Jean Gabin was France’s answer to Humphrey Bogart, many (English-language) historians have claimed. Either that, or Gabin was France’s answer to Spencer Tracy. Never mind the fact that Gabin was a major international star before either Bogart or Tracy achieved Hollywood stardom. In other words, if there was someone emulating someone else, it was Bogart and Tracy who followed the Frenchman’s lead so as to become the American Jean Gabins.
Turner Classic Movies is devoting a whole day to Jean Gabin’s movies today, August 18, as part of its "Summer Under the Stars" series. [Jean Gabin Movie Schedule.] Right now, TCM is showing Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), the tale of a Parisian gangster (Gabin) hiding in Algiers’ Casbah neighborhood, but who becomes careless after he falls for a beautiful woman (Mireille Balin, Gabin’s co-star that same year in Jean Grémillon’s Gueule d’amour / Lady Killer).
Those whose idea of cinema begins and ends in Hollywood will probably recognize that tale from a John Cromwell-directed 1938 Charles Boyer vehicle titled Algiers (1938), which also featured Hedy Lamarr in her first English-speaking role. Pépé le Moko isn’t the greatest movie ever made, but it would be an appropriate introduction to the Jean Gabin of the 1930s, as Gabin’s movie characters met tragic endings with pathological frequency.
Next in line is Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), notable as one of the most widely revered cinematic works of the last 100 years, as one of the first films to make use of deep focus (making scenes look more "realistic"), and as the very first non-English-language film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Is it that good? Well, its anti-war intentions certainly are; personally, I find it a little too slow-moving. In fact, deep focus or no, I much prefer Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and The River (1951).
Much like Bogart and Tracy, who usually played Bogart and Tracy, Gabin plays Gabin in Grand Illusion, as one of several French POWs who attempt to escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War I. The film’s acting honors go to Pierre Fresnay as an aristocratic French POW and to Erich von Stroheim as an aristocratic German prison camp commander.
Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938) stars Gabin as another doomed male. Those who believe that film noir, with its play of light and shadows, began with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon might want to check this one out. Married to an older, unattractive man (Fernand Ledoux), Simone Simon is the woman who destroys our anti-hero. Sounds familiar? Before you say that Renoir and fellow dialogue writer Denise Leblond stole the idea from some James M. Cain novel, bear in mind that the author of the novel on which La Bête Humaine was based was called Émile Zola (1840-1902).
Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954) is a gangster thriller that I always get mixed up with Jules Dassin’s heist thriller Rififi (also 1954). Jacques Becker directed the generally well-regarded Grisbi, which also features Lino Ventura and a very young Jeanne Moreau. I haven’t watched Henri Verneuil’s Des gens sans importance / People of No Importance (1955), about an illicit love affair. Françoise Arnoul co-stars.