Confession time. I have a serious man-crush on Jean Gabin. Same for Alain Delon. Same for Jean-Paul Belmondo. In fact, any of the great Gallic icons. It’s the cool hats. The hats, and that knack they had for making everyone wish they were French. Even people who’d been to France and knew that being French basically meant a lifetime of shrugging and brushing baguette crumbs off your jumper.
But it's mainly Gabin. He was born a generation before his friend Belmondo and (the French-Swiss) Delon, and blazed a trail as one of the first superstars of French cinema. He died many years ago, but his standing is underlined this month by a BFI season that delves into his immensely classy filmography. I can’t recommend it enough. Here’s five reasons to catch Gabin on the big screen.
He owned the late '30s... Gabin’s partnership with Jean Renoir yielded two great films in as many years – one, La Bete Humaine, very nearly a masterpiece; the other, La Grande Illusion, very actually one. There was also the terrific Underworld, the Casbah-set thriller Pépé Le Moko with Julien Duvivier, and Daybreak and Quai Des Brumes with Marcel Carné. As hot streaks go, it’s better than anything Johnny Depp’s managed lately.
He could out-Bogey Bogart Gabin had working class roots and French audiences loved him with a sooted-up face (Bete Humaine) or the stoic mien of an enlisted mechanic (Grande Illusion). Personally, I think he’s at his best in a tight corner with only his wits and a selection of natty hats to fall back on. He didn’t have too many “Made it Ma!” moments – his screen presence only threatens to come to the boil - but still created charismatic antiheroes like Quai Des Brumes’ deserter or the ageing gangster in Don’t Touch The Loot.
He had more chemistry than Beaker Gabin alchemised his rugged good looks and charm into an on-screen aphrodisiac. From the unfeasibly beautiful Michèle Morgan in Quai Des Brumes, to Simone Simon in Bete Humaine to Arletty in Daybreak, tough female characters fell under his spell. As an Algerian informer smirks in Pépé Le Moko: “When he’s killed, there will be 3000 widows at his funeral.”
He could work with animals There was rarely any place for children in Gabin’s brute world, but he could definitely work with animals. In fact, he can’t get rid of the dog in Quai Des Brumes. I love the scene in Grande Illusion where he spends a minute or two chatting with a cow. Which movie stars – and don’t say Jim Carrey – would be seen dead interacting with next week’s roast beef? Gabin would. “You’re from Wurtemberg and I’m from Paris,” he informs the cow, “but we’re friends anyway.”
He liberated Paris Okay, not personally – even Gabin had his limits – but he was part of the Free French forces that seized back his home town from the Germans in 1944. He also won the Croix de Guerre in North Africa. Imagine your average A-lister abandoning the jumbo trailer to go off and sucker-punch the Taliban - only for "Taliban" read "panzers". I think he might have taken Goebbels’ review of La Grande Illusion personally.
Quai Des Brumes is playing at the BFI Southbank until May 31. ‘Jean Gabin: Working-Class Hero to Godfather’ runs at the BFI until the end of the month.