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.
La bête humaine was streamed recently on MUBI in the UK as part of a double bill with La grande illusion (1937). La grande illusion has been widely available in the UK for as long as I can remember but the later film has often been difficult to find. Why did I foolishly leave it so long to watch? Now I need to watch it again. I’ve discovered so many scholarly pieces on every aspect of the film and since I’ve now acquired a copy Human Desire (1954), Fritz Lang’s version of the same original Zola narrative, I want to compare the two. But that will have to wait. [It does seem that MUBI have opened their ‘Library’ and made past films available, so the Renoirs are there at the moment for subscribers, but I’m not sure for how long.]
If anyone is not aware of La bête humaine, I’ll just briefly introduce it here. There is a great deal written about the film and it is one of the best films by Jean Renoir, matching the achievements of both La grande illusion and La règle du jeu (1939). Renoir adapted Émile Zola’s novel of 1890, changing the setting from 1870 to the contemporary France of 1938 with the decline of the Popular Front and the coming of war. As many later commentators have pointed out, there is a parallel between Zola’s presentation of a story set at the point when France was rushing headlong into war with Germany and Renoir’s story set when another conflagration was looming (the film opened in December 1938). But this is a ‘personal’ story, centred on Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) an engine driver on the Paris-Le Havre expresses. Zola wrote a collection of 20 novels about an extended family, ‘Les Rougon-Macquart’, and Jacques Lantier is one of the family members whose mental illness leads him to commit violent acts. Zola believed such mental traits could be inherited. Renoir is making a single film so he keeps Lantier’s violence but limits the back story. He includes Zola’s statement about Jacques and Les Rougon-Macquart at the end of the opening credits sequence (which ends with an image and signature of Zola himself). Jacques’ violent urges are then discussed with his godmother who live in the Normandy countryside and then they become an issue when he meets a young woman he knows, Flore (Blanchette Brunoy), by the river in the same village.
The central action of the film involves the Le Havre station master Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) and his young wife Séverine (Simone Simon) who are involved in a murder on board a Paris-Le Havre train. Lantier is on the same train as a passenger and he sees the couple. Having already apparently fallen for Séverine he protects her when the police question the passengers. What will be the result of Jacques’ passion if it is allowed to develop? Will he kill Roubaud to free Séverine from a marriage in which she fears for her life? Around this seeming psychological crime thriller, Renoir develops a complex presentation which translates Zola’s naturalism into a form of cinematic realism.
There are all kinds of analysis and argument that develop from readings of the film. Some of the important political and social class issues that dominated French society in the late 1930s are perhaps not picked up so much in modern discussions. Conversely, the possible links to later American films noirs which were made in the 1970s are now to the fore. Both the earlier and the later arguments are explored in Raymond Durgnat’s Jean Renoir (University of California Press, 1974). I’ve also been reading Michèle Lagny’s ‘The Fleeing Gaze’, an essay on the film collected in French film: text and contexts, eds Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, (Routledge, 2000), Renoir’s own biography My Life and Films (1974) and Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay on the Criterion Collection website.
At this point I want to make just a few observations and leave a fuller consideration until later. First, I want to emphasise that for anyone who loves railways, this is one of the most exciting and informative railway films you are ever likely to see. SNCF, the state railway company (which had only just come into being bas a nationalised company), gave Renoir the same kind of support that enabled both La bataile du rail (1946) and The Train (1964) to deal with the railway in wartime. I believe there are other French films which also use the railways well but La bête humaine will take some beating as a presentation of an express railway. Paris Saint-Lazare to Le Havre was one of the earliest French railways built in the late 1840s covering 228 kms and in the film the expresses are hauled by 231 class Pacifics (4-6-2) built in the 1920s.
Jean Gabin was keen to make a railway feature and when a possible production of a train film for director Jean Grémillion fell through he turned to Renoir. Gabin was a major star who presumably had enough clout to to persuade producers to finance films. Renoir was keen to work with Gabin again after La grande illusion and he quickly adapted Zola’s story despite having not read it for 25 years. He tells us that he began to include more dialogue from the book and continued to revise the script during shooting. The important issue for Gabin was to learn all the actions of the engine driver and to experience life on the footplate with his fireman Pecqueux played by Carette. Renoir knew that the impact of the film depended on shooting ‘real’ footage of Gabin and Carette in the cab under steam. SNCF closed a section of track so that Gabin could operate the locomotive for some scenes and both the cinematographer Curt Courant and operator Claude Renoir Jr. were on the engine at times. It was dangerous work. Claude Renoir attached a camera to the side of the engine, but it came off in a tunnel. The film begins and ends with exciting sequences of Gabin and Carette in the cab of the speeding loco. I presume that an SNCF driver and fireman were on the footplate throughout these scenes. It must have been very crowded on there! Renoir tells us that they were running on 10 kms of track with a ‘platform truck’ coupled directly behind the engine and tender, carrying a generator for the lighting and behind that a single coach acting as a make-up and rest room for the actors. The photography across the whole film is excellent. I knew about Claude Renoir helping on his uncle’s films (he shot Toni, 1935) but Curt Courant was somebody I’ve somehow missed up until now. How I missed him, I’m not sure but he had a long pedigree. He began in Germany in 1917 and photographed over 140 films, mainly during the 1910s, 20s and 30s. La bête humaine was among the last ten films he shot. As a German Jew he was forced to flee from the Nazis and ended up in the UK eventually, but only shot a couple of films after 1940. He died in the US in 1968. He worked with Fritz Lang on Frau im Mond (1929) and with Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). What happened to him? There is a story there. His style is evident in the low angle MCU at the top of this post. The cinematography is also supported in by the music of Joseph Kosma especially in the opening train sequence.
