It’s one thing to watch sturdy, dexterously charming Jean Gabin as a working-class joe who doesn’t mind dangerous manual labor, figuring that’s his lot in life. But to see him as a man undone by his love for a noncommittal woman? That’s nearly unbearable, and it’s the linchpin of Marcel Carné’s extraordinary, long-unseen 1939 crime drama Le Jour Se Lève (Daybreak), playing at Film Forum in a glistening restoration that includes footage removed by Vichy censors 75 years ago.
Gabin plays François, who works all day with hardcore sandblasting equipment. Sand particles drift into his lungs, causing a wretched cough, but he doesn’t complain: He’s too much in love with Françoise (the comely Jacqueline Laurent), who lifts his spirits with little more than her shy comma of a smile — though he also feels a kinship with no-nonsense stage performer Clara (the haughtily vibrant Arletty).
We learn of all that only after the movie’s startling opening sequence, in which a flashily dressed man, already dead, tumbles down the stairs of a working-class tenement. François’s culpability in that death unfolds in flashback before us, like a slow-moving sunset.
Le Jour Se Lève, the fourth collaboration between Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, is gorgeously melancholy, and not just because of its tragic love-triangle plot: Released less than three months before France and Britain declared war on Germany, it vibrates with unspoken foreboding and despair — but it’s mostly in Gabin’s face, solemn and watchful, that we see the signs of the gathering storm.