Jean Gabin postsMonday November 09, 2009
Epitaph for a Tough Guy—I
“It is a hazard peculiar to cultists in the arts—that is to say, to highbrows—that unless they keep their transatlantic signals open and alert, they tend to canonize foreign talents that are rejected on the home ground as commercial hacks. There was, I remember, a delightful period in the late thirties and early forties when American highbrows yearned for a native naturalistic actor as mighty as Jean Gabin. Their counterparts in Paris were meanwhile lamenting the early demise of Gabin as a 'serious' talent, and panting over Bogart for what the critic of Le Matin called his 'vitalisme, tendre et profond.'”
—Alistaire Cook, “Epitaph for a Tough Guy,” in The Atlantic, May 1957
Who's the Epitome of 1950s American Cool? Jean Gabin in 1939
Here's a few screenshots of Jean Gabin in Marcel Carne's “Le Jour Se Leve” from 1939. Remind you of anyone? Brando maybe? In 1954 maybe? Fifteen years later?
I can't help but think of all of the cool Americans who have unknowingly been imitating a Frenchman for more than 70 years, and thinking the look was their own.
Anyone know how this look in general and leather jackets in particular became popular? Aviators, certainly, wore leather bomber jackets in the '30s; motorcyclists,too. Gabin is neither in “Le Jour Se Leve.” But look at him. He's even got the sideburns.
Review: “Touchez pas au grisbi” (1954)
WARNING: THE WORLD’S COOLEST MOVIE SPOILERS
There is something measured and specific about Jacques Becker’s films. Nothing is hurried and nothing essential is left out. As viewers, we sometimes guess where things are going, but when they wind up there we still feel slightly shocked, certainly saddened. Some of Becker’s protagonists, too, know how things will play out but they never jump ahead. They may assume the worst in their fellow man but they don’t act on that assumption. To do so would be dishonorable.
The honorable man in Becker’s “Touchez pas au Grisbi” (1954) is Max, an aging gangster, played by aging movie star Jean Gabin, who was, at the time of the production, 15 years removed from his heyday. “Grisbi” gave him a second life. He made 50 more movies.
Today Gabin is a legend. In 1999 he was voted “the actor of the century” in a French poll, and one of the few English language books about him (as well as a blog) is entitled “The World’s Coolest Movie Star.” Here, Gabin straddles the line between cool and weary, but his weariness isn’t a result of the world overwhelming him. The opposite. It underwhelms. It’s entirely predictable.
We first see Max at the restaurant of his choice, Madame Bouche’s, a gangster hangout in Montmartre (but classy), where those at his table, including his partner, Riton (Rene Dary), hang onto his every reluctant word. After dinner they pile into a car and head to a strip club (but classy), where Max, with shrugging matter-of-factness, brokers a deal between the owner, “Fats” Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) and Angelo, a rival gangster (Lino Ventura), then discovers Angelo backstage lip-locked with Riton’s girl, Josy (a young Jeanne Moreau). Roger Ebert, in his 2004 review, is excellent on the next scene:
This would come as particularly bad news to Riton, who fancies himself a ladies' man and thinks Josy belongs to him, but look how elegantly Becker resolves the situation. Instead of telling his pal that he's a cuckold, Max advises Riton to give up Josy. He points out aging playboys steering hookers around the dance floor, calls attention to the bags under Riton's eyes and suggests they go home early. Riton suggests he stay for one more drink. No, says Max, with that flat, calm Gabin delivery; he knows what one more drink will lead to: A bottle of champagne with Angelo, and then having to take the girls out for onion soup, and then having to have sex ... it's easier just to leave now.
Riton doesn’t but Max does, and he’s followed home by a couple of Angelo’s mugs, whom he handles with dispatch, then calls to warn Riton. We don’t know it yet but Max has already figured it all out. All the evidence is there for us, too, buried in the details of the film. That $50 million gold heist from Orly Airport Max was reading about at the beginning? Max and Riton pulled it off. So of course Riton had to brag about it to Josie. And of course Josie spilled the beans to her lover, Angelo, who of course wants the gold.
