In its 1966 review of the French-made gold-smuggling gangster movie The Upper Hand, starring Jean Gabin, the New York Times was wielding its switchblade as dextrously as any backstreet hoodlum. However, it did concede that “it spurts to life toward the end when the portly Frenchman, as a killer-smuggler chieftain, tangles with another crime veteran, George Raft. When the two men lock eyeballs, like two king cobras, this meandering, stilted and extremely flat melodrama exudes a chilling authenticity. Mr. Raft even flips a coin for good measure, as in Scarface days of yore. If he flipped it to decide whether to make the picture, he lost.”
Harsh [but] doubtless at the time true. Granted, the film is glib rather than profound, trading in clichés that when strung together make a piece of filmed entertainment that can be dismissed as no more than adequate. The scene during which the two veteran hoods square off at either ends of a table surrounded by suited men suggests a board meeting: the tension in the room is almost visible. But it takes more than one scene to save it for the New York Times. However, with the passage of time something else emerges that may have been invisible to the contemporary critic, especially a film critic from a high-minded newspaper: the gentrification of Gabin the gangster.
By the second half the 1960s, casting of the ‘portly’ Gabin as a gangster was the biggest cliché of all: he had become one man shorthand for the morose, laconic introverted villain. That plump frame and pugilistic visage had settled into the Lear-like persona of the doomed crime boss, and as such he was demonstrating natural progression up the criminal hierarchy from the flashy streetwise criminal, a sort of bad boy Hamlet, that had made him famous.
Of course, Gabin did not only portray gangsters, but he seems to have been the go-to-guy when a director needed a proletarian killer. Perhaps his most memorable is not a gangster but a train driver, Lantier in the 1938 film adaptation of Zola’s 1890 novel La Bête Humaine. Émile 20 novel cycle Les Rougan-Macquart was in part written to explore the inheritance of various traits, in Lantier’s case insanity and murderous urges.
His most famous portrayal of a gangster during this period of his career was in the title role of the 1937 film Pépé le Moko. He plays a criminal hiding out from police in the polyglot maze of the Algiers casbah, who, lured from his lair by infatuation with a beautiful woman, is arrested and stabs himself to death as the object of his desire sails out of the port.
Pépé le Moko was the picture that brought Gabin worldwide fame, and it is easy to see why. As well as the romantic notion of the doomed outsider, it paints his life and death against a vivid backdrop. Although the 21st century eye perceives the imperialist lens through which this multi-cultural melting pot is portrayed, it brings the casbah to vivid polychrome life as a gallery of grotesques in a manner that does not need the enhancement of colour. In its depiction of colonial era North Africa, it prefigures Casablanca. Graham Greene described it as elevating “the thriller to a poetic level.”
But for me, it is the exposition of the elegant ruffian – the magpie flashiness of the underworld dandy that remains in the mind. Even at the end on the quayside in handcuffs, dressed for the assignation that never took place, he has an elegant silk scarf arranged around his neck. Throughout the film the wardrobe is slightly exaggerated: the hint of a Cuban heel, a lapel just a centimetre too wide to be truly discreet, the stony chilling gaze emerging from under a hat brim, the broadness of which inclines towards theatricality and so on.
However, there is no room for ambiguity in the pairing of the black shirt and pale tie. Now an almost comic signifier of dressed up criminality it must have seemed fresh and daring as well as starkly suited to black and white film. It may be reading just a touch too much into the symbolism, but could that black shirt and pale tie be the sartorial manifestation of the conflict within the protagonist’s soul played out in the traditional opposition of the two non-colours black and white?
What takes place in the thirty years that separate Pépé le Moko and The Upper Hand is quite remarkable. In the earlier film, it is the clothes that signify the gangster, presenting Gabin as a thoroughly European riposte to Jimmy Cagney with a suitably Gallic dimension of existential melancholy. By the time he makes The Upper Hand the roles are reversed, when he walks into that meeting with his American alter ego George Raft, he is wearing a suit so sober that it would pass unnoticed at a reception at the Elysée Palace: while the tastefully dimensioned lapels would have been the perfect home for the Legion d’Honneur that Gabin was awarded in real life. It is only because Gabin is wearing it, that it becomes the suit of a gangster.
