Brussels, 25 May 1903; brother of the statesman Paul-Henri Spaak.
Married Janine (Spaak), daughters: the actresses Agnès Spaak and
Secretary to the director Jacques Feyder; 1928—first screenplay,
La Torture par l'espérance
; 1949—directed the film
Le Mystère Barton
; 1953—author of the play
Musique pour sourds
In Nice, 4 February 1975.
La Torture par l'espérance (Modot—short)
Les Nouveaux Messieurs (Feyder)
La Petite Lise (Grémillon); Accusée, levez-vous! (M. Tourneur)
Un Coup de téléphone (Lacombe); Dainah la métisse (Grémillon—short); Pan! Pan! (Lacombe—short)
Ce conchon de Morin (Lacombe); Affaire classée (Vanel—short); Le Martyre de l'obèse (Chenal); Il a été perdu une mariée (Joannon)
L'Abbé Constantin (Paulin); La Maison dans la dune (Billon)
Le Grand Jeu (Feyder); Aux portes de Paris (Barrois); Le Voyage imprévu (de Limur)
Pension Mimosas (Feyder); Veille d'armes (L'Herbier); Les Gaietés de la finance (Forrester); Sous la griffe (Christian-Jaque); Les Epoux scandaleux (Lacombe); La Bandera (Duvivier); Les Beaux Jours (M. Allégret); La Kermesse héroïque ( Carnival in Flanders ) (Feyder); La Terre qui meurt (Vallée); Adémaï au moyen age (de Marguenat)
Le Secret de Polichinelle (Berthomieu); La Belle Equipe (Duvivier); Les Loups entre eux (Mathot); Le Mioche (Moguy); L'Homme du jour ( The Man of the Hour ) (Duvivier); La Porte du large (L'Herbier); Les Bas-fonds ( The Lower Depths ) (Renoir)
Une Femme sans importance (Choux); Mollenard (Siodmak); Aloha, le chant des îles (Mathot); Gueule d'amour (Grémillon); Orage (M. Allégret); La Grande Illusion ( Grand Illusion ) (Renoir)
L'Etrange Monsieur Victor (Grémillon); L'Entraîneuse (Valentin); Le Récif de corail (Gleize); La Fin du jour ( The End of the Day ) (Duvivier); Le Dernier Tournant (Chenal)
Remorques (Grémillon); L'Empreinte du Dieu (Moguy); Untel Père et Fils ( The Heart of a Nation ) (Duvivier)
L'Assassinat du Père Noël (Christian-Jaque); Péchés de jeunesse (M. Tourneur); Premier bal (Christian-Jaque); La Maison des sept jeunes filles (Valentin)
Le Lit à colonnes (Tual); À la belle frégate (Valentin); Le Comte de Monte Cristo (Vernay)
Carmen (Christian-Jaque); L'Escalier sans fin (Lacombe); Le Ciel est à vous (Grémillon); La Vie de plaisir (Valentin)
Les Caves du Majestic (Pottier); Le Père Goriot (Vernay)
Jéricho (Calef); Patrie (Daquin); La Part de l'ombre (Delannoy)
L'Affaire du collier de la reine ( The Queen's Necklace ) (L'Herbier); L'Idiot ( The Idiot ) (Lampin); Panique (Duvivier); L'Homme au chapeau rond (Billon); Les Chouans (Calef); La Revanche de Roger-la-Honte (Cayatte)
Une Belle Garce (Daroy); Eternel conflit (Lampin); Route sans issue (Stelli)
D'homme à hommes ( Man to Men ) (Christian-Jaque); Le Dessous des cartes (Cayatte); Retour à la vie (Cayatte, Lampin, and Dréville); Combats sans haine (Michel—doc)
Le Mystère Barton (+ d); Black Jack (Duvivier); Portrait d'un assassin (Roland)
Justice est faite ( Justice Is Done ) (Cayatte); Albert 1er, Roi des Belges (Gaspard-Huit—doc)
Le Banquet des fraudeurs (Storck); La Nuit est mon royaume (Lacombe)
Nous sommes tous des assassins (Cayatte); Les Sept Péchés capitaux ( The Seven Capital Sins ) (De Filippo); Adorables Créatures ( Adorable Creatures ) (Christian-Jaque)
La Pensionnaire (Lattuada); Jeunes Mariés (Grangier); Opinione pubblica (Corgnati); Avant le déluge (Cayatte)
Le Grand Jeu ( Flesh and Women ) (Siodmak); Thérèse Raquin (Carné); Scuola elementare (Lattuada)
Vestire gli ignudi (Pagliero); Recontre à Paris (Lampin); Le Dossier noir (Cayatte)
Paris-Palace-Hôtel (Verneuil); Crime et châtiment (Lampin)
Charmants garçons (Decoin); Quand la femme s'en mêle (Y. Allégret)
Christine (Gaspard-Huit); Les Tricheurs ( The Cheaters ) (Carné)
Normandie-Niemen (Dréville); Vers l'extase (Wheeler)
Katia ( Magnificent Sinner ) (Siodmak); "Le Divorce" ep. of La Française et l'amour ( Love and the Frenchwoman ) (Christian-Jaque)
Le Caporal épinglé (Renoir); Mathias Sandorf (Lampin); La Chambre ardente ( The Burning Court ) (Duvivier); Cartouche (de Broca)
La Glaive et la balance ( Two Are Guilty ) (Cayatte); Germinal (Y. Allégret); Blague dans le coin (Labro)
Un Milliard dans un billard (Gessner)
La Main à couper (Perier)
With others, La Kermesse héroïque (script) in Avant-Scène (Paris), May 1963.
