Le Jour Se Leve

Hmm. I went to see this 1939 French noir at the NFT the other day. They give you a two-page review-article on the film, it being a serious arts cinema, on your way in. It’s all about director Marcel Carne and the film’s expression of its themes. It talks a little about Jacques Prevert’s wonderful script, and only in its final paragraph do we get a mention of star Jean Gabin – it says that he was well cast. None of what it says strikes me as wrong or misguided, but its whole perspective has very little to do with why I love the film and wanted to see it again.

The story starts with a gunshot and a man staggering out of a flat to die on the stairs. The police show up, and the killer, Gabin, locks himself in. The rest of the film is Gabin shut up in the flat as the police lay siege, smoking his last cigarettes and pondering the events that led to all this, shown in flashbacks. Gabin is my favourite actor ever, and what we get is him playing a charming workman, becoming gradually enraged by a flashy and cruel performer (a dog trainer!) until he kills him; plus his hours of waiting for the end. This is a gem of a role, offering all sorts of great opportunities, and Gabin makes the most of every single one of them.
Yes, the script is beautiful, and the direction masterly, but the appeal of this movie for me centres on a mighty performance in a really great role from my favourite actor. These days films are ‘a [director-name] film’ – auteur theory has had a more complete victory than its creators could have ever anticipated. But for me a lot of films are still a Jean Gabin or Cary Grant movie more than being about the director. I’m not remotely looking for critics to go back to just eulogising stars and barely noting the director, but I do sometimes think the balance has tipped rather too far away from recognising the pleasures of watching a star in a strong role.