The opening in particular is almost documentary-like in its coverage. We see all the aspects of the railway that are usually ignored in fiction narratives. As the train approaches Le Havre we see the big signs welcoming us to the station, the engine sheds and the turntable and later the engine, which Jacques has christened ‘Lison’, being checked over and returned to the yard for maintenance. Earlier we had seen a demonstration of dropping the scoop to pick up water from the troughs on the track. This is all fascinating stuff if you love railways but is it necessary for the story? Perhaps not, but it all builds up a picture of Jacques’ life. The engine is like a character in the film and when he’s on board, the loco and Jacques are one.
La bête humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. The steel mass of the locomotive became in my imagination the flying carpet of an oriental fable. Zola, from the depths of the grave, gave me powerful assistance . . .
. . . The setting of locomotives, railway sidings and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry, or rather supplied it to the actors and enabled them to get into the skin of their parts better than any amount of direction. (Jean Renoir from My Life and My Films, p 139)
I’m going to try and return to Renoir and to compare his film with Lang’s at some point. I’ve loved Renoir’s films for decades so it’s an on-going project. Thanks to MUBI for the chance to see La bête humaine.
This year’s Glasgow retrospective strand is devoted to Ida Lupino as Hollywood star and director on the centenary of her birth. Given the structure of the programme, I could only catch one of the screenings. I was happy though because it was a film in which Ms Lupino appeared as a twin lead with Jean Gabin in his first Hollywood role. I was then knocked back to discover the ‘troubled’ nature of the production – but as Alan Hunter observed in his introduction, the film has been gradually exonerated over time. I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it had many fine features.
Moontide was screened from a National Film Archive 35mm print which seems to be in pretty good nick. It was a 20th Century Fox production for Mark Hellinger initially to have been directed by Fritz Lang who jumped ship after a few days of shooting to be replaced by Archie Mayo. Hunter suggested that Lang and Gabin were at odds over their interest in Marlene Dietrich. Archie Mayo proved to be a ‘safe pair of hands’ and with a script by John O’Hara from a novel by Hollywood actor Willard Robinson, a fine cast got the chance to shine. Ida Lupino was often suspended by Warner Bros and therefore available for loans and that is presumably why she ended up starring alongside Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains as well as Gabin. I have to agree with Alan Hunter, however, in picking out the cinematography by Charles G. Clarke (which received an Oscar nomination).
The plot involves Gabin and Mitchell rolling into a small Southern Californian port as a pair of itinerants looking for work (or more accurately a fast buck). Bobo (Gabin) gets roaring drunk (a drunken binge celebrated by an expressionist sequence with the remnants of Salvador Dali’s work on the picture) and next morning there are clues to his possible involvement in the murder of an old sailor. Did Bobo do it? Meanwhile ‘Tiny’ (Mitchell) wants the pair to head north to San Francisco where work is more plentiful. But Bobo saves a young woman, Anna (Lupino), from the waves and seems to want to set up house with her. ‘Nutsy’ (Claude Rains), as a kind of ‘intellectual night-watchman who never sleeps’, becomes an all-seeing guardian angel.
It sounds nonsensical, but Clarke presents it as a Hollywood take on the ‘poetic realism’ of Gabin’s films with Carné and Duvivier in the late 1930s and, not surprisingly, the film has been hailed as an early Hollywood noir. Gabin and Mitchell make typical show-stopping entrances into the dockside bar at the start of the narrative but Lupino is not outshone and her gamin character has plenty of vim as well as a radiant beauty in a tawdry environment. She was only 24 when she made the film, but already a veteran of British and Hollywood cinema having started at 15, I’m going to have to go back and re-watch some of the classic Ida Lupino flicks. They would include High Sierra (1941) and They Live By Night (1940) both with Bogart (and both produced by Hellinger) and the later Nick Ray film On Dangerous Ground (1951) with the always dangerous Robert Ryan. Towards the end of her film career, she was Steve McQueen’s ma in one of my favourite melodramas, Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972). Lupino’s centenary was the prompt for the retrospective, but the current outrage about the lack of directing opportunities for women in Hollywood has pushed the Lupino celebrations way up the agenda. In the late 1940s and early 1950s as the studio system began its slow descent into obsolescence, Lupino became the only female feature director of the period and eventually directed six features. She also went on to direct many TV episodes in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. IMDb lists over 100 acting credits – not bad for a girl from Herne Hill, South East London, though she did go to RADA and had the support of an acting family with centuries of work behind it. I must also praise the work of Gabin. What a great star and what a shame he made only one other film in Hollywood (which I haven’t seen but must look for). Mitchell and Rains are terrific character actors. Gabin and Lupino are stars.