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Thank goodness Julien Duvivier couldn’t remember his lines, thus relieving the French stage of a mediocre actor and gifting French cinema with one of its master directors, albeit one whose full measure has yet to be taken. Perhaps Duvivier did himself no favors by working so damn much—more than 70 films in 48 years, nearly doubling the output of his contemporary, Jean Renoir (who revered him), and giving much ammunition to the young Turks of Cahiers du cinéma.
In the U.S., Duvivier remains best known for the energetic Moroccan caper Pépé le Moko (1937), the fifth of his collaborations with that icon of fatalistic cool, Jean Gabin, and the one responsible for making Gabin an international star. Though Pépé remains one of Duvivier’s triumphs, it also has been one of the few easy-to-see films in a body of work ill-served by revivals and home video. So MOMA comes to the rescue with a painstakingly curated 22-film Duvivier retro.
Duvivier’s career in movies began virtually with the birth of cinema itself, as an assistant director to silent pioneers André Antoine and Louis Feuillade before making his directorial debut, at 22, with Haceldama (1919)—a film whose chief claim to fame is that it was financed by a wealthy mustard merchant. But Duvivier quickly improved: The 1925 silent version of Poil de carotte (MOMA will also screen the 1932 sound remake) is a very touching version of Jules Renard’s famous novel about an unloved redheaded farm boy, while the 1930 Au bonheur des dames—the last of Duvivier’s silents—is an orgy of pure cinema, from its opening train shot to its climactic visual effect of a magically converted storefront. Filming on the teeming streets of Paris in and around the Galeries Lafayette, Duvivier pulls out every trick in the book—elaborate crane and tracking shots; massive crowd scenes; surreal, constructivist montages—for this alternately sincere and cynical hymn to capitalist endeavor, pitting a department store magnate against an elderly independent tailor. The department store itself is one of Duvivier’s great achievements, a buzzing hive of bejeweled heiresses, salacious sales girls, and lecherous bosses that feels like a working prototype for Pépé le Moko’s chaotic casbah.
Sound was no impediment to Duvivier, who aligned himself with several of the most prominent screenwriters of the era, including Charles Spaak, author of what is often considered Duvivier’s masterpiece, La belle équipe (1936). Another cockeyed ode to free enterprise (and the Popular Front), it stars Gabin as one of five unemployed workers who win the French lottery and open a café together, with less than idyllic consequences. (Following a protracted legal battle, MOMA was, as of this writing, scheduled to screen Duvivier’s original, bleaker ending for the film, rejected by an early test audience.)
Not surprisingly, Hollywood was soon to come calling, and if conventional wisdom holds that Duvivier’s American films aren’t on par with his French ones, I submit as counter-evidence The Great Waltz (1938), an undeniably sentimentalized biopic of Johann Strauss that nevertheless contains some of Duvivier’s most exhilarating set pieces. The postwar Duviviers are more uneven, but they include two magnificently sour film noirs, Panique (1947) and Deadlier Than the Male (1956), both suggesting, quite literally, that the world may be going to the dogs.