Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Archetypal French melodrama of the thirties

I have just been watching Le Quai des Brumes, Marcel Carné's 1938 film with Alexis Moncourgé, better known as Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan and Michel Simon. It was acclaimed for its melancholic realism, downbeat poetry, foetid atmosphere and unity of time, space and action, and as an early exemplar of the doomed lovers syndrome which Hollywood picked up after World War Two. This still from it suggests, perhaps partly because of the dreadful hats, that it was a kind of French Brief Encounter, but of course it was nothing of the sort.

It's not really all that enjoyable nowadays, not as good as other Gabinerie of the period such as La Grande Illusion, La Belle Equipe and above all Pépé le Moko, with which it shares its ending—a ship sailing off while the hero dies. It is many years since I last saw the film, and I had remembered only Gabin's line which many of us have found worth stealing: T'as de beaux yeux, tu sais, and the bit where he lies in the street with several bullets in him and whispers with his last breath: Embrasse-moi, vite! On est pressé...

The villain was played by Pierre Brasseur, who had apparently been unkind to Michèle Morgan while they were filming. Gabin was much angered by this, and when they came to shoot a scene in which he was required to clout Brasseur twice he did not fake it in the usual way. Thus it was that "...on obtint alors l'une des plus belles paires de claques de l'histoire du cinéma".

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