The birth of a genre, French noir 1930 – 1960
When thinking of “film noir” the names that spring immediately to mind are Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh, Sam Fuller… Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, James Cagney, Robert Mitchum… But across the Atlantic the genre was also gaining momentum in French cinemas. Long before India and China entered the arena, France was the world’s second most prolific film making nation behind the USA – with as strong a national identity as its cuisine.
Two seismic events shaped the evolution of cinema in the 1930s: the advent of sound recording and the Great Depression. In the USA the main cinematic themes were the lavish escapism of Busby Berkeley, Astaire and Rogers et cetera, and the countless gangster movies involving the likes of Paul Muni and James Cagney, both genres catering to the wish fulfilment of an impoverished audience that still still flocked to the movies.
Even during the Depression Hollywood films were produced with budgets their European counterparts could only dream of. Wanting to preserve the French film industry, and no doubt la culture francaise as well, the French government introduced a quota system that reduced the amount of American imports and also gave domestic film-makers modest financial incentives – but in the main film making in France remained a relatively low-budget industry.
While escapist musicals and costume dramas certainly featured in 1930s French cinema (many of them interestingly co-produced with German companies), audiences flocked to see films that reflected their own lives and backgrounds too. A genre of films that showed working class lives became mainstream. Perhaps in part due to budget restrictions, and possibly due to the influence of left wing ideas amongst many writers and directors, much of the cream of the French classic cinema concerned itself with working class lives. Below I describe some of the films that help define French noir and French cinema’s portrayal of working class life.
Jean Vigo’s “Atlante” (1934) tells the story of newly-wed barge skipper Jean (Jean Daste) and Juliette (the wonderful Dita Parlo), and Juliette’s compulsion to escape the tedium of ship-board life to taste the pleasures of the big city, only to find it’s not the paradise she’d imagined. The film counterbalances the simple drudgery of life on the canals with a great depth of emotion. The stars are not just the young couple, but the flat industrial landscapes of northern France… and the crusty, enigmatic old first mate, le Pere Jules, marvellously played by character actor Michel Simon.
“Pepe le Moko” (Julien Duvivier, 1937) stars French cinema stalwart Jean Gabin as Pepe, a notorious French gangster hiding out in the Algiers casbah. He knows that as long as he remains in the honeycomb of dives, hovels, shops and brothels that form the casbah, among the thieves, beggars, traders, prostitutes and other locals whose company he keeps, he’s safe from the pursuing Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux). Trouble arrives with the appearance of alluring Parisienne Gaby (Mirelle Balin), who reminds him of the life he’s left behind. Almost inevitably, and against his better judgement, he allows his feelings for Gaby to lure him from his sanctuary. While the casbah may appear a little romanticised, the feel of the film is classically noir.
Marcel Carne was a master of French noir, and one of his best remembered films is “le Jour se Leve” (1939). Jean Gabin stars as Francois, a factory worker, holed up in a top-floor apartment, with armed police closing in on him. Told in flashback, the film recounts Francois’ attraction for young florist Francois (Jaqueline Laurent), and her reluctance to commit to him due to her mysterious liaison with seedy, older musical hall performer Valentin (Jules Berry). Things get more complicated as Francois takes up with Valentin’s ex, Clara (Arletty), while still having eyes for Francoise. Things come to a head when Valentin taunts Francois with details about his dalliance with the younger woman, leading to a scuffle in which Valentin is fatally wounded. As dawn breaks, Francois chooses to die in a hail of bullets rather than at the end of a rope.
Next I include Henri Georges Clouzot’s “Quai des Orfevres” (1947), not because it’s one of the best of the genre – it isn’t – but because it’s so typical. Jenny (Suzy Delair) sings in a music hall, accompanied on the piano by her unassuming husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). Maurice, mistakenly believing the vivacious Jenny of having an affair with with a lecherous old businessman takes a gun and goes to have it out with the would-be lothario – only to find him dead. Jenny, who had earlier clobbered the businessman with a candelabra whilst fighting him off, mistakenly believes she has killed him, but Maurice offers to carry the burden of guilt to save her. It’s left to Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) from the Quai des Orfevres to unravel the mess and find the real culprit, but the film is memorable for its portrayal of the seamy side of Paris. It’s also notable for its treatment of Jenny’s lesbian fiend and would-be lover, and Antoine’s adopted black son, as utterly un-notable facets of the film.
Not many of Rene Clair’s films could be described as noir, but “Porte de Lilas” (1957) certainly does. This film dates from the twilight of the classic period and benefits from the presence of Georges Brassens (his only cinematic appearance), who acts as a kind of musical narrator to the film. Juju (Pierre Brasseur) is a drunk who falls for Maria (Dany Carrel) and renounces the bottle. He gives shelter to fleeing hoodlum Pierre (Henri Vidal), and even keeps him out of harm’s way when he takes up with Maria. When he gets wind that Pierre is about to abandon and betray Maria, however, he snaps and kills the hood. Left with nothing, he takes refuge in alcohol once more. Again, a working class area of Paris takes centre stage, along with the characters of the quatier.
Class is a theme that runs through much of the cinema of the classic period. Moving away from noir, Rene Clair’s “A nous la Liberte” (1931) is about the corrupting influence of money and power (and the dehumanising effects of the machine age), shown in a deceptively light-hearted manner.
Many say Chaplin plagiarised the movie in his classic “Modern Times” (1936). Some of the similarities are indeed remarkable.
In two of Jean Renoir’s finest films, “La Grande Illusion” and “La Regle du Jeu” (1937 and 1939), a main theme is the absurdity and increasing irrelevance of the ruling classes. While many people cite Regle du Jour as Renoir’s finest, I prefer Grande Illusion by a short head. The aristocratic de Boeldieu sacrifices himself to aid the escape of working class Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the bourgeois Jewish Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) from a forbidding German prison (which uncannily foreshadows the Colditz Story), thereby acknowledging that they are the future and the aristocracy a dying breed.
Lastly country folk should not be forgotten. Several French films centred on country life, many of them comedies starring the incomparable Fernandel. Just to give a flavour, I’m including the Fernandel-less “La Femme du Boulanger” (Marcel Pagnol, 1937), which is many miles from being definable as noir, but as an affectionate mirror of Provencal villagers’ lives it is an absolute gem. The premise is simple: Aimable the baker (Raimu) is married to gorgeous young Ginette (Aurelie Castanier), who promptly runs off with a handsome young shepherd. The villagers are at first amused by the inconsolable Aimable’s plight, but when he refuses to bake any more bread they realise the situation is serious and mount a village-wide campaign to bring young Ginette back to her senses. The details of village life are beautifully observed, and the villagers portrayed with great humour and affection.
I’ve limited the above selection to films I know and love. It goes without saying there are glaring omissions, and my choice is absolutely personal. None the less, I think I’ve given a flavour of those wonderful film-makers’ achievements.
The end of the 1950s marked the end of the classic period. Auteur film-makers such as Francois Truffaut, Jean Luc-Godard, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, Eric Rohmer (et al) were ushering in a new wave.
As an angry young film-maker Truffaut wrote in Les Cahiers du Cinema that the future of film lay with the young, that cinema had to go out onto the streets, and that the old cinema classique was dead. In later years he retracted that statement and declared that he and his colleagues owed a great debt to the old film-makers. That goes for all cinema.
Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.