Last month, the Bristish Film Institute held a series of screenings celebrating the work of legendary French actor Jean Gabin. Alongside the more revered items on his filmography (La Bête Humaine, Pépé le Moko etc.), the season also incorporated a few diversions into less familiar areas of French cinema – in particular, the numerous crime films that Gabin appeared in from the ‘30s right through to the early ‘70s. Having recently cultivated a keen interest in the way crime films developed as a genre in different countries in the post-war era (not that you’d know it from this blog), I thought catching a few slices of pre-Melville French noir might be good fun, and dutifully laid down my money for a triple bill.
First up, the translation-proof Razzia sur la Chnouf (Henri Decoin, 1955). Never released with an English title, the word ‘chnouf’ seems to have caused some confusion - seemingly an obscure slang term for drugs or narcotics, that leaves us with a less than elegant literal translation of ‘Raid on the Drugs’? I don’t know whether this title-related uncertainty harmed the film’s profile overseas, but I hope not, because ‘Razzia..’ proves to be a cracking bit of hard-boiled Parisian business, worthy of anyone’s attention.
Gabin wasn’t my main reason for watching the film, but nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that he’s absolutely brilliant here, portraying a veteran mid-level operator (‘Henri from Nantes’) hired by the boss of a Paris drug cartel to oversee his distribution network. Brutally efficient, but also calm, restrained and strangely compassionate in his approach, Henri wastes no time in establishing a kind of patriarchal respect from his underlings as he sets up HQ in the restaurant that serves as his cover, swiftly dispatching traitors, punishing slackers and even casually setting up home with the cute waitress (Fellini regular Magali Noël) that all the younger men had their eye on.
Extremely well-written and beautifully photographed and directed, ‘Razzia..’ builds up a rich picture of the Paris underworld, with much of the movie’s pleasure deriving from the scenes in which we follow Gabin as he goes about his day-to-day (well, night-to-night) business, breezing through opium dens, crash-pads, jazz clubs, farmhouse drug labs and all-black marijuana hang-outs, with Decoin’s panoramic shooting style and excellent, naturalistic performances from the entire cast helping imbue the film’s environment with a sense of depth and realism that goes well beyond the claustrophobic confines of yr average set-bound crime flick.
It helps too that the movie is hard as nails content-wise, full of stuff that you’d NEVER see in an English language film from the ‘50s, ranging from graphic drug use to explicit/non-judgemental portrayals of homosexuality and prostitution, not to mention a graphic axe murder(!) and some of the most enthusiastic cursing I’ve ever heard in the French language. (The bursts of guttural obscenity as the English subtitles offer us ‘fucking dickhead’ and ‘wide-legged whore’ etc are pretty hair-raising.) The gangster action, when it gets going, it handled in a merciless, gun-crazy style reminiscent of a ‘30s Warner Bros flick – an element which is nicely parodied in a scene that follows a police raid on Henri’s restaurant, when we see cops with brooms sweeping up the dozens of shooters that have been abandoned under the tables.
The only bum note in this otherwise wonderful film is struck by the ending. Presumably realising that up to this point they’d made a film in which presents a ruthless, drug-pushing criminal as a sympathetic, essentially decent man, the filmmakers seem to have felt the need to square things up with some more conventional movie morality, orchestrating a final reel turn-around that feels face-slappingly false – the equivalent of one of those jive-ass moral lectures that were tacked onto the end of movies like ‘The Asphalt Jungle’, but executed here without the benefit of any “ok, you’ve had your fun, now here’s this other bit we had to put in” wink n’ nod routine from the director. All the same though, a sappy conclusion can’t spoil the strength of what’s gone before, and ‘Razzia sur la Chnouf’ is about as daring, riotous and stylistically accomplished as genre cinema was ever allowed to get during the ‘50s – highly recommended.
Jumping ahead almost a decade, it’s difficult to summon quite the same enthusiasm for Henri Verneuil’s Mélodie en Sous-Sol (1963), variously known in the English-speaking world as ‘Any Number Can Win’, ‘The Caper That Sank’, ‘The Big Grab’, and, most sniggersomely, ‘The Big Snatch’.
What we have here is basically a variant on the old “bunch of guys rob a casino” template, although it lacks either the intensity of Jules Dassin’s ‘Rififi’ or the pessimism of Melville’s ‘Bob Le Flambeur’, steering far closer to light-hearted japery of Lewis Milestone’s ‘Ocean’s 11’, made two years earlier. There are somewhat fewer guys at work here at least, with the job (and the movie) basically comprising a two-hander between Gabin and his young protégé Alain Delon, and the most likeable aspect of the movie arises from the fact that instead of suave criminal masterminds, they’re basically just a pair of low-level shmucks punching above their weight – Gabin a haggard old jailbird stuck with a bungalow in the suburbs and a wife who doesn’t quite get him, and Delon not much more than a slack-jawed teenage punk.
