Wednesday, April 27, 2016

DVR Diary: FOUR BAGS FULL (La Traversée de Paris, 1956)

Filmed only a dozen years after Paris was liberated from the Nazis, Claude Autant-Lara's film must have seemed shockingly irreverent to many French viewers. A kind of mock-epic or mock-thriller, it portrays one man's night from Hell in the occupied city as he tries to deliver a butchered pig to a black-market customer in the four bags that give the film its American title. It's dangerous work, if not heroic, because the Germans are always on patrol. But what makes the night especially hellish for our clandestine courier Marcel (Bourvil) is his new partner, an impromptu replacement for his usual assistant, now in jail. For the foreign viewer, the shocking thing about La Traversée is Jean Gabin's performance as Grandgil, Marcel's new "helper." Gabin often comes across as Mr. Cool in his movies, but for Autant-Lara he gives a John Goodman-like performance of boorish bluster. Grandgil seems almost sociopathic in his determination to exploit the illegality of it all for his own gain, intimidating Marcel's colleagues while constantly endangering both of them with his bombast. We learn that there's more to Grandgil than there first seemed. He'd told Marcel he was a painter, but looking at him Marcel took him to be a house painter. It turns out he's a fine artist, with Germans among his customers. This comes in handy, for him at least, when the pair finally get arrested, since the local commandant, a cultured man, recognizes the artist. Even when an order comes to herd everyone in confinement onto trucks for deportation to a work camp, the commandant pulls strings to get Grandgil off the truck. Marcel isn't so lucky, and an epilogue that shows that he survived the war doesn't quite wash away the bad taste that has built up. You wonder about Grandgil's privilege and whether he could be deemed a collaborator, and whether on the other hand his adventure with Marcel was the painter's larkish foray into resistance of a sort -- or whether he was taking crazy chances out of some desire to be caught and punished for who knows what. It's a vaguely disquieting yet constantly funny performance from Gabin, and the film as a whole is the sort of black comedy in which the perfunctory reassurance of the epilogue is part of the grim joke. Not all the comedy is black, unless you feel that comedy under German occupation can only be black. Autant-Lara complements Gabin's loose-cannon antics with plenty of slapstick and sight gags -- the leaking suitcases get our heroes followed by bothersome dogs -- and with some inspired visual moments that make the film a kind of comic noir. The best of these is the heroes' arrest, filmed through an indoor window with the actors's distinctive shapes silhouetted in the lights of patrol cars. You can see Marcel run for it, and there's a moment of awful suspense before he reappears in front of the window as a prisoner. The character and actor have earned our empathy for enduring Grandgil's recklessness throughout the picture, and the only real disappointment of the film is that Marcel never gets any payback, though it's probably realistic to deny it to him. I suspect the French will see more in this film than the rest of us can, but the rest of us can at least be entertained by it.

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