- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

Every durable acting career needs to be reinvented every so often. The current revival of the 50-year-old French crime melodrama “Touchez pas au Grisbi,” booked exclusively at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, illustrates a third-act adjustment that flattered Jean Gabin. Although still a formidable name then, in his late 40s, he also was a performer in need of a distinctive new hit.

“Grisbi,” directed by Jacques Becker, showcases Gabin as a Montmarte gangster who dignifies a sordid and treacherous criminal milieu by emphasizing discretion and foresight. Ultimately, he’s obliged to stage a deadly rescue mission for the partner who ignores all his precepts. The actor seemed to acquire a lasting middle-aged popularity, along with an aura of worldly wisdom, as a result of this film and Jean Renoir’s show-business chronicle “French Can-Can,” which cast Gabin as a cagey theatrical impresario

The pre-eminent male star of French movies during the late 1930s, Gabin had not enjoyed a major success for more than a decade. He chose exile after the German defeat of France in 1940, using a contract offer from Darryl F. Zanuck as the initial pretext for departure. He made one minor film in Hollywood, “Moontide,” and a second English-language thriller, “The Impostor,” shot for the most part in Algeria while he was serving with Free French military forces.

The director of the latter film, Julien Duvivier, had made a trio of films with Gabin in the mid-1930s. The first, “La Bandera” in 1935, was regarded as the actor’s breakthrough hit; its successor a year later, “Pepe le Moko,” remains one of the indelible Gabin vehicles. He was cast as exiles in both movies: a fugitive murderer who joins the Spanish Foreign Legion in “La Bandera,” which has just resurfaced in a DVD version, and a Parisian gangster who has become a celebrated thief and power broker within the byzantine Casbah district of colonial Algiers in “Pepe le Moko.”

The Duvivier influence was supplanted in the latter part of the 1930s by Gabin collaborations with Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne. The Duvivier reputation also declined in the decades after World War II, but it’s difficult to overlook the zest and proficiency that still distinguish many of his hits, particularly “Pepe le Moko” during the Gabin phase. His directing career extended from 1919 to the 1960s. A French exile in London and then Hollywood during World War II, he made the multipart, all-star productions “Tales of Manhattan” and “Flesh and Fantasy,” blending romance and the supernatural. They remain eminently watchable, if something less than classic or indispensable.

Jean Gabin returned to France in 1944 as part of the liberation units commanded by Gens. Charles de Gaulle and Philippe Leclerc. This patriotic association struck a far more hopeful note than his characteristic starring vehicles before departing. The most famous Gabin movie of the late 1930s, Jean Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion,” is a sublime exception. Lt. Marechal, the captured French aviator destined to spend much of World War I as a prisoner of war, is the most down-to-earth and stable character Gabin portrayed during this period.

As a rule, the actor played deceived or disillusioned young outcasts. Suicidal despair catches up with his characters in “Pepe le Moko,” Renoir’s “La Bete humaine” and Carne’s “Le Jour Se Leve.” His character in “La Bandera” enters with blood on his hands, the consequence of a stabbing on a dark Paris street that remains unexplained for the duration of the film. Down and out in Barcelona while on the run, protagonist Pierre Gilieth decides to join the Spanish Foreign Legion, and he ostensibly redeems himself as a soldier.

The production looks too skimpy to authenticate anything that purports to be a battle scene. The conflicts never transcend that mean street in Paris. Pierre remains preoccupied with a suspicious fellow soldier, Lucas, played by Robert Le Vigan, who turns out to be an undercover policeman intent on his capture. The tarnished hero also is stalked passionately by an Arab dancing girl, Aischa, played by Annabella. It’s her sense of loss that leaves a vivid impact on the fadeout. Indeed, Pierre is too preoccupied with his guilty and haunted past to recognize that this exotic creature might be a lifesaver.

Gabin’s subsequent doomed heroes weren’t quite so simple-minded. They destroyed themselves by acting rashly or desperately, but they certainly betrayed inklings that survival power might be embodied in certain consorts. Disregarding this alternative always leaves Gabin a goner. His Pepe, for example, must reject a devoted mistress named Ines (Line Noro) in order to follow the French fortune hunter Gaby (Mireille Balin), who lures him to the brink of doom. It’s a fatal cultural choice as well, because safety and prosperity are synonymous with remaining an expatriate prince of the underworld in the Casbah.

Once you’re familiar with “Pepe le Moko,” its predecessor is bound to resemble a false start. French audiences may have been alerted to something distinctive about Jean Gabin in “La Bandera,” but it was surely the exuberant good humor and self-confidence of Pepe that made him an irresistibly attractive image of a movie outlaw. The romance of the Casbah flatters Pepe far more than a uniform flattered Pierre, the runaway killer.

The great French movie critic Andre Bazin once asked, “Is it not peculiar that the commercial requirement of the ‘happy ending,’ which drives so many producers to weaken their ‘sad’ films with false resolutions … does not apply to one of the most popular and sympathetic actors, one we always hope will be happy, marry and have many children?”

It is peculiar. The return of “Grisbi” suggests that it took almost a generation for French filmmakers to figure out how to preserve Jean Gabin as a prodigal son with undeniable staying power.

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