A man is shot behind a closed door. He stumbles from the apartment and tumbles down the stairs, passing the only witness, a blind man. Police are summoned. The believed shooter has locked himself in his room at the top of the tenement. By all accounts, he's a good man. No one knows who the dead man is, much less why their neighbor shot him. The only one with all the answers is behind a closed door and not talking.
This is the opening scene and basic set-up of Le jour se lève, Marcel Carné's tense 1939 thriller. The shooter is played by the formidable Jean Gabin, one of the more naturalistic and believable actors of early cinema. His presence is like that of Bogie's, his girth a precursor to Gerard Depardieu. But in truth, he is just Gabin, unlike no other. Perfectly believable as a working-class hero, and the kind of personality that could hold our interest pacing a tiny studio all by his lonesome. Which is essentially what he does in Le jour se lève, though his dark night of the soul is mixed up with memory and regret. The title translates as Daybreak, and Jean's character, Francois, will stay barricaded in his apartment overnight, as the police and the townspeople wait for him to reveal himself. He's locked in his own head at the same time, a victim of stinkin' thinkin' not just tonight, but in all the events leading up to this.
Through a series of flashbacks, Carné and writers Jacques Viot and Jacques Prévert reveal that Francois is caught in two intersecting love triangles. He first falls for the pretty Francoise (Jaqueline Laurent) when she comes to his work to deliver flowers to his boss' wife. Francois labors in a factory where the hazardous conditions are affecting his health; in every way, he is a man with a death sentence hanging over his head even before he becomes a murderer. He and the girl quickly bond, the common name between them working as a starting point for what turns out to be a sweet, intimate relationship. Their scenes together are shot quietly, first by necessity (everyone else in the house is asleep) and then just by nature of the love they share. Carné is a tricky bastard. He knows that if someone whispers, the listener will automatically lean in. Here we fall in love because we can't help but climb into the room with the lovers. Francois and Francoise speak so quietly, we are engaged to be a part of their liaison.
On the night when Francois visits her house, he ends up following Francoise after she leaves him for a prior engagement. She ends up at a small theatre where a dog trainer named Valentin (Jules Berry) is putting on a vaudevillian act where his pooches do ludicrous tricks. It also happens to be the night where Valentin and his pretty assistant Clara (Arletty) are splitting. Clara is a more mature woman than the naïve Francoise, and she sees through Valentin in ways the younger girl is not yet sophisticated enough to manage. Clara also spots the beefy Francois at the bar and quickly attaches herself to him. She becomes his mistress while Francoise remains his chaste girlfriend. Yet, the question is what Francoise's relationship to the slimy con man Valentin is, and whether it's as chaste as her connection to Francois.
It's the untangling of Valentin's lies that eventually gets him shot, the act revealed as the climax of Francois's flashbacks and just prior to the full climax of Le jour se lève. Valentin is a creepy cat, and Jules Berry squeezes every ounce of slime out of the performance as he can. There is a natural division between the men, and though we never see their hands, they would be the telltale sign of how different they are. Valentin's hands would be soft, never having seen hard labor, and Francois's would be rough. Valentin crows about his own intelligence, and the postcards he has sent Francoise from around Europe are meant to suggest that he can offer her a life beyond this remote village. Francois is just a dumb brute by comparison, stuck here for life, no prospect of moving on. Even though Francois sees a paying job as his ticket to personal freedom, the girl may not feel the same. This is the stick Valentin pokes him with, and the true measure of Gabin's performance is how much his understated seething makes us seethe on his behalf. Put that gun in my hand, I'd shoot the huckster, too.
Le jour se lève has a lot going on underneath its melodramatic plot. In addition to the bits about the class distinctions, there is also a lot being said about male aggression. It's kind of like Peckinpah's Straw Dogs in reverse, with the smart guy in the role of antagonist. There are also interesting things to be gleaned about the role of women at the time: how they are perceived, and how those perceptions not only define them, but also how they spur the men in their lives to treat them and/or act on their behalf. Clara is arguably a fallen woman, but she is also a realist. Francois is kind of kidding himself when he tells her he's not the romantic type. He demands a certain honesty from her, waiting to judge her beauty until he sees her without her stage make-up, but he lies to himself. He's an absolute romantic, and he's also a total wuss when it comes to ending their relationship. Clara takes it like a trooper, though that doesn't stop her from being a right bitch. I suppose a lifetime of being thrown over for the innocent girls has given her good reason to debunk the myth of that innocence.
Watching Le jour se lève, I had the feeling that I had seen this all before. Not that I found it derivative, but that some other movie had been derived from it. Turns out there was a good reason I felt this way, I hadn't realized that this was the movie Hollywood remade in 1949 as The Long Night, starring Henry Fonda and Vincent Price and directed by Anatole Litvak. I reviewed that film three years ago as part of Kino's Film Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood boxed set. It was my favorite of the box, and though my memories of it are fond, Le jour se lève strikes me as the superior picture. More grimy, less hamstrung by production codes when it comes to the finer details of the love affairs. From what I can recall, the broad strokes are the same, though the ending of each version is more befitting the country of origin. Fonda is actually in a similar talent class as Gabin in terms of solitary action and the way he commands a screen. Both movies also have a cinematic realism that is quite effective. We aren't seeing our wronged men making their bad choices on a soundstage. Small town life, particularly as the neighbors spill out to watch the spectacle of the stand-off, is as much a part Jacques Viot's story as anything else.
One fascinating thing about Le jour se lève is how little it actually explains itself. Or, more accurately, how little we are told about the motivations of Francois. He doesn't make any big speeches to Valentin before he kills him, and really, he is reacting more than anything, goaded into proving the power of his might vs. that of Valentin's twisted talk. There is no such antagonizing factor in his final decision, however; it's still just him all alone. My first impulse was to say that he's a man that doesn't allow decisions to be made for him, and so he maintains control by choosing how it will all play out. Thinking about Gabin's face both times he uses a gun, I realized we really have to read his expressions to understand where his real shame lies. He let Valentin poke and prod him into making a mistake, effectively removing the control from him. It's the one decision that we could say he didn't make for himself, and the last scene of the movie is him taking over his own fate once again. The fade-out is on Francois and no one else. There are no parting words. Just the man in his room.
This disc was a Christmas present from my good friend, the writer Christopher McQuain, and thus got immediately bumped up in my post-holiday queue. Thanks, Chris! Check out his top 10 picks for the films that defined the last decade here.