Jean Grémillon's Gueule d'amour (Lady Killer) of 1937 is almost an archetypal French film of its period. It uses North African colonial settings, like Pepé le Moko. It features the French foreign legion, like La bandera and Le grand jeu. It celebrates male friendship over the perfidy of women, like La belle equipe. It stars Jean Gabin, like everything else.
Partly, the movie succeeds in avoiding the appearance of an identikit picture because it's so well-crafted: Grémillon was a supremely stylish and sensitive filmmaker, whose films typically not only fulfill their genre requirements but hint at broader, more mysterious concerns—in Renoir's phrase, he's adept at "leaving a door open." His collaborators on this one include Günther Rittau, who worked on Metropolis, and Charles Spaak, who worked for almost every major director and whose continuing neglect is one of the more regrettable consequences of the auteur theory. (Partial credits for Spaak: La grand illusion, Carnival in Flanders, La fin du jour, Therese Raquin...Renoir, Feyder, Duvivier, Carné...)
Gabin plays Lucien Bourrache, known as "Gueule D'Amour" because he's such a hit with the ladies. This is apparently a combination of his foreign legionnaire's uniform and his implacable self-confidence. Then he meets Madeleine.
What follows is a fall from grace, as Lucien leaves the army to pursue the woman with whom he is now utterly smitten. He tries to break up with her when she neglects him, and when he realizes she's a prostitute. Nothing works. Finally, he's had enough, and flees into the countryside, where he opens a bar. His cheerful, energetic air has dissipated. He walks slowly, his body weighing him down.
What actress could embody a temptress so alluring, so impossible to quit?
Mireille Balin is absolutely crucial to the film's impact. While Gabin, in a career-best performance, has a lot to work with, depicting his character's decline from carefree zest to shambling despair, Balin's character is utterly enigmatic. We think she loves Gabin for most of the movie...we're not entirely sure. Even at the end. A certain warmth is needed, but a fair amount of the glacial kind of beauty also is required. This kind of femme fatale can lapse into hollow stereotype pretty easily, and star charisma may be better insurance against this than rounded characterization or a detailed backstory. (But the suggestion that Madeleine's mother is responsible for her life of vice gives rise to considerable sympathy: but the film doesn't explore or exploit this avenue further.)
Highly Significant Digression—with Feyder's Le grand jeu newly available from Masters of Cinema, its enigmatic similarities to Vertigo plain for all to see, the thing that really strikes me, coming to the Feyder after seeing Siodmak's largely derided remake, which isn't really the way one should probably do it, is that there's a near-perfect film to be had lurking somewhere between the two. Feyder's dialogue is tighter and more adept at making you understand and "relate" (hate that word), but Siodmak's images and plotting are more lucid. In his version, the woman walks out on the hero at the beginning without a word, going behind his back, so he never gets to say goodbye even and she just vanishes, which seems to make his subsequent shattered state more "logical." But the original has all the great lines about him trying to get shot and being hailed as a hero as a result...
Maybe a third version could nail it...but maybe Vertigo is that third version. I'm formulating a theory that D'entre les morts, the source novel of Vertigo, got written by Boileau and Narcejac based on half-remembered viewings of both Feyder's Le grand jeu and Grémillon's Gueule d'amour, folded together and distorted and improved in memory, with the most obvious connection, the foreign legion scenes, jettisoned entirely. The woman in Gueule is called Madeleine, she shifts personality in inexplicable ways, and the hero is ruined by his love for her. Le grand jeu has the doubling of the woman and the attempt to remake version 2.0 in the exact image of her predecessor...Splice the two together, the way two rooms separated by miles of real space might get slotted together by a single doorway in a dream, and you have what feels like the beginnings of Vertigo, both the novel and the later Hitchcock film.
End of digression—
What I'm primarily saying is that Balin, who also sizzles opposite Gabin in Pepé le Moko, was a Great Star, endlessly fascinating to watch, her face as perfectly designed for catching the light as Dietrich's or Garbo's, her essence as mysterious. Though Gabin blasts forth a tour-de-force performance, including his most apoplectic paroxysm of murderous rage ever (and he does one in every damn movie—I believe he insisted on that), Balin is the more haunting presence. Why isn't she more celebrated?
Here's the latter part of her IMDb biography, written by Christophe Gresseque:
"After the German occupation of France and her separation from her long-time fiancé, the singer/actor Tino Rossi in 1942, she starred in several films and became the idol of the Paris High Society where she met the love of her life, Birl Desbok, an officer in the Wehrmacht. In the summer of 1944, as Paris was about to be liberated, she and Desbok fled Paris and tried to reach the Italian border but on September 28th, 1944 they were arrested by the FFI in Beausoleil (near Nice). Separated from Desbok, who was probably executed (she never knew what really happened to him), she was beaten and raped before being taken to Nice prison. She was soon transferred to Fresnes prison (near Paris) where she stayed until her release on bail on 3rd January 1945. She was forbidden to work for a year but once this restriction lifted, she went back to the studios to appear in what proved to be her last film La dernière chevauchée (1948), her frail constitution prevented her from appearing in any other films. She died in 1968, forgotten and broke."
There's nothing, nothing, we can do about that. But we can choose not to forget.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.