictures of 1938 and when I chose Michel Simon as best supporting actor so I won’t go into the specifics of the film. The focus will be on Jean Gabin and his character, Jean.

Gabin possessed a naturally intense screen presence out of which a mediocre actor could have milked a decent career. But Gabin was much more than a mediocre actor – he was a very good one. He exploited his talent and his ability well in a string of artistically successful movies in the 1930s: High and Low (1933), The Lower Depths (1936), Pépé le Moko (1937), Grand Illusion (1937), La bête humaine (1938), and Le jour se lève (1939). Taking these (and other) movies into consideration, I’m not sure if his performance in Quai des brumes is his best (next years Le jour se lève will rival it), but it is one of his most intense and the best performance by an actor in 1938.

Gabin’s Jean is a man resigned to his fate. Having deserted from the army, he knows his time is limited. He could be arrested at any moment, but Jean’s resignation is more philosophical than considerations of physical imprisonment. He recognizes that everything is temporary, everything will come to an end – and sooner than we think. He has given up hope even though he makes vague plans to escape the country, but little beyond that. Why would he need to plan for a life beyond the shores of France when he has given up, resigned himself to an existential fate.

That Jean’s journey mirrors the attitudes of many French citizens at the time makes Gabin’s performance all the more relevant. He captured their frustration, anger, and sense of betrayal with a subtle sneer or narrowed look. And not even the love of beautiful young Nelly (Michèle Morgan) can reclaim him from the depths of a corrosive apathy.

Like Jean, nothing Nelly does improves their situations – there is nothing they can do. Their bleak world is immune to love or hope. The biggest mistake they make is recognizing a connection in one another and mistaking their feelings for a faint glimmer of hope that they can escape. Escape is impossible. It’s a bleak vision of the world, but one with which too many identified in 1938 – and one in which Jean Gabin fit perfectly.

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Simone Simon (La bête humaine) – Best Actress of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances: Jean Arthur (You Can’t Take It with You), Bette Davis (Jezebel), Janet Gaynor (The Young in Heart), Katherine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby), Katherine Hepburn (Holiday), Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion), Miliza Korjus (The Great Waltz), Vivien Leigh (St. Martin’s Lane), Michèle Morgan (Quai des brumes), Margaret Sullavan (Three Comrades)

It’s hard to consider the best actress of 1938 without Simone Simon entering the conversation for her melancholy, conniving, and tragic role in Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (The Human Beast). She plays a beautiful woman (what other type could she play?) trapped in a stifling marriage desperate for a way out. Modern audiences often identify her role as an early femme fatale, but I’ve never thought that was entirely appropriate. Her motivations are more complex than later, more traditional femme fatale-types, like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street. These women were driven by greed, but Simon’s Severine is more complex. She’s trapped by violence and jealousy, and tries to use the only tool she has to escape: her sexuality.

Simone Simon as the mysterious Severine with Fernand Ledoux as her jealous husband

Severine is married to Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), a slightly pudgy, plain-looking railroad station master. We can’t help but wonder why she married the man – she certainly could have attracted a younger, better looking man. And Roubaud isn’t poor, but as station master he isn’t rich either. While we are tangentially aware of these discrepancies, Roubaud is consumed by them, acutely aware that Severine could have done much better – and still can.

When Roubaud discovers that Severine’s godfather M. Grandmorin seduced her, he flies into a jealous rage and forces her to help him kill Grandmorin. From the time they kill the old man, Severine withdraws even further from her husband. She is now pointedly aware of how violent he truly is and knows it is only a matter of time before Roubaud’s jealousy and guilt will overcome him, and he will murder her as well.

She finds solace and hope in a dangerous relationship with Lantier (Jean Gabin), a locomotive engineer and a friend of her husband. They fall in love and, eventually, Severine urges him to help her kill Roubaud before he can get to them. This is when Severine’s motives get cloudy and highlight the mastery of Simon’s performance. Does she really love Lantier, or is she an opportunist, using his affections to get rid of her husband? Simon plays the part with a deep sincerity that compels us to accept her emotions as genuine. She isn’t cruel or evil; she wants to save herself – nothing terrible about that.

Ironically, despite Jean Gabin’s hypnotic screen presence, Simon’s most powerful scenes are played opposite Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud. In them we see that she truly loved her husband despite (or maybe because of) his jealousy, but all affection dies when he kills Grandmorin.

Simone Simon commands the screen, juggling Severine’s contradictory traits – her vulnerability and strength, her nativity and intelligence – in ways only an actual person could. . Simon is crafty in this part, but never gimmicky. We’re never able to quite put our fingers on what drives Severine; every time we think we’ve got it, she does something to undermine our satisfactory explanation. The ambiguity with which Simon approaches Severine is an intelligent acknowledgement that we are complex animals and no matter how much we try, we will never be able to fully understand another person’s motivations, especially those secret, dark ones that lead to murder. It’s a masterful job.

