I'd never seen Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) until 1993, when it was playing at the Brattle Theatre, a famous but semi-grungy revival house just off Harvard Square. It is a great film, an absolutely essential film, and I felt the familiar chagrin most of us experience when our attention is called to some gaping lacuna in our knowledge: what other Jean Gabin movies had I missed in a long career of movie-going (mostly as an amateur but for a while as a professional)? I looked him up on Internet Movie Data Base and found that there were ninety-nine movies he'd made and, more interesting, that his centenary would be on May 17, 2004. I thought it might be fun to do a piece about him for one of those highbrow places that like to show how plugged in they are to popular culture, and I sent out a few queries. The results were dismaying. The editors, who shall be nameless (which will be their fate in cultural history anyway), either had no idea who Gabin was, or they were persuaded that their readers would not recognize him or be interested in any way. So, to hell with it. At my age, I don't need more affronts.
Still, I continued to see as many Gabin movies as I could get hold of. The reissue in the Criterion Collection of DVDs of at least some of his work makes it a little easier. And the fact that he made so many of the great French films of the twentieth century helps, too. Les Bas-fonds, Pépé le Moko, La Grande illusion, Le Quai des brumes, La Bête humaine, and Le Jour se lève are a few of his other particularly impressive movies.
But before I get to any of the movies themselves, there is first the question of what movie acting is, and how and why Gabin was such a phenomenon. We assume, or we are led to believe, that there is an art [End Page 275] to it, an expression somehow of a talent. And, yes, of course, that is part of it. But for real achievement on the screen, an actor or an actress has to be an interesting object, a thing that can be photographed, and his or her features have to compose a map of experience into which the audience can project or from which they can draw inferences. This is often a complicated, even a self-contradictory business. Think of Bogart's tough-guy face and then combine it with the voice which was generally soft and had that slightly effeminizing lisp. Think of George Raft's thuggishness—he not only played gangsters but is said to have been one, and surely he hung around them a lot—that was so peculiarly qualified by the dandyism of his dress and the fussiness of his gestures. A movie actor—or, let us be candid, a star—appears in a film and the work of establishing a character, to which a novelist might have to devote fifty or seventy-five pages, is done in an instant. We see at once what the director wants us to see, and we know enough of the character to be sympathetic or repelled or pained or surprised at what he or she then does. This knowledge carries over from one film to others: after Kiss of Death (1947) Richard Widmark's character was always capable of giggling and pushing an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. Much of the work of filmmaking is simply in the casting, which is a part of the narrative art. I remember reading an epigraph in an early Richard Stern novel, a remark of Nietzsche's that "Every man of character has a typical experience which recurs over and over again." What struck me about it is that it explains a film actor's career. He (or she) is a type, and one can start there and then work with or against the grain in whatever direction the screenplay and the director want to go.