Ah, to be an aging, world-weary French gangster
Max explains all of this—slightly fed-up—to Riton in Max’s safe house. It’s a scene unprecedented in gangster movies and it’s Becker at his measured and specific best. After Max explains to Riton that their $50 million heist was his last job and he doesn’t want Riton to eff it up, the two sit, drink wine, and eat biscuits and pate. They put on pajamas and brush their teeth. They go to bed. But within the quotidian details is the difference between the two. Max knows and accepts what he is. Riton checks out the bags under his eyes and is saddened by what he sees. The next morning he fights it. He goes to see Josie but is captured by Angelo. He’s held hostage for the gold.
Ebert raises the following question:
Does Max love Riton? Max seems to be the current or former lover of almost every woman in the movie, and yet, yes, Riton is who he loves.
Sure, he loves him. But loves loves? I’d give that a Gabin-esque shrug. There’s another great scene where Max, in voice-over, thinks about what a screw-up Riton has been, and whether he should leave him to his fate. It’s the only moment where we get a voice-over in the movie and it’s the only moment where we get this side of Max. That’s why the voice-over. Saying it aloud isn’t Max. But the thoughts are there.
One wonders why Max carries him, though. Is it just the honor of the thing? His need to remain loyal to his friends? Psychologists might call Max an enabler, and maybe there’s something there. He’s assured of his superiority by hanging with screw-ups.
Yet, if anything, Max’s cool results less from a sense of superiority and more from remaining a reluctant participant in the continuing charade. He wants his restaurant, he wants his girls, he wants as little danger as possible. But—in the overused phrase—they keep pulling him back in, and he goes with a shrug. He knows how it’ll play out—not well—but he goes anyway. You want to play this? I’ll play it. Since he has no illusions he sees things clearly and remains a step ahead.
I’m wondering about the end. There’s that scene, after Max learns that Riton has been kidnapped but before the deal has played out, where he visits his mistress, and, post-coital, holds up her hand and looks at the jewels on her wrist. Becker loves his details—his details are clues—and after it’s all over the mistress is no longer an afternoon visit for Max. He’s out with her at Madame Bouche’s. Because of the jewels and what they represent? Max’s payday, the gold, has been lost and he doesn’t want to go back in, so is this his compromise? Give up some independence for some money? Or is it all merely temporary until things quiet down and he can once again sketch out a plan that will allow him that final chance to retire on his own terms? Either way, we could all use such a fallback position.
The fallback position
The French during this period were great with aging gangster movies—see “Bob le Flembeur” and “Rififi”—but I’m wondering where the great aging American gangster movies are. Do we have them? Do we count “The Godfather”? Or “The Godfather—part III”? Or are all aspects of American society a young man’s game, including its underworld?
P.S. Not to be too Netflix about this but: If you liked “Grisbi” you have to check out Jacques Becker’s last film, “Le Trou”—literally “The Hole,” and slang for “The Jail”—about a jailbreak among honorable men. It may include the best last line in movie history, and one that suggests, in two words, Becker’s entire oeuvre. It suggests an entire way to live.
The Hot Hand: Jean Gabin
Has any actor ever been on a roll like Jean Gabin from 1936 to 1939? He starred in one classic film after another. Boom boom boom:
- “Les bas-fonds” (1936) with Jean Renoir
- “Pepe le Moko” (1936) with Julien Duvivier
- “La grand illusion” (1937) with Jean Renoir
- “Le quai des brumes” (1938) with Marcel Carne
- “La bete humaine” (1939) with Jean Renoir
- “Le jour se leve” (1939) with Marcel Carne
That’s an insane streak. Maybe Bogart in the ‘40s (“High Sierra,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Casablanca,” “To Have and Have Not,” “The Big Sleep,” “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” “Key Largo”) or Jack Nicholson in the early ‘70s (“Five Easy “Pieces,” “King of Marvin Gardens,” “The Last Detail,” “Chinatown,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) had similar runs, but...
I’m sure I’m missing somebody.
My Year of Watching French Cinema
A quick word on some of the new images cycling to our left.
Late last year I was getting sick of that first image you’d see every time you navigated to this site: me, in the summer of 2007, slouched over and writing in my notebook on a bridge in le Somail in southern France. It made sense — here’s my writing, so here’s me writing — but it was getting old. We needed something new.