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Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) – Best Pictures of 1938 (#3)

Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan

There’s an almost prescient fatalism in many French movies of the late 1930s. Dark themes, shadowy aesthetics, and shady characters articulate a cynical outlook for France’s future and none embodied that trend more than Michel Carné’s Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). Carné succeeded in capturing the festering pessimism and ennui of French culture and society in this film so well that it supposedly prompted one French government official to blame the fall of France to Nazi Germany on Quai des brumes. Carné is said to have responded to the charge by saying one doesn’t blame a barometer for a storm. Whether this story is apocryphal or not, it is worth noting that Carné viewed his film as a barometer of sorts for the unease and discontent of the French people that would, in a matter of months, prove founded.

The movie follows a fateful day in the life of Jean (Jean Gabin), a deserter from the French Foreign Legion as he arrives in the port of Le Havre, on the look out for a ship to get him out of the country before the authorities apprehend him. He finds refuge at a seedy bar on the outskirts of town where other outcasts and runaways gather and it is there that he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Nelly (Michèle Morgan). She has also run away, but from her lecherous step-father Zabel (Michel Simon). Their relationship pits Jean against Zabel and Nelly’s wanna-be tough guy boyfriend, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur). Jean gives Nelly the courage to finally stand up to Zabel’s unwanted advances and envision a life away from the drudgery, but Jean is trapped between his new love and the need to get out of the country.

Nelly (Morgan) struggles against Zabel (Michel Simon)

The genius of Carné’s film is, like most people, no one in the movie is particularly noble. Our protagonist is Jean, but he isn’t a paragon of virtue. And on the flip side, the villains aren’t particularly evil. Simon and Brasseur play them more as weak, scared little boys, unable to chart any other course for their lives. Like Jean, they are trapped by their own misdeeds and flail around in an attempt to appear in control. Zabel clings to a thin veneer of respectability, covering his dabbling in crime, and Lucien pretends to be a tough guy, mimicking the movies of James Cagney or Paul Muni., when he’s really a cowardly little boy.

Carné is unsparingly brutal in his condemnation of French society. Jean and Nelly have to flee from two institutions meant to protect its citizens (the military) and nurture new ones (the family). They don’t find safety anywhere except for a dingy bar that, since we have the virtue of hindsight, eerily feels like a hideout for the French Underground. Carné populates the bar with anyone who might feel left behind by the collapse of the Popular Front and the rise of fascism throughout Europe, including a disillusioned young poet who takes his life early in the picture, leaving his clothes for Jean.

Quai des brumes is a melancholy portrait of a specific time and place. Everyone knew they were headed for disaster, but no one knew what they could do to prevent it. Some retreated and escaped, like Jean and Nelly, while others tried to make the best out of it for themselves with little regard for who they might wrong, like Zabel and Lucien. And still others took their lives, unable to face the world without the France in which they grew up.

In some ways the (apocryphal?) French official who claimed they fell to Nazi Germany because of this movie is correct. Carné gave voice to the unchannelled discontent and frustration with the direction of their country without suggesting solutions. The tragic ending of the film told its audience there was nothing they could do, the end for them and their country is coming. All they could do was sit back and wait.

 

 

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Best Pictures of 1937 (#3) – Grand Illusion

Apologies for the long gap in the 1937 countdown.  I spent the Thanksgiving weekend in Big Bear playing in the snow, gorging on turkey, and curling up in front of roaring fires with a book.  Despite all that fun, there was unexpectedly no internet connection.  I didn’t get back until last night, so my overview of 1937 can continue.  I hope everyone here in the U.S. had a great Thanksgiving and everyone else just had an all around great day.  Now for the third best movie of 1937:

Grand Illusion

(aka La Grande Illusion)

(France)

Director, Jean Renoir; Screenplay, Charles Spaak & Jean Renoir; Producers, Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer; Cinematography, Christian Matras; Original Music, Joseph Kosma; Editor, Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; Production Design Eugene Lourié; Costume Design, René Decrais

Cast: Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. De Boeldieu), Marcel Dalio (Lt. Rosenthal), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Dita Parlo (Elsa)

I always cringe when I hear Jean Renoir’s classic Grand Illusion described as an anti-war film.  Yes, an anti-war message is part of it, but identifying it as such misses the larger point.  Renoir doesn’t necessarily see war as the problem; war is merely a symptom – albeit a horrendous symptom – of a more basic problem: the inability of people to identify with and embrace people who are different from them.  It sounds so basic and, frankly, trite when it’s put in such a basic and crude way, but Renoir was a master so he handles the message more artfully.  That’s why we go see the movies of directors like Renoir rather than read stuff like this.

