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Jean Gabin

Review: La Bete Humaine

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Beginning in this issue, and continuing whenever occasion warrants and space permits, MOVIETONE NEWS will include a retrospective quickie or two among the normal short notices on current cinema. In the past MTN writers were able to comment on older films only in advance of seeing or reseeing them—that is, as part of our regular service on the local repertory houses, You Only Live Once. While we intend Quickies to continue emphatically along lines already established, we hope in this small way to quietly insist once more that a movie is a movie is a movie, and that the cinema is eternally in the present tense. —Ed.

Jean Renoir, son of the great painter and a great artist in his own right, is—by temperament—somewhat at odds with the naturalism of Emile Zola, though he has twice made highly regarded films from books by Zola (his second film was Nana, 1926). But his modernized La Bête humaine is proof that Zola could be an inspiration as well as a cogent and productive challenge to both the generosity and the irony in Renoir’s libertarian vision. The film’s modern setting gives the naturalist’s deterministic psychology a special twist: Renoir’s people here are heirs to Zola’s, and yet as selfconscious and self-aware moderns living in the age of psychoanalysis, their applications of deterministic views to their own lives restates the problem in a newer and even more challenging way. When Gabin and Simon embrace in the rain, the embrace is undercut by their haunted (and separate) gazes: they are already anticipating the destiny which their fatalism nourishes.

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Blu-ray/DVD: The Sicilian Clan

Three of the great icons of French crime cinema team up for The Sicilian Clan (France, 1969) (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD). Jean Gabin is Vittorio Manalese, the head of the Sicilian Manalese clan in Paris, Alain Delon the reckless, amoral French criminal and killer Roger, who hires Vittorio’s clan to spring him from custody, and Lino Ventura Commissaire Le Goff, the man who captured Roger. After Roger escapes, Le Goff struggles with is efforts to give up smoking.

The film opens with a terrific escape, not from prison but from prison transport in the chaos of a traffic snarl, in a nicely-engineered sequence crisply directed by Henri Verneuil. No guns needed here—the Manalese clan doesn’t kill during their capers—and Vittorio is wary of Roger, a loner who has killed more than one cop in his robberies, as he puts him up in a private apartment above the family home. But when Roger brings a big jewel heist his way, he agrees to partner up and proceeds to find a New York partner and case the target: an exhibition hall in Rome with state-of-the-art security. Vittorio meets up with distant New York mob cousin Tony Nicosia (played with dapper charm by Amadeo Nazzari), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years, and they slip into instant rapport and easy friendship as if no time has passed as they case the Rome exhibit. When they find the new technology impenetrable, Vittorio comes up with a new plan: hijacking the flight delivering the jewels to New York City in a genuine family affair.

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Jean Gabin

Turner Classic Movies inspired the love and gratitude of cinephiles—yet again—by devoting one day (August 18) of its annual “Summer Under the Stars” extravaganza to the iconic French actor Jean Gabin. Moreover, apart from La Grande Illusion, La Bête humaine, Pépé le Moko, and Le Jour se lève, most of the 24 hours’ worth of features would be new to Stateside viewers. The event gave me an excuse to post a cine-bio of Gabin written for a 1996 project but never published. —RTJ

JEAN GABIN
Born as Jean-Alexis Moncorge, May 17, 1904; Meriel, France
Death:  November 16, 1976

With his earthy presence, working-class features, and imperturbable gaze that has seen everything life has to show him, Jean Gabin was an icon of French cinema—and French manhood—for more than four decades. His trademark roles were weary drifters, taciturn lovers, and victims of blind destiny, and he eventually became rather too familiar in them. But he was also capable of an extraordinary sensitivity, the more affecting for his stoical calm, and in his best films he was an exemplary screen actor.

His parents were café entertainers, and he made his own first foray into show business at 19 as—hard to imagine—a Folies-Bergère dancer. He rose to leading man opposite the legendary Mistinguette, and also worked in music halls and operettas. None of this comports with the screen image Gabin began to develop in 1930, at age 34. A star from Maria Chapdelaine in 1934, he played opposite Josephine Baker in Zou-Zou (1934) and, in 1936, made his first film with Jean Renoir, Les Bas-fonds/The Lower Depths; its closing image—Gabin and the leading lady setting off down a bleak road with little hope but in good cheer—could be the emblem of his filmography. Renoir straightaway cast him as the proletarian pilot opposite Pierre Fresnay’s refined aristocrat in the WWI prisoner-of-war classic La Grande Illusion (1937), and his international reputation was launched.

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