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)
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.