Efficiently staged and competently directed, there are numerous nice moments to be found here – I particularly liked the surprisingly arty/modernistic opening credits that see Gabin returning home from jail to find that newly-built towerblocks now surround his country cottage, and the ending is really well done too. But somehow the movie just never really takes off. No problems or antagonists ever really emerge to threaten Gabin and Delon’s well-rehearsed plan, meaning much of the time leading up to the robbery is spent treading water in comedy/romance mode, following Delon as he makes the best of his ‘aristocratic playboy’ cover persona, hanging around a Cannes hotel seducing a Swedish heiress.
Which is all well and good I suppose, but rarely has a film cried out quite so desperately for a splash of tehnicolor. I realise that sounds like a strange complaint, and I guess a mid-budget movie like this could have gone either way in ’63, but as Delon spends scene after scene cruising ‘round the sea-front in his flashy motor ogling chicks in bikinis, the decision to shoot in black & white starts to seem plain perverse. Some suitably blaring, oversaturated colour would really have brought things to life, marking ‘Mélodie..’ out as an early example of the kind of frothy, jet-setting thrillers that proliferated through the following decade. But the stark black & white photography (together with the weighty presence of Gabin) unfortunately invites comparison to an older, more serious mode of crime film with which this one can’t hope to compete, content as it is to never really rise much above the level of a pleasant rainy afternoon time-filler.
And speaking of those older, more serious kinda crime films, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more austere shot at the genre than Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954) (literal translation ‘Hands off the Loot’(?), otherwise known as ‘Honour Among Thieves’). A quintessentially French affair, this one sees Gabin playing an aging mobster who seems to drift through life in a cloud of sheer ennui, caring for nothing beyond a nice glass of champagne, the company of a pretty lady and, as the programme notes from Criterion’s Geoffrey O’Brien put it, “listening to that harmonica tune he seems to like so much”.
The tune in question is a melancholic, minor key melody that reminded me of the kind of thing that tends to play at the end of Japanese gangster movies, as the entire cast lies dead in some wasteground and the tragic hero limps off into the sunset nursing a bullet wound, or whatever. Apparently taking such doomed sentiments to heart before anything remotely bad has even happened to him, Gabin’s character Max likes to put this number on the jukebox wherever he goes, and, when we follow him back to his apartment, it’s pretty unsurprising to learn that it seems to be the one record he owns, a reflection of the doleful, resigned nobility that seems to radiate outward from Gabin’s performance and gradually overtakes the entire film. (Perhaps it’s just me, but I can’t help thinking that you could draw a direct line across innumerable aesthetic and cultural boundaries from Gabin’s performance here to the kind of ‘sad tough guy’ archetype that Takashi Kitano made his own in movies like ‘Violent Cop’ many, many years later.)
If the three films covered in this post are any indication, Jean Gabin is the kind of actor whose performances tend to rule his films with fists of iron, setting the tone of the piece as definitively as any writer or director, and that particularly seems to be the case here, in spite of an extremely strong supporting cast. As in ‘..Chnouf’, Lino Ventura (later the star of Meville’s superb ‘Army of Shadows’) acquits himself well as a dead-eyed thug, and Jeanne Moreau practically burns a hole through the screen in one of her earliest defining roles. (I love the fact that in all these movies, Gabin – who looks like a portly, even more weather-beaten David Lynch – seems to have girls a third of his age fawning over him, and somehow actually manages to make that seem plausible, rather than indulgent and creepy.)
Although far less graphic and incident-packed than ‘Razzia sur la Chnouf’, ‘..Grisbi’ is in many ways an even better crime film, one in which violence is rarely seen, but forms a constant, lurking threat beneath the film’s respectable veneer, revealing itself in a quick cutaway shot of a would-be assassin brandishing a cosh under his coat as he steps out of a car, or in the sudden back-hand slaps that Gabin delivers to anyone who pisses him off. Things do kick off in pretty explosive fashion during the brilliantly staged finale in which the two criminal factions meet up on an isolated country road for a hostage / loot exchange, but despite this ‘..Grisbi’ is a film in which criminal face-offs and gang violence are merely incidental to the lives of our characters – an unfortunate inconvenience, rather than a central focus.
Although still functioning as a bloody and effective crime film, ‘..Grisbi’ also manages to acquit itself as a more ‘high brow’ piece of French cinema, telling a simple, emotionally resonant tale full of dense and believable characterisation that, though highly stylised, never tips over into melodrama. A good litmus test for these things I think is the fact that it would still be a thoroughly watchable movie even if Max never stooped to picking up a tommy gun and just sat around for ninety minutes drinking champagne and listening to his harmonica tune. Classy stuff indeed.