Jean Gabin stars in this classic polar. It’s unusual because there are no police involved in what is purely a gangland tale. Gabin plays Max, a well-respected but ageing gangster who dresses elegantly and is well organised. He has performed what he hopes is his last job and has the haul stashed away. But someone has talked and the new guy on the block, played by Lino Ventura in his first role at the advanced age of 34 (he was a professional wrestler at the time) is alert to the possibilities. Jacque Becker’s film is still a cracking crime film today but it looks odd in the era of #MeToo since it features a club that is a front for a crime boss and which features dancers and a miniature version of the Folies Bergère with the women wearing ‘pasties’ but otherwise bare-breasted. The dancers include Jeanne Moreau (not bare-breasted!) in a relatively early role. She was a well-known stage actor at the time but her film roles were not that substantial. Her film breakthrough would come with Lift to the Scaffold (1958) when, ironically, Lino Ventura would have a secondary role.
As well as the young female dancers, the gangsters are also accompanied/assisted at various points by older women, in particular by Madame Bouche (Denise Clair), whose restaurant is the regular haunt of Max and his friends. The film is adapted from a novel by Albert Simonin and the screenplay is by Becker and Simonin. Simonin went on to write several more films and the character of Max was used in two further narratives, both from Simonin novels but co-scripted by Michel Audiard. Jean Gabin appeared in the second film but not the third, which became two one hour TV episodes, I think. These two later appearances of Max seemed to have been more aligned to crime comedies. Comedy is touched on lightly in Grisbi which is primarily a violent gangster feature. However, one central sequence has become fondly remembered and may have been influential on later filmmakers such as François Truffaut.
Max’s friend and the one person he appears to trust, at least in terms of loyalty, is ‘Riton’ whose real name is Henri Ducros (and played is by René Dary). Riton is loyal but not very bright. When Max wants to disappear for a night he takes Riton to a hideout apartment that he has secretly rented. Everything necessary for a comfortable night is already in the apartment and the two ageing gangsters sit down to a meal of paté and crispbreads washed down by by regional white wine sent by a friend. Max provides bedding and pressed pyjamas as well as a toothbrush for Riton. It could be a sit-com about two old men and when I re-watched the film it was the section of the film that I remembered most clearly – and thoroughly enjoyed.
I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. All I’ll note is that at the end of the film, the narrative returns to Madame Bouche’s restaurant and the final exchanges are in some ways poignant rather than triumphant or defiant. In fact they are almost comic. The narrative treads a fine line between these moments and the violence of treachery and double-crossing. I’ve noted the sexism in terms of the relative lack of agency that the women in the film have. It is striking though that there are several very beautiful young women in the film, all presented in quite provocative costumes. They include the American Marilyn Buferd, the German Dora Doll and the Italian Delia Scala, all active in French cinema around this time. It’s worth mentioning that the presence of young women like these three was a feature of French cinema which helped the films get a release in the UK and US where domestic films were hampered by censorship. It’s odd now to watch the film and see Gabin ogling these young women but resisting the charms of Jeanne Moreau.
In his magisterial ‘Journey Through French Cinema’, the late Bertrand Tavernier argues that Grisbi was twenty years ahead of its time with its depiction of Gabin as Max, an ‘anti-hero’. I think he’s right. He also suggests that Jean Becker had ‘assimilated’ American cinema in his approach but didn’t simply reproduce an American style. I’ve been musing on the American stars who could dominate genre films such as the gangster or more general crime film in the same way as Gabin. Who could be elegant, brutal, strong but capable of lightness etc.? Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart are possibles perhaps? The star most often mentioned is James Cagney and I can understand why, but I still find Gabin to be in a class of his own. The comparison with American cinema is important because the polar has been seen as a vehicle for developing a dialogue with American culture, with ‘modernity’ and big American cars. The trophy young women for the gangsters are also to some extent imported. In terms of French cinema, Becker’s film would become an inspiration for both Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob, le flambeur, 1956) and François Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960). Tavernier pointed out another aspect of Grisbi, that showed Becker was ‘ahead’ of Hollywood – the use of a harmonica theme for Max. (Tavernier thought French productions made more interesting choices of music.)
Jacques Becker was in a sense the link between the early crime melodramas of Jean Renoir some of which he worked on in the 1930s in various capacities and the harsher post-war crime films. His last film, Le trou (1960), a prison-based drama, appeared around the same time as the early New Wave films. Because of his Renoir connections and the quality of his 1950s films, when Becker died comparatively young in 1960, aged 53, his reputation didn’t suffer the dismissal by the younger directors that was meted out to some of his contemporaries. He directed a range of films, not just crime films and I aim to eventually cover the others that are still available.
Director Jacques Becker (1906-1960) was at his peak as a filmmaker in the late 1940s and 1950s, having spent much of the 1930s as an assistant to Jean Renoir. In the late 1940s and early 50s he directed a series of ‘social comedies’. Édouard et Caroline is one of these. The denouncement of the so-called ‘Quality Cinema’ or the ‘Cinéma du Papa’ (as François Truffaut called it) by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma spared Becker’s work. In her introduction to this film on the Studio Canal DVD, Professor Ginette Vincendeau describes Becker as being ‘in between’ the reviled quality film directors and la nouvelle vague directors. This was partly because of Becker’s association with Renoir and partly because the young critics recognised both the skill involved in Becker’s work and the stamp of a ‘personal vision’ similar to that which the Cahiers critics celebrated in the work of Hollywood directors such as a Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock.