Grand Illusion is an impassioned plea for empathy – brotherhood if you will excuse the corny, though appropriate phrase – across social, religious, national, and class boundaries as the world stumbled almost inevitably toward war in 1937.  Renoir observed that the lessons Europeans should have learned after the Great War went ignored and that failure would lead to disaster.  It would not be long until his apprehension would prove justified.

To make his point, Renoir set the events in and among French, English, and Russian prisoners of war in Germany sometime during the First World War.  Captured together are Lt. Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay).  The two officers join other French prisoners of war and, in the grand tradition of military POWs, hatch one escape plot after another.  The seemingly obvious divisions among prisoners in the camps melt away.  Aristocratic Boeldieu is welcome along with the Jewish Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and the working class Maréchal.  There is nothing remarkable in suggesting that people will find commonality among themselves when in a life-threatening situation.  In this case, nationality is what bonds the men together.

But this is where Renoir elevates the material beyond a simple but effective message promoting cooperation and understanding.  A harmony of nationality isn’t what Renoir wants us to take away; national allegiances, after all, lead to the most horrific war to that date.  There are more social classifications with which people can identify.  Later, when many of the men are transferred to another camp, Boeldieu is immediately spotted by the commander of the camp Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim).  Rauffenstein sees a fellow aristocrat and, despite the fact that their respective nations are at war, tries to form a bond with the French prisoner.  Rauffenstein embraces Boeldieu not because he’s such a great guy but because he is part of the same dying European aristocracy.  He believes they should have a bond stronger than Boeldieu has with his fellow countrymen because he and the German officer are part of a long and noble tradition that transcends national lines, forced to fight one another not due to any real animosity but because politicians in their countries have bungled matters.  The French officer, however, humors his German counterpart, looking for his opportunity to use their relationship to escape.

Boeldieu and Rauffenstein ponder their class bond

 

The relationship between Boeldieu and Rauffenstein could have signified the illusory lines that nationalism draws between people, but Renoir is just as put off by class divisions.  Class, like nation, artificially and arbitrarily distinguishes some at the expense of others.  It’s just another destructive hierarchy.  Also, Renoir identifies many competing identities and wonders when one trumps another.  For Rauffenstein class overshadows all else, but Boeldieu chooses nationality.  What makes one choice more correct than the other?  And if they are equally valid choices, what does that say about our almost blind allegiance to any one group?  We choose our allegiances not based on any natural or inevitable system, but based on what we perceive works best for us.  We make these irrational choices because they are easy; building bridges between and among differing groups is difficult, too difficult for most of us.  It’s easier to stake our claim (and, the implication is, our worth) to a national, class, racial, religious, sexual, philosophical, and/or political group.

Renoir isn’t cynical about the chances for trans-national understanding and cooperation.  In the heartfelt third act, Maréchal and Rosenthal escape into the cold German winter.  Rosenthal is injured during the escape, making the odds of reaching Switzerland marginal.  The French fugitives are taken in by a German widow Elsa (Dita Parlo) who lost her husband and brothers in the war, now working her isolated farm by herself.  Movie conventions tell us that a woman whose husband and brothers were killed in the war must initially, at least, hate or mistrust two enemy soldiers she finds on her property.  But Elsa is tired.  She’s tired of grieving and hating and she knows that these French officers didn’t make the war, any more than the men in her family did.  Maréchal and Rosenthal are victims as much as they were.  With quiet determination, Elsa nurses them back to health and, despite the language barrier, falls in love with Maréchal.  Renoir suggests that if we spend a little time with people we don’t understand, we will realize they aren’t quite so scary.

It’s a lesson Germany was ignoring in 1937 as the Nazi Party continued to consolidate power based on the exploitation of national, racial, and religious distinctions.  And it’s a lesson the world continues to ignore, whether it is the increasing intolerance of Muslims and illegal immigrants in the United States, the fanaticism of some Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu groups in Africa and Asia, the anti-gay witch hunts in places like Uganda and Jamaica, or the progressively tense standoff between the two Koreas.  Relations between peoples and nations are too often dictated by the ignorant and hysterical.  Renoir saw the future could only be saved by encouraging personal relationships across social boundaries.  These relationships would (and will) undercut the hysteria of sheltered nincompoops who visit their angst on the rest of us.  Unfortunately these people still drive the political and diplomatic narrative in this country (Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Senator-elect Rand Paul – it’s depressing how long this list could be).