With Jean Renoir, Grande Illusion (script), New York, 1968.
Eventail (Paris), 11 January 1925–14 February 1926.
"Gaston Modot," in Cinéa-Ciné pour tous , no. 80, 1927.
"A propos du Capitaine Fracasse (Alberto Cavalcanti)," in Cinegraph , no. 5, 1929.
"Cagliostro (Richard Oswald)," in Cinegraph , no. 4, 1929.
"Jean Gabin ou Gueule d'amour sur un fond de taffetas," in Cinémonde , no. 476, 1937.
"Trop tard . . .," in L'Écran français , no. 8, 1945.
"Le Pain des rêves," in Le Cinéma en l'an 2000 , Edition Rond-Point, 1945.
" La Grande Illusion ," in Paris-Cinéma , no. 47, 1946.
"Mes 31 mariages" (serialized) in Paris-Cinéma , nos. 4–29, 31 October 1945–23 April 1946.
"Autour d'un verdict," in Paris-Cinéma , no. 62, 1947.
" Les Chouans ," in L'Ecran français , no. 92, 1947.
"Des scénaristes et du scénario," in Syntheses , no. 2, 1947.
"Jacques Feyder, scénariste," in Ciné-Club (Paris), no. 2, December 1948.
" Le Mystère Barton ," in L'Ecran français , no. 216, 1949.
"Le Scénario," in Le Cinéma par ceux qui le font , Paris, 1949.
"La censure cinématographique," in Le Courrier de l'Unesco , vol. 4, no. 9, 1951.
" Le Banquet des fraudeurs ," in Notre Europe , no. 13, 1952.
Film Culture (New York), December 1957.
"Jean . . .," in Les Lettres Françaises , 3 December 1959.
"Normandie-Niemen," in Les Lettres Françaises , 25 February 1960.
"Le Scénariste, ce métier de dupe," in Cinéma univers de l'absence? , PUF, éditions Privat, 1960.
"Le Scénariste, ce métier de dupe," in Télécine (Paris), January/February 1961.
Nouveau Cinémonde (Paris), 30 September 1969.
"Des producteurs: Nos petites auberges," in Cinéma (Paris), November 1983.
Spaak, Janine, Charles Spaak, mon mari , Paris, 1977.
Bernat, Mario, and Jacqueline Van Nypelseer, Charles Spaak, les Années d'apprentissage (1919–27) , 1994.
Unifrance Film (Paris), August 1950.
Vincent, C., in Cinéma (Paris), no. 109, 1953.
Radio Cinéma Télévision (Paris), no. 173, May 1953, and no. 182, July 1953.
Film Culture , vol. 3, no. 5, December 1957.
Film Français (Paris), no. 1571, March 1975.
Technicien du Film (Paris), no. 224, March 1975.
Ecran (Paris), no. 35, April 1975.
Gauteur, Claude, and Geneviève Sellier, in Cinéma (Paris), November 1983.
Film Français (Paris), no. 2511, June 1994.
* * *
In a career that embraced both the silent era and the New Wave, Charles Spaak was a mainstay of the French cinema for some 40 years, providing more than 100 scripts for more than 40 directors. If he lacked the enviable originality of Prévert or Jeanson's brilliance for dialogue, Spaak outstripped his two contemporaries as a sure-footed, prolific writer of neatly crafted scenarios noted for clear structures and well-delineated character parts. For Spaak filmmaking was a symbiotic undertaking between scriptwriter and director and, for the partnership to work, shared moral, political, and philosophical attitudes were essential. The most fruitful exchange of creative energy came with Feyder, Renoir, Grémillon and Cayatte, though few would discount his collaborations with Duvivier, Christian-Jaque, or Carné.
Spaak's early career was fostered by his fellow Belgian, Jacques Feyder, initially as his secretary then as co-adapter of Les Nouveaux Messieurs . Original scenarios followed in the mid-thirties, with indications of Spaak's abiding themes and concern for tightly woven narratives. In Le Grand Jeu , set in a Moroccan cabaret, the themes of fate and self-destructive passion are explored through a legionnaire's obsession for a Parisian vamp, while in Pension Mimosas , the owner of a Nice guest house is consumed by a secret passion for her wayward godson. The same year saw the triumph of La Kermesse héroïque which, through a deftly constructed narrative replete with dramatic set-pieces, tells how resourceful Flemish women, abandoned by their cowardly husbands, handled to their own satisfaction, invading Spaniards.