Édouard et Caroline is almost like a theatrical stage production in that all the action takes place in two contrasting flats/apartments in central Paris (but in different arrondissements?) with only an opening and closing street shot and a few glimpses of staircases. Yet it is also highly cinematic with Robert Lefebvre’s fluidly roving camera. The dialogue and collaboration on the script is the responsibility of Annette Wademant who went on to also wrote significant films for Max Ophüls. She was much younger than Becker and this might have aided the sense of vitality in the interchanges between the central couple. With the camera movement and dialogue, the editing by Marguerite Renoir also helped keep the narrative moving. Because Becker was considered too ‘difficult’ and demanding and because the script in this case was so sparse, he had difficulty finding backers. Consequently the film had a small budget and a strict 30 day shooting schedule with penalties for over-runs.
The titular characters are a young woman from a wealthy family (played by Ann Vernon) recently married to a young man from a poorer background (Daniel Gélin) who is a talented (and properly trained) pianist. They have little money and are living in a one room flat. All the action takes place over a few hours on the night when they have been invited to a party given by Caroline’s wealthy and well-connected Uncle Claude (Jean Galland). He has rented a grand piano and offered Édouard the chance to play for his special guests, some of whom may be able to help him get work and build a career. But Édouard is nervous about the opportunity and feels uncomfortable at the prospect of mixing with the haute bourgeoisie. Claude’s son Alain (Jacques Francis) presents another irritation with his snobbery towards Édouard and designs on his attractive cousin Caroline.
In genre terms, this film mixes elements from Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s with the sharp social observation of Jean Renoir and the sophisticated comedy of a Billy Wilder. As the dreaded party developed in Claude’s salon, I also caught a whiff of later Buñuel (Exterminating Angel (Mexico 1962)). Others have suggested the comedies of Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. I don’t mean to suggest that the film is a mish-mash of styles. Instead it is a coherent social comedy with some darker moments and a developing satire of wealthy Parisians. The plot is simple but the characterisation is strong. The young married couple, brilliantly played by Vernon and Gélin, clearly love each other but the social stress of the party creates divisions between them that get blown up to dramatic proportions. I haven’t mentioned the careful set dressing and costume design as part of the mise en scène. Costume offers the twin drivers of the narrative. Edouard has that familiar split reaction to entering ‘high society’. He despises the flummery of evening dress but feels he must have the correct attire or people will look down on him. The whole thing is disturbing him and when he can’t find his waistcoat, he gets angry. Has Caroline misplaced it? She has her own problem. She feels a different version of the same unease, thinking her pretty dress is now out of fashion and then attacking it with a pair of scissors to make it more like a current couture outfit. Becker and Wademant are able to use these two concerns to drive a wedge between the couple and to disrupt the party and Édouard’s eventual piano playing.
I’d like to say more about the music Édouard does actually play (or rather ‘act’) since a professional musician’s hands double for him. I’m not knowledgeable enough about classical music to comment (I believe it is Chopin) but I do know that Becker himself was a jazz fan and he uses musical taste as one of his weapons in skewering the wealthy patrons here. They listen to Édouard’s playing politely and applaud appropriately but later we see them dancing enthusiastically to the kind of dance music Édouard (and Becker) despise. To add further indignity Becker introduces an American played by William Tubbs. Tubbs was an actor in several French and Italian films in this period. Here he speaks French with a terrible accent but proves to be much more perceptive about Edouard’s talent than the others.
I enjoyed this film very much, particularly the playing of the two leads and the fluidity and choreography of the camera work and direction. The DVD (I think there is also a Blu-ray) has two other extras as well as Ginette Vincendeau’s excellent introduction. One is a long and detailed interview with Annette Wademant, Ann Vernon and Daniel Gélin much later from French TV. The interview, full of details about the production was part of a TV broadcast of the film. What a marvellous idea. Why have we never had such detailed coverage of film in the UK? Finally there is an interview with Becker himself in which he talks about his love of jazz and discusses his satire on those who don’t understand the music. I was prompted to watch the film after watching Bertrand Tavernier’s A Journey Through French Cinema (France 2016). Tavernier tells us that the first film he remembers seeing as a child was by Becker and that several years later as a teenager in the 1950s he began to realise that Becker was one of the greatest French directors. Tavernier’s analysis of Becker’s work is fascinating and has encouraged me to search out more of Becker’s work. He emphasises that Becker was one of the first French male directors to present women as central characters in their own write – something Ginette also discusses, suggesting that Édouard et Caroline suffered in the eyes of critics, partly because its mix of comedy and romance was taken less seriously than ‘masculine’ genre films.
Here’s a very short trail for the film from French TV which allows you to meet William Tubbs and to see Caroline’s dress after her modifications: