Julien Duvivier was a French director whose career started in the silent film era, but who found his greatest success later with “talkies.” He had a long career, making movies not just in France, but also in the USA and all around Europe (including a version of Anna Karenina starring Vivien Leigh, out of the UK in 1948) until his death in 1967. Today I’ll be looking at 5 of his early sound films of the 1930’s.
David Golder, from 1931, was Duvivier’s first sound film, and also his first picture with actor Harry Baur (they would collaborate many more times). It’s a grim story, light on plot but heavy on emotion. Golder is a shrewd businessman who is tight with his money at work, but free with it at home, perhaps a little too free. His wife is having a not-so-secret affair but continues to spend Golder’s money at will, and Golder cannot say no to his daughter Joyce either. In fact, when he has heart problems and ends up in the hospital, Joyce goes and buys a new car first, before heading to the hospital to see him. While there recuperating, his estranged wife tells him that Joyce is not his daughter, but is instead the daughter of her paramour. Still, when Joyce’s money runs out and she comes back begging for more, Golder cannot resist and instead goes to make another deal to seal her financial future, despite warnings from his doctors to stay away from stressful work. Don’t expect life to end happy for Golder; people have used him up all of his life. It’s a depressing film, but it is well shot and very well acted by Baur. ★★½
Poil de carotte (Carrottop, AKA The Red Head) is a remake of Duvivier’s earlier silent film of the same name. It is about a boy who is severely mistreated by his mother at home. Though blond, his mother has always sworn there’s red in it, so everyone calls him Carrottop. Mrs Lepic adores the two older children, but abuses Carrottop for every small transgression, berating him verbally and slapping him when the father, Mr Lepic, is not around. This has gone on for years, but a new person in the house may finally put a stop to it. A new maid is hired, Annette, and with her fresh eyes, she immediately sees the politics of the house. She warns Mr Lepic of the abuses, and while he is hesitant to admit this has been going on under his nose all this time, he does start to pay more attention. But this comes the day of his election to mayor of the town, and he isn’t as observant as he maybe wants to be. When even Carrottop’s godfather, the only adult to treat him kindly, is pulled away to another conversation, Carrottop feels there is nothing left for him in this world. Here, I thought David Golder was dark. This is about a dire a film as there is, about the unhappiness of a child, with fantastic acting by Robert Lynen in the lead and Harry Baur as his father. ★★★★
La tête d’un homme (literally A Man’s Head, but a proper translation would be A Man’s Neck) goes in a different direction, away from the family setting, and is a crime film. The mood is set from the very beginning, when Willy, a poor but good natured man, makes a joke in a bar, offering $100k to anyone who’d kill his rich (and single) aunt, so he’d get an inheritance. An unknown passerby drops a note that he’d take Willy up on his offer. The viewer doesn’t know if it is Willy or his fiancee who follows through, but the next scene has a drifter sneaking into the aunt’s house. However, he’s not there to kill, he’s been told by yet another unknown man that a pile of money would be on the bed. There’s no money there, just the dead aunt. The drifter, Heurtin, flees at the sight of the body, leaving fingerprints and footprints all over the place, just as his hirer wanted. With Heurtin’s evidence all over the place, the police seize on him right away, but a certain inspector, Maigret (Harry Baur again), thinks there’s more to the story. He purposefully lets Heurtin escape, hoping he’ll lead him to whoever really planned the murder. The first hour or so is great, lots of mystery, some Hitchcock-like thrills (but without the humor, sadly), but the final 30 minutes really dragged. By then the viewer knew the mystery, and it was just a waiting game to see how it played out. ★★★
Pépé le moko was a big hit for the director, and features a bonafide star in Jean Gabin in the lead roll. Pépé is an accomplished thief, with multiple holdups and even a couple bank robberies under his belt. He’s been on the run from the police for awhile and has fled Paris for the Casbah region of Algiers, where he is a local hero. Pépé shows terrible wrath against his enemies, but great compassion for his friends, and the locals hide him in the Casbah, with its labyrinthian streets and rooftops. Unfortunately because of this, he can’t leave this little area, or he’d be caught. The cops hatch a plan to lure Pépé out by capturing his friend Pierrot, but that turns south, leaving Pépé safe (though Pierrot doesn’t make it). You think he might be in the clear forever, until a vacationer from Paris with big beautiful eyes catches Pépé’s fancy. That’s about all I want to say about the plot, because the film’s twists and turns are too great to spoil. This film features a large cast of diverse characters, including crooks, dames, both straight and dirty cops, and people from all nationalities in the frenetic Casbah. It has a very Casablanca-like feel, and it would not surprise me if Michael Curtis saw this movie and had some inspiration for the look and feel of the city in that film. Outstanding picture from beginning to end. ★★★★★
Un carnet de bal (Dance Program, also called Life Dances On) is another lovely drama with some truly beautiful moments. Christine is a young widow at 36, but she doesn’t mourn her recently passed husband, as they led a cold life together. Going through papers at the house, she comes across her dance card from her debut ball 20 years ago, and is moved to find the men she danced with that night, to see how their lives turned out. What she finds however, is no ones’ lives went as they’d dreamed, and often for the worse. When she goes to the first, Christine finds that he has been dead all these years, and his poor surviving mother long went insane from the grief. The mother thinks that Christine is Christine’s mother, and that the daughter and her son will soon be together. Unable to find the second name on the list, Christine moves on to number 3. He achieved his goal of becoming a lawyer, but was disbarred just 2 years later, and now has changed his name, and is running a seedy nightclub, with a gang of thugs and hooligans under him. The fourth man (here’s Harry Baur again!) also changed his name, but to do good. A promising musician 20 years ago, he was heartbroken when Christine chose another man, and left his career path. Now a priest, he teaches underprivileged boys how to sing in the church choir. The fifth has become a guide in the French Alps. He makes playful advances towards Christine and says he’d give up his job to be with her, but when a distress signal goes out for some travelers caught in an avalanche, he immediately leaves her to go help. The sixth man has become mayor of a small town, and it is the day of his wedding; he is marrying his maid. The mayor and his bride-to-be fight like cats and dogs, so we get some humor injected into the movie, that is, until his estranged son shows up at the wedding. A couple more former suitors follow, and the film does end on a strange note, but for the most part, it is a nostalgic trip down memory lane. If not for the out-of-left-field ending, I’d give this one another 5 stars. Harry Baur would make a handful of more films, but this was his last with Duvivier. He was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo during World War II, and shortly afterwards died of mysterious circumstances in Paris in 1943. ★★★★
- TV series currently watching: WandaVision, Fargo (season 4)
- Book currently reading: Dune by Frank Herbert