The thirties also saw important associations begin with Duvivier and Renoir. Spaak's work with Duvivier included five original scenarios and three adaptations, namely La Bandera , Panique , and La Chambre ardente . If all testify to Spaak's skill in distilling workable scenarios with attractive main roles, La Bandera is particularly significant as the film which established Jean Gabin as the sympathetic male destroyed by a treacherous woman. The collaborative chemistry, so essential to Spaak, was occasionally lacking with Duvivier, but in their two undoubted successes the writer's abiding concern with community is evident. In La Belle Equipe —frequently taken to embody the collectivist ideology of the Popular Front—a group of unemployed men wins the lottery and opens a restaurant, only to find their unity of purpose threatened by another of Spaak's alluring vamps. Collective commitment is again central to La Fin du jour where a heterogeneous group of actors, often disputing between themselves, defend their retirement home against closure. Both films derive dramatic intensity from Spaak's typically tight focus on place and action.
Spaak's limited work with Renoir was also amongst his finest. After the contentious free rendering of Gorky's Les Bas-Fonds came collaboration on an original scenario: La Grande Illusion . Here, in an expression of the humanistic values dear to both men, fraternity and collective endeavor are tested in a World War I prison camp setting. The simple narrative allows a marvelous array of emblematic characters, all clearly differentiated through Spaak's dialogue. In the senseless world of conflict, honorable foes display their common humanity and seek to mitigate the evil in which they are haplessly embroiled.
Spaak's third major partner in the thirties and early forties was Jean Grémillon. After the melodramatic tale of self-sacrifice in La Petite Lise , their most notable collaborations were a psychological study of a man prepared to see his neighbor condemned for his own crime, L'Étrange Monsieur Victor ; the uplifting account of individual endeavor in Le Ciel est à vous where a determined garage-owner's wife learns to fly; and two films featuring Jean Gabin: Gueule d'amour and Remorques . In the first, Gabin is the eponymous gueule d' amour , the handsome playboy driven to kill a flirtatious woman he cannot control, while in the second he plays a happily married tugboat captain tragically besotted with a woman he rescues. Both films extended Gabin's screen image as the attractive male ensnared by sexually dangerous women.
Spaak's postwar portfolio is largely characterized by his association with André Cayatte, but significant films with several other directors confirm the writer's admirable range. He co-wrote Calef's Jéricho exposing myths about French heroism during the Occupation; co-wrote Christian-Jaque's film about a fashion designer's memories in Adorables Créatures ; worked with Carné on a free adaptation of Zola's Thérèse Raquin; and provided the original scenario for Storck's Le Banquet des fraudeurs . His association with Cayatte came to fruition in the fifties with films concerned with fundamental moral issues. Justice est faite explores euthanasia through the trial of a woman who kills her terminally ill lover; in Nous sommes tous des assassins , capital punishment is brought into question through the exposure of a criminal's social circumstances; while in Avant le déluge the problem of delinquency is investigated when youths kill a security guard. The cycle is completed by Le Dossier noir , highlighting deficiencies in the judicial system, and Le Glaive et la balance , where natural justice becomes an issue as a lynch mob take revenge on acquitted kidnappers.
In the course of his long career Spaak adapted numerous literary classics, though he never articulated a theory of adaptation. For Yves Allégret he scripted a scaled-down version of Zola's Germinal ; with Carné he updated and transposed the action of Thérèse Raquin to 1950s Lyons and with Lampin he relocated Crime et châtiment to modern-day Paris, while reworkings of L'Idiot and Les Bas-fonds also espoused the tradition of artistic freedom. Common to all Spaak's adaptations is the practiced screenwriter's awareness of what is filmically viable.
Although Spaak worked closely with many different directors, his personal, morally conservative, often misogynistic, but steadfastly humanistic vision emerges from his original scenarios and the emphasis achieved in adaptation. Despite a belief in human solidarity, a pessimism permeates his scenarios with their characteristically unhappy endings. Well-intentioned individuals are overcome by forces outside their control, decent males are led astray by treacherous females. Spaak's practice led to solid, well-oiled plot mechanisms, often shaped through flashback, with richly satisfying parts differentiated through convincing, character-specific, dialogue. Though applauding the technical innovations of the New Wave, Spaak was unhappy with the cult of amoral individualism and immediacy, while as a conscientious, painstaking craftsman, the emphasis on creative spontaneity and unscripted dialogue was an anathema. His high-quality scenarios for successive generations of directors constituted an enduring benchmark for other writers: few, however, could emulate his colossal achievement either in quality or quantity.
—R. F. Cousins