The images now cycling through are hardly new — most are old movie posters — but they’re new to me. I watched most of them for the first time in 2008. Excluding movies I watched for research (the Batman films, the Tyler Perry films), and films seen in the theater, I rented and watched, according to Netflix, 84 films in 2008. It seems like a huge timesuck but most of them were worthwhile. I’ve divided them into categories below.
We all arrive in our culture in medias res and spend most of our lives trying to catch up, and this was the year I tried to catch up with French cinema. Infinitely more difficult than catching up with pre-1963 U.S. cinema. How many Bogart and Cagney references — from Woody Allen to Frank Gorshin — did I see before I saw a Bogart or Cagney film? Hundreds. I knew these guys before I knew them. But no one referenced Jean Gabin when I was growing up. It wasn’t until this year, at the embarrassing age of 45, while watching Max Ophuls’ Le Plaisir, that I went: “Hey, isn’t that the guy from Touchez Pas Au Grisbi? And Port of Shadows? And La Grande Illusion?” Which lead to Can Can and Pepe Le Moko and La Bete Humain and Les Bas-Fonds. For those unfamiliar: Imagine Spencer Tracy with Humphrey Bogart’s roles and Katherine Hepburn’s longevity. Voila.
Thoughts, for what they’re worth, crystallized. Love Max Ophuls and Henri-Georges Clouzot. Jean-Pierre Melville strikes me a little cold. The French New Wave is beginning to annoy. The humor in Les Visiteurs doesn’t travel well but the humor in Le Diner de Cons does. La Faute au Fidel!, about a girl growing up in Paris, feels like me growing up in Minnesota.
As for American films? Boy, Gone Baby Gone was good. God, Brando was powerful in Julius Caesar. Jesus, how come Red Belt didn’t get better reviews?
This was also the year “catching up” felt more and more like a losing proposition. The more you know, the less you know, and I definitely don't know much about world cinema. How do you catch up with entire cultures? But you keep at it. You begin to plan. How much time do I have left? What’s worth that time?
The movies in bold were worth my time.
Boudu Sauve des Eaux (1932)
Les Miserables (1934)
Pepe le Moko (1936)
Le Quai de Brumes (1939)
Le Corbeau (1943)
La Ronde (1950)
Casque d'Or (1952)
Le Plaisir (1952)
The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
French Cancan (1954)
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Nuit et Brouillard (1955)
Bob Le Flambeur (1956)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Le Vieil Homme et L’Enfant (1967)
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
La Souffle au coeur (1971)
Cet Obscur Objet du Desir (1977)
Coup de Torchon (1981)
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1988)
La Gloire de Ma Pere (1990)
Le Chateau de Ma Mere (1990)
Les Visiteurs (1993)
Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993)
Trois Couleurs: Blanc (1994)
Trois Couleurs: Rouge (1994)
Le Diner de Cons (1997)
Henri Cartier-Bresson: Biogrpahie eines Blicks (2003)
Le Placard (2001)
Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles (2004)
La Faute au Fidel! (2006)
Avenue Montaigne (2006)
Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (2007)
OTHER FOREIGN FILMS
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
Sansho Dayu (1954)
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Wild Strawberries (1957)
Gegen die Wand (2004)
Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
Om Shanti Om (2007)
El Orfanato (2007)
Lust, Caution (2007)
RECENT U.S. FILMS
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Grindhouse: Death Proof (2007)
The Kingdom (2007)
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
The Savages (2007)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
The Bank Job (2008)
In Bruges (2008)
Harold and Kumar...Guantanamo Bay (2008)
Baby Mama (2008)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Get Smart (2008)
You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008)
OLDER U.S. FILMS
Ace in the Hole (1950)
The Band Wagon (1953)
Julius Caesar (1953)
The Longest Day (1961)
Silent Movie (1976)
All That Jazz (1979)
I, Claudius: The Epic That Never Was (1965)
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001)
Imaginary Witness (2004)
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007)
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2007)
Standard Operating Procedure (2008)
Encounters at the End of the World (2008)
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