Jean Gabin's film career lasted from the 1930s to the 1970s and had two major phases. In the first, he was a leading man. In the second, from 1954's Touchez pas au grisbi forward, he was a middle-aged tough guy in films presumably appealing primarily to men. Unsurprisingly, Gabin could still play the leading man at least early on in this latter stage, even though he'd become a thicker, courser looking figure. The Gabin character's romance with the female lead in this Gilles Grangier detective story may be its most challenging feature, not just because of the 25-year age difference between the star and Nadja Tiller, but also because of the initially violent way these kooky Frenchpersons bond with each other.
Like many a French crime picture, Night Affair focuses on a nightclub. This one's a jazz club operated by Marquis (Robert Berri), who has a stable of black entertainers including floor show dancers, a band and star singer Valentine Horse (blacklisted U.S. chanteuse Hazel Scott). It boasts a racially mixed clientele, though it's hard for an outsider to tell whether this marked the place as progressive or decadent in the eyes of the original audience. The club hosts a tense meeting between a drug dealer (Roger Hanin) and his impatient buyer, Blasco, (Robert Manuel), after which the dealer, with his moll in tow, goes out to pick up his supply. From out of nowhere the buyer is shot down, and the moll, Lucky Fridel (Tiller) abruptly drives away.
The vice squad assigns Inspector Vallois (Gabin) to the case, despite his enduring affection for "grape juice." He ends up taking the flirtatious Lucky to her apartment, where they exchange slaps -- she starts it -- before going to bed. It looks like it'll only be a one-night stand when Vallois discovers, to his disgust, that Lucky, a German girl who aspires to singing like a Negro, is a cocaine addict. Still, the lonely detective follows her to a party at Valentine Horses's apartment in the hope of finding more out about her milieu. When the party ends violently, Blasco goes for treatment to a private physician or pharmacist (Danielle Darrieux) who may hold crucial pieces of the drug ring and murder puzzle.
Night Affair is more whodunit than crime story -- there's little urgency felt among the criminal element about the abrupt interruption of the drug supply -- and even more than that it's Vallois' crusade to redeem Lucky. Even though Gabin is technically a romantic lead, his is really a patriarchal role. It's telling that the film ends with Lucky entering a rehab facility, with the promise of a happy reunion with Vallois, rather than with the reunion. That finish is reminiscent of those relatively sympathetic morality plays where the repentant outlaw agrees to serve a light sentence on the understanding that he'll live happily afterward. The important thing here seems not so much that Lucky and Vallois might live happily ever after, but that by convincing Lucky to take her medicine, so to speak, Vallois has restored some moral order to the world. On some level you could call it a conservative film for that reason, but regardless of that the music is quite good and the spectacle of Gabin righteously slapping folks around -- men, too -- is entertaining on your choice of levels.