Jean Gabin has been labelled “the tragic hero of contemporary cinema”: He was France’s greatest male star for several decades and his presence became an asset to what amounts to roll call of some of France’s most distinguished pre-New Wave directors (Duvivier, Carné, Renoir, Gremillon, and later, Becker. Many of his performances were subdued, watchful and reflective but he was very capable of strong action and of erupting into forceful violence when the moment demanded him to cut loose.
He made his first impression in Duvivier’s Maria Chapdelaine as the soulful fur trapper (in love with Madeleine Renaud) who dies a cruel death in the icy Canadian wilderness while trying to return to his fiancée. He went on to establish for Duvivier the archetypal doomed anti-hero first as the Moroccan-based legionnaire in the extraordinary La Bandera, then in the title role of its more famous successor Pepe le Moko. The latter established Gabin’s vulnerable humanity in being drawn not only to dangerous innocent waifs like Michele Morgan in Carné’s Quai des Brumes, but also to manipulative femmes fatales like Mireille Balin both in Pepe le Moko and in Gremillon’s marvellous Gueule d’Amour. In many ways, his active/passive screen persona had affinities with Robert Mitchum’s during the late 1940s when Mitchum became a key noir icon in Hollywood films noir like Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.
Great as Gabin was in Carné’s (and screenwriter Prevert’s) lyrical fog and doom laden fables (Le Jour Se Leve, Quai des Brumes), his best work in the late 1930s was, firstly, for Renoir (as the working-class antihero in Les Bas-fonds; as the train driver of La Bête Humaine, a savage, driven performance matched by that of Simone Simon as the woman who degrades, taunts, and is brutally murdered by him; and, especially, as the common man escapee of La Grande Illusion giving him an effortless natural nobility that overshadows that of aristocratic officer Pierre Fresnay).
Secondly, he made two outstanding films for Gremillon. His tugboat captain in Remorques is the better-known, but in Gueule d’Amour he plays the Legionnaire “lover boy” of the film’s title who uses his uniform as a magnet for sexual conquests until he meets the elegant Mireille Balin (in a variation of her rich siren in Pepe le Moko). He first attracts and then seduces her, but ultimately finds her consistently out of his reach. The film traces Gabin’s fall from “pride and glory to self-pity” (Dudley Andrew’s words) where his attempts to re-ignite Balin’s fires out of his military context lead to his degradation as she taunts him with her infidelities; then to increasingly violent outbursts, and finally to strangling her. The film ends with an uncompromising epilogue where the numbed Gabin confesses all to his legionnaire friend as they head back to Morocco. The homoerotic elements implied in this male friendship and what was seen as “the film’s degeneracy” apparently upset the right-wing critics of the time. It’s an unqualified masterpiece.
Gabin worked in in two American films during the Occupation but his Gallic powers failed to translate successfully into the English language. He more than made up for this when he returned to home ground and congenial roles in a number of distinguished French films the best of which included Le Plaisir (for Ophuls), Touchez-pas au Grisbi (for Jacques Becker), and the exhilarating French Can Can (for Jean Renoir).