Grand Illusion, then, is sadly still relevant.  As someone who has studied history for most of my adult life, I have to admit that it will always be relevant.  People never learn the lessons of the past and make the same goofy mistakes time after time.  Maybe we can get more people to watch this movie and others like it and get them to embrace its message.  We need more people on the side of sanity.

 

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Best Pictures of 1937 (#6) – Pépé le Moko

(France)

Director, Julien Duvivier; Screenplay, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson; Producers, Raymond Hakim and Robert Hakim; Original Music, Vincent Scotto and Mohamed Ygerbuchen; Editor, Marguerite Beaugé; Production Design, Jacques Krauss

Cast: Jean Gabin (Pépé le Moko), Mireille Balin (Gaby Gould), Gabriel Gabrio (Carlos), Saturnin Fabre (Le Grand Pere), Fernand Carpin (Regis), Lucas Gridoux (Inspector Slimane)

This is a great movie that turns the gangster genre on its head as we fall for the charm of its criminal lead while we shoo away our ethical concerns about his crimes.  Director Julien Duvivier understands that a criminal like Pépé must be charming and likable or no one would be willing to help him.  It is the secret to his success and a striking counterpoint to the more vicious criminals of U.S. (mostly Warner Bros. films) like Little Caesar and Public Enemy.  We don’t much like Rico or Tom Powers; we recognize that they are volatile thugs who can snap at any moment.  Pépé le Moko is suave and reserved, only lashing out in violence when he needs to, more of an intellectual move rather than emotional explosion.  This doesn’t excuse his crimes, but it complicates our relationship to them as we almost become complicit in them.

Jean Gabin plays Pépé le Moko, the famed criminal.  At the open of the film he has escaped Paris after a brazen crime for the French colony of Algeria.  He settled in the Casbah, the famed district of Algiers, which is essentially a labyrinth of streets, terraces, and winding staircases that may or may not lead anywhere.  In the Casbah he is protected by its citizens – all either taken in by his charm, money and/or distaste for the police.  They warn him of approaching police and provide him with intricate escape routes through secret passages, out back doors, and over the interconnecting rooftop terraces.

Pépé can stay free so long as he remains in the safe confines of the Casbah.  And here we come to the irony of his situation.  His freedom is illusionary.  Though he seems to have everything he could want – respect, money, a gang, a woman – he is effectively imprisoned.  As the film progresses his confinement becomes more repressive after he meets Gaby (Mireille Balin), a beautiful, rich tourist seeking adventure and thrills in the infamous Casbah.  During her slumming adventure she meets Pépé and the two begin a fateful love affair.  For her, Pépé is everything her life isn’t: unpredictable, exciting, dangerous, and sexy.  For him, Gaby represents everything he misses about life in Paris: freedom, glamour, romance, and whimsy.

Though Pépé works tirelessly to elude capture, he also sows the seeds of his own downfall.  He allows a police inspector, Slimane, free access to the Casbah.  Slimane knows he doesn’t have a hope of arresting Pépé in the Casbah so he watches and waits.  Pépé mistakes Slimane’s patience with resignation and allows the man closer to his inner-circle than any criminal should.  Slimane, brilliantly played Lucas Gridoux, uses their casual and convivial relationship to gather intelligence, learning Pépé’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities so he can set the perfect trap for the thief.  We know Pépé’s smart enough to at least subconsciously know that no matter how friendly he is, it is dangerous to have a police officer so close.  Perhaps Slimane represents the only possible escape from the increasingly oppressive Casbah for Pépé. He would never give himself up or allow himself to be caught, but having Slimane close at hand gives him an easier way out when he decides he can’t take his conditional freedom any longer without obviously giving up.  In effect, Pépé has set the stage for his own capture down the line because he knows the Casbah will become worse than any prison.

Pépé le Moko is an ambivalent character.  He’s neither good nor bad, but, like all of us, somewhere in between.  Though a Hollywood remake was released the next year, the U.S. version Algiers, bogged down by Hayes Code regulations, couldn’t make a movie for grownups that considered morality in anything other than simplistic, good vs. evil terms.  Charles Boyer’s Pépé in Algiers lacked the likeability of Gabin’s characterization.  And the slight change at the end reconfirmed Hollywood’s (or at least the Hayes Office’s) commitment to retribution and punishment rather than understanding and empathy.  Duvivier’s picture dares us to identify with Pépé before we had other likeable criminals in film and literature, including sociopaths like Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s series of darkly funny books to serial killers like Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector.  Pépé is a pussycat compared to Ripley and Lector.  (We never see him bash in anyone’s head or snack on anyone’s flesh.)  Pépé le Moko is an intelligent and sympathetic portrait of a man trapped by his own decisions in a prison he made for himself.

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