Foundry worker Francois (Gabin) shoots and kills Valentin (Berry), then holes up in a room in a guest house. The film respools to reveal the circumstances that put Francois in such a desperate position.
A kind of Scorsese-De Niro-Schrader of French ‘30s cinema, director Marcel Carné, actor Jean Gabin and screenwriter Jacques Prevert followed the classic Quai Des Brumes with the equally brilliant Le Jour Se Lève (Daybreak) the following year.
A terrific crim-holed-up-in-a-building drama combined with a touching ménage a trois, the action begins with Gabin’s honest factory worker committing a crime of passion, flitting between the doomed love affair (with radiant Jacqueline Laurent) that has caused his agony and the growing police response outside his window.
For film buffs, it has Gabin’s immense performance, muscular, sensitive and effortlessly cool, a clutch of great supporting turns (Jules Berry is a particularly slimy love rival), terrific set design by the legendary Alexandre Trauner (a shot following Gabin down the stairs is a thing of magic) and Carné’s sense of poetry in down and dirty locations.
For fans of chemical weaponry, it also has cinema’s greatest use of tear gas. But it really is just a gripping, moving yarn. RKO remade the film in 1947 as The Long Night and attempted to destroy every print.
Exciting, beautiful and tragic, this remains essential cinema, French or otherwise.