In his book, French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present, Remi Fournier Lanzoni explains the totemic importance of Gabin in his homeland. Observing that “his impact on the French collective imagination is enormous” Lanzoni goes on to add that: “Jean Gabin’s cinematographic icon displayed a permanence that is difficult to define, an alliance to a particular aesthetic style consistent enough for the public to recognize him but offering enough diversity to avoid loss of interest. The numerous roles of gangsters and murderers contributed to build his great success and eventually his myth.”
In other words, he became the French gangster par excellence, much as another portly Frenchman, Christian Dior became the emblematic Parisian couturier. Unlike Dior, he lived long enough to grow old with his audience.
The second half of Gabin’s career coincided with the extended period of post-war prosperity, an almost thirty-year span of time that French economist Jean Fourastie called Les Trente Glorieuses, a pun on Les Trois Glorieuses, the three ‘glorious’ days of revolution in the summer of 1830, when the French king Charles X was deposed in favour of Louis Philippe.
This tumultuous regime change was celebrated in Delacroix’s famous canvas Liberty Leading the People. If Marianne stepped over the bodies of the fallen, tricolour in one hand and bayoneted musket in the other symbolised les Trois; then the image of a stocky Gabin, pistol in hand, entered the popular cultural iconography of Les Trente. The handgun belongs there to the point that it seems genetically attached to the actor’s hand, the arm moving from the elbow, extended with uneventful economy as if to shake hands.
It is conventional to dismiss some of Gabin’s stylized late 1960s gangster films as flawed and forgettable, and in reading contemporary reviews of them it is hard not to infer that the intelligentsia regarded them as failed examples of a tired genre. Perhaps amongst bourgeois critics there was the sense that he had in some way betrayed his earlier proletarian self.
I am willing to concede that they have negligible “artistic” value, first because I do not know enough about cinema to argue otherwise and secondly, because François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard they ain’t.
However, to excoriate them for not being examples of the Nouvelle Vague is to minimise their broader appeal at the time and their aesthetic documentary value half a century later. The Upper Hand was based on a novel by Auguste Le Breton as was the 1969 film The Sicilian Clan, a film that tried to portray organised crime as a family business with multi-national aspirations.
With a soundtrack by [Ennio] Morricone, so Pavlovian that it brings Spaghetti Westerns to mind, even when looking at late 1960s Paris. Featuring Alain Delon, nudity, violence, and an enjoyably daft plot that involves hi-jacking a transatlantic jet and landing it on an American freeway in order to steal a valuable cargo of jewels, it is no surprise that at the time it was one of the most successful French films ever released in France.
Once again, the New York Times was there to twist the stiletto with which it had stabbed The Upper Hand – describing it as a “manufactured movie…in which everything is so badly calculated, so fake” and Gabin and Delon “don’t so much act as ‘appear’.”
Indeed, Gabin gives the sort of…ahem…understated performance that has him displaying little if any emotion even when he guns down his daughter-in-law and Delon with whom she was having an affair. The way he dresses in hat, suit and raincoat shows a man who has grown to appreciate the affluent anonymity conferred by clothes that fit well and do not draw attention to themselves in terms of cut or colour. Gangster flamboyance is left to the American Tony Nicosia who arrives off his flight smoking a huge cigar.
The film is a visual hymn to the material pleasures of les Trente Glorieuses: from Tony’s cigar to the thrilling idea of jet travel, to the brand names Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron et al in the vitrines showing the jewels. Even the pinball machine warehouse on the Quai de Valmy which Gabin uses as a cover business has a nostalgic glamour, while the sunglasses alone are worth a Cesar – it is a consumerist triumph. In a manner of speaking, it is the casbah of Pépé le Moko all over again, a rich colourful backdrop against which an older grumpier heavier Gabin “appears,” portraying yet another gangster and adding another brick to the mighty tower of his mythology.