Director: Marcel Carné
Production: VOG Sigma (Paris); black and white, 35mm; running time: 85 minutes; length 7995 feet. Released 1939. Filmed in Paris Studios Cinema, Billancourt.
Producer: Brachet; screenplay: Jacques Viot; adaptation and dialogue: Jacques Prévert; photography: Curt Courant, Philippe Agostini, and André Bac; editor: René le Henaff; sound recordist: Arman Petitjean; production designer: Alexandre Trauner; music: Maurice Jaubert; costume designer: Boris Bilinsky.
Cast: Jean Gabin ( François ); Jacqueline Laurent ( Françoise ); Arletty ( Clara ); René Génin ( Concierge ); Mady Berry ( Concierge's wife ); Jules Berry ( M. Valentin ); Marcel Pérè ( Paulo ); Jacques Baumer ( Inspector ); René Bergeron ( Cafe proprietor ); Gabrielle Fonton ( Woman on the stairs ); Arthur Devère ( M. Gerbois ); Georges Douking ( Blind Man ); Bernard Blier ( Gaston ).
Viot, Jacques, and Jacques Prévert, Le Jour se lève in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), October 1965; translated as Le jour se lève: A Film , New York, 1970.
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* * *
Coming at the very end of a decade in which the French cinema reigned intellectually supreme, Le jour se lève was the culminating achievement of the school known as "poetic realism." Fifty years on, the realism looks uncommonly like romanticism, but there can be little doubt about the poetry. The film is suffused with a bittersweet fatalism, a soft, drifting melancholy that invests the drab settings of factory and tenement with its own sad romance. The characters, hero and villain alike, seem to move in a dream, progressing with stoic resignation towards their inescapable destiny. The parallel with prewar France, awaiting defeat with mesmerized passivity, has often been drawn, and is indeed hard to avoid.
The circularity of the film's structure mirrors its fatalistic mood— what will happen, must happen, for we have already seen it happen. In the opening seconds, a man is shot, reeling mortally wounded down the tenement stairs. As police arrive and a crowd gathers, the killer barricades himself in his attic room; and through the long night, smoking his last cigarettes, he recalls events that led him to kill. By way of a carefully structured series of flashbacks, we return full circle to the shooting, seeing it this time from inside the room. As dawn breaks, the police prepare an assault. A final shot is heard; a cloud of tear-gas creeps over a lifeless body in the early rays of the sun; and abruptly, the noise of the dead man's alarm-clock breaks the silence.
Gabin's performance, as the besieged killer, stands as the epitome of his prewar persona as doomed proletarian anti-hero, developed through Duvivier's Pépé le Moko , Renoir's Labête humaine , and his previous Carné film, Quai des brumes. Equally outstanding is Jules Berry's portrayal of his victim, the sadistic animal trainer so compulsively dedicated to destruction that he even brings about his own death in order to destroy others. Le jour se lève —like Quai des brumes and all Carné's other early films—was made in close collaboration with his scriptwriter, the poet Jacques Prévert, whose wit, love of language, and fatalistic poetry permeate the film to such a degree that his name should stand with the director's as co-creator.
Le jour se lève was banned under the Vichy regime, accused of having contributed to the debacle of 1940. (Carné responded that the barometer should hardly be blamed for the storm it foretells.) Widely shown and acclaimed after the war, it was then suppressed again in 1947, this time by RKO, to make way for Anatole Litvak's crass remake, The Long Night (with Henry Fonda in the Gabin role). Rumours that all prints had been destroyed proved mercifully unfounded. Carné's film resurfaced during the 1950s, and is now generally acknowledged, together with Les enfants du paradis , as the finest product of his partnership with Prévert. The film's pre-war despair has transmuted into nostalgic melancholy, closer now to Ophüls than to Renoir; its romantic appeal seems likely to